Thoughts on ‘Threnody’

Download the original paper (for which this article is an addendum) here!

(This article is featured on Wikipedia!)

I recently received a lovely email from a student in Canterbury, UK:

I’m conducting some research on Penderecki and his use of “emotive” titles for some of his works, taking Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as a key example…I’m particularly interested to know exactly when Penderecki changed the title of this work and why, so any further pointers would be really helpful…

I learned some interesting factoids in my bit o’ research for my response, and I thought it prudent to add it as a side note to my original Threnody… outline. Here’s what I found out (and how I responded):

…Thank you so much for your kind email – I’m so glad to hear that my outline is of help to you in your studies! Yes, this paper is my own research and work, “thrown together” as it is. 🙂 “Pg 393 in Anthology” at the top, was in reference to what page the score was located in the class text used at the time I compiled and presented the info…The bibliography (in the back) and footnotes should be a great starting point for additional info.

In regards to when Penderecki changed the title from 8’37” to Threnody… well, I found a really interesting article by Tim Rutherford-Johnson in response to Taruskin‘s analysis of the work’s history: “…it was well known at least as early as 1975, with the publication of Ludwik Erhardt’s Spotkanie z Krzysztofem Pendereckim, that the piece had originally been titled 8?37? (in perhaps an oblique homage to Cage), and was changed on the suggestion of the director of Polish Radio to the more emotive Threnody in order to enhance its impact at the forthcoming UNESCO Prize of the International Composers’ Jury in Paris. And again, in 1979 (Eng. trans. 1989), Wolfram Schwinger’s widely read life and works study of the composer notes the same shift of title. So you can stop with the implications of “after the fall of the Communist regime”; at the very least provide a source for Penderecki’s remarks. And the accusation that PWM were reluctant, for reasons of expense, to publish the score, doesn’t square with the fact that they did plenty of others – including Penderecki’s Anaklasis a year earlier, a work not short of a notational quirk or two – and that by the time of the name change, Threnody had already won third prize at a composer’s competition in Katowice (1960) and been performed the following year by Jan Krenz and the PRSO. Even without the name change it had a pretty decent pedigree; but it was after Krenz’s performance that the work was rechristened. The tape of Krenz’s performance was sent to Paris, where Penderecki duly won; if it wasn’t worth publishing now, then when?” (Full Article here)
So it seems the name change occurred about 1961, after the PRSO performance, in response to the Polish Radio director’s suggestion… Of course the composer states (as in my outline) that he heard the emotional impact of the work in this performance and recording and searched for a fitting association, which I’m sure is true, but on the surface of it all – that is, the impetus of it – lies the fact that an emotional title will give an audience a better anchor by which to understand the piece, thus giving the work a better chance of success…
Detailing this last concept is a fascinating article by Christopher Coleman:
This piece [De Natura Sonoris II] leads us to an examination of how audiences come to terms with these sounds, which initially seem so totally radical. The techniques used in this piece are not substantially different than those used in Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and yet De Natura Sonoris II has not caught the public’s attention in the same way. Why might this be, when the Threnody is so much more unrelenting, so much more consistently tense and demanding? The answer lies in the public’s understanding of the relationship between the new techniques and sounds and the emotions intended. That the Threnody is a lament for the largest mass death in human history almost requires histrionics for its expression. That this is a new kind of horror calls out for a new kind of declaration; and that the quality of the horror matches perfectly the extreme tension presented in the music is understood, if not appreciated, by any audience member. The connection between emotion and musical technique is arises through the techniques I’ve described earlier, but it is confirmed through the extra-musical means of the title of the piece. The listener knows he is on the right track. But in a piece entitled On the Nature of Sound the listener is given no guidance at all–not only may he not be on the right track, but he may question whether there is any track at all. Without the extramusical con?rmation of a title or a song text or a programme, the challenge to the listener to understand the emotional meaning; or to accept that the emotional meaning he does understand is expression. That this is a new kind of horror calls out for a new kind oa valid one, is much more demanding. Throughout the history of music composers have often introduced new sounds and techniques in association by some extramusical connection, whether it be the low sonorities in Josquin’s Absalom Fili Mi re?ecting the descent into the grave; the cannons and church bells of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture; or as…in this very short excerpt from the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, where the distorted sounds of winds and strings depict the dance of the witches sabbath…
I have no doubt that had Penderecki kept the original title of the Threnody, that is, 8’37”, the piece would not have enjoyed the popular success that it has. As a composition it would be no worse or better than it is now, and certainly the new techniques of sound mass composition that so enamored the avant-garde would have excited that same small group of conniseurs regardless of the title. But the public at large needs con?rmation, if not guidance, in a work this new. (Full Article here)

Makes me think of my Leviathan work… oooh, shameless plug… :p

It also makes me think of something one of my professors mentioned… something about how a composer may be apt (I believe this was in relation to a mention of Aaron Copland‘s penchant for the dramatic…?) to glorify his/her own recounting of the development of their own work…

“[The piece] existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Jan Krenz recorded it and I could listen to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those “digits”. I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.” [quote by Penderecki in 1994, Liner Notes by Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, trans. by Jan Rybicki and Richard Whitehouse. Penderecki, Krzysztof [National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice), Antoni Wit conducting]. Orchestral Works Vol. 1: Symphony No. 3, Threnody. Audio CD. Katowice, Poland: HNH International, Ltd., 1998.]

At any rate, it is fascinating to contemplate and recognize the power found in a simple name.


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  1. Your analysis of the Threnody has been extremely helpful for us in finding the 36 voice canon which eluded me for some time. Thank you for publishing this very helpful piece of work.
    Marian Campbell, Director of Music Marsden School wellington New Zealand

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