Symphony No. 5 ‘Korean’
Symphony No. 5 was written in response to a commission from the International Cultural Society of Korea for the 50th anniversary of that country’s liberation from Japanese occupation. Hence the title, which, however, was not officially included in the score. The symphony does not contain any direct references to historical events except for one brief quotation, reappearing several times, from an old Korean patriotic hymn – a musical symbol of the country’s struggle for independence that had been banned under Japanese rule. This melody, based on just three sounds, became the basis for Penderecki’s Passacaglia. Still, for the European listener, the melody is extremely hard to identify.
In its emotional and symbolic layers this symphony clearly emphasises the ideas of struggle and heroism, which are combined with pensive, tragic and eventually triumphant moods. Themes of “military” character play, therefore, an important role in Penderecki’s No. 5 “Korean”. They include the song-like march tune entering as a kind of trio in the middle of the Scherzo and later recalled in the finale by a horn player performing offstage. This tune sounds almost tonal and is much easier to “grasp” that the quotation from the patriotic hymn mentioned above.
Symphony No. 5 represents, first and foremost, Penderecki’s mature symphonic style. It contains numerous tonal turns, ear-friendly chords and motifs, but it does not shun dissonances and occasional clusters. Consisting of only one movement, it has clear internal divisions. The composer constantly revises and transforms his thematic material in the course of his work, making use of polyphony and balancing between orchestral tutti and textures derived from chamber or even solo music.
While composing this symphony, most likely Penderecki was acutely aware of the fact that as soon as the “Korean” had begun its concert life, independent of the original commission, it would be seen as his No. 5, not only for the sake of numbering. The motifs of fighting and titanic struggle relate this work very clearly to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 – the “Symphony of Fate” – while the march-like and scherzo-like motifs bring to mind associations with Shostakovich’s No. 5. The work is one of the most convincing examples of the composer’s “new Romantic” style.