Reflections on Hiroshima and Penderecki’s Threnody

Seventy years ago today, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Between this and the second one on Nagasaki killed over a 100,000 people.  A few weeks ago a colleague consulted me on materials for an exhibition she was organising to reflect on this event. That event on 16 July 2015 was a symposium called ‘Sowing the Whirlwind’: Nuclear Politics and the Historical Record, jointly organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London and the United Nations Association Westminster Branch

Drawing its title from a quote by Hanson Baldwin, a journalist and military editor of the New York Times who wrote after the Japanese bombings ‘Yesterday we clinched victory in the Pacific, but we sowed the whirlwind.’ Rather than apply retrospective pro/con assessments to the bombing and its efficacy towards ending the Second World War, I chose the Penderecki Threnody as it is less a ‘value judgment’ than a timbral representation. Here then, were my captions of the Penderecki for the conference exhibition. pendere ki-2nd highe res

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 stringed instruments
Krzystof Penderecki
Warsaw: Przedstawicielstwo Wydawnictw Polskic, 1961
ML mM 785.4 [Penderecki]

Up until the early twentieth century, Western European classical music has been classified according to the use of musical languages, first modal, and later tonal and atonal, with varying degrees of consonance and dissonance. As harmonic complexity developed, a new axis of timbre began to affect the prominence of musical language. This led to various experiments with existing instruments and techniques to increase the sounds available to composers.  These techniques are immediately apparent from the opening pages of Penderecki’s Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima. Non-standard graphic notation replaces the traditional 5-staff notation with a lack of time signature more commonly found in the works of Mozart and Beethoven.

Additionally, much of it is written without common bar lines and the individual sections of the string orchestra perform aleatorically which implies a bit of freedom and improvisation with regard to rhythm and a ‘zone’ of pitches. So it is not completely like jazz but has more freedom than the Western classical tradition which preceded it. Each individual member does not need to synchronise their playing identically with the rest of the section, a vast departure from the centuries of performance practice where performers had to listen and play together.

Moving between pitches Penderecki employs glissandi where the player slides their finger along the string to minute definitions of the pitch which are normally divided according to semi-tones. Here, quarter tones which sit in between the semi-tones are created using these glissandi. Although in a different sound world, the use of glissandi was not unlike those adopted by Bernard Hermann in his scoring of the (in)famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Threnody which is scored for a 52 player string orchestra including 24 violins, 10 violas, 10 violoncellos and 8 double basses was completed by Penderecki in 1960 when he was still in his 20s.  It was first performed on the radio in May 1961 with the Great Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Krenz. Its first live performance was at the Warsaw Autumn Festival on 22 September 1961 with Andrzej Markowski conducting the Krawkow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestral.

Born in 1933, the 81 year old Polish composer’s writing style has changed over the decades, although two threads find their way through his works regardless of style. The first is a penchant for the dramatic. The second is the use of themes which address historical events such as his opera, The Devils of Loudun which dramatises the mass demonic possession of a French town and this the commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima. As such, Penderecki changed the original abstract title which was called 8’ 37” to mark its duration to the more emotive title, evocative of the horror and destruction of the atom bomb dropping on the Japanese city.

The work is broken into three contrasting sections which utilise glissandi, quarter-tone clusters and also creates new sonic textures with the tapping of the body of the string instruments and the bowing of the bridge of the instruments. This produces what can only be described as an audible high shriek of sound. Its pitches are not specifically determined and the effect is very disconcerting when 52 players bow it.

Other indeterminate clusters are created when players are asked to play the highest pitch possible, indicated with a triangle in the score. Each performer will have a slightly different position due to the reach of the fingers so it results in a very high sounding cluster. The use of wide vibrato on the part of the string players also creates a sonic distortion of the pitch as it causes micro fluctuations in the pitch which creates the effect of acoustic beating.

In the third section of the piece, Penderecki creates a wide acoustic space which separates the string orchestra’s various clusters from the low double basses to the violins.  This generates a sound mass akin to the bellowing of an airplane engine. It is important to note that the intention of programmatic works in the nineteenth century such as Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz or Till Eulenspiegel of Strauss was to represent and evoke musically the myths and legends of their inspiration.  Penderecki, however, did not compose this work with the intention to represent the bombing of Hiroshima directly. Although the compositional intent was not to ‘represent’ an airplane, the orchestration and placement of the pitches creates the aural effect of a roaring engine for the listener anyway. It becomes a powerful vehicle for pathos, not only of that historic event but also of reflection on the larger issues of nuclear proliferation and deterrence decades later.


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