“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” Victor Hugo
I first heard ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ in 1987, when I was 14. I studied it at school along with thousands of other schoolchildren of my generation. At the time, New Zealand’s fear of a Third World War was intensifying as tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated. I was relatively ignorant of the political details at the time but I vividly remember films and TV programs about nuclear holocaust – ‘The Day After’ and ‘Threads’ – being played to us in the classroom, scaring the living daylights out of us and haunting our dreams for years to come (and I still wonder which social studies teacher thought that was a good idea).
When we discussed this piece of music at school I remember it serving not only to inflame my over-active, adolescent imagination about the prospect of complete annihilation, but also to reinforce the fact that the thing I feared had actually already happened. Hiroshima was a distant place and a distant idea for a New Zealand schoolgirl in the 80′s – and I don’t take that accident of birth for granted – but the emotional impact of the piece brought the reality of that event much closer to home. And it also taught me that the power of music – any music – can be varied and far reaching.
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is one of the most famous and confrontational works of the 20th Century. It has no harmony, no melody, no organised rhythm – none of the things that you might traditionally expect to give music its emotional impact – and yet its emotional directness is unquestionable.
The nuclear attack on Hiroshima remains one of the greatest atrocities perpetrated in the history of humanity – and Penderecki’s Threnody, with its terrifying musical language, seems to articulate the inconceivable nature of this event perfectly. I often hear the word ‘visceral’ applied to music. This work is an excellent example of visceral music… it can sear your physical and spiritual being, get inside you and resonate for eternity. Listen to this piece and feel the blistering heat of the bomb, the rifts forming in the atmosphere, nature’s outrage, the razing of the ground…
But it might interest you to know that this piece wasn’t written in response to the bombing of Hiroshima at all.
Composed in 1960, the Threnody was originally written to give voice to the sounds in Penderecki’s mind. It was going to be called 8′ 37″. It was an avante-garde orchestral work, created to explore new ways of making and defining music. So how did it come to be named as it is today – and does, or should, this knowledge about its true origin change the way we hear or experience it?
Penderecki was writing at a time when music was going in many directions – when tonality was no longer a pre-requisite, harmony was not necessary to provide structure, and theoretical systems of composing were reaching new levels of complexity.
Picking up from where I left off in my last post, I’ll now briefly return to the point in musical history where Arnold Schoenberg first created his 12 tone system – ‘serialism‘.
The intention behind Schoenberg’s abandonment of traditional tonality was to free notes – to liberate them from the associations and implications of harmony. It was not so much a destruction of the old way, more of a reassembly – an alternative way of thinking about form – and it was one of the most influential things to happen to music.
But what is serialism exactly? The simplest way to put it is that it’s a method by which you take the notes of the chromatic scale and put them in a new order – a tone row. To use letters as an example, a scale could be represented by the word ‘alphabet’ and a tone-row could be represented by the same letters in a different order – ‘btaplhae’. The notes don’t have to take consecutive steps, they don’t have to make sense together, one note doesn’t need to be seen or heard in the context of the other notes – just like the letters of ‘alphabet’ reassembled above, don’t relate to each other and don’t make a word.
This tone-row is then used to structure a piece of music, with a catch. Once the first note of the row has been used, it can’t be used again until you’ve used the other 11.
Many variations to this system evolved. You could use the row backwards. You could make a mirror image of it. You could create a counterpoint with it – where more than one version of the row was running concurrently with another. You could use more than one row at a time. And on it went. The system became incredibly complicated and it also became daunting to listeners considering that, for the average person, it was hard to hear the way in which the notes were organized without traditional harmony to provide the familiar landmarks and recognizable patterns. To many people this music sounded completely disorganised and still does. Audiences wanted to understand what they were hearing. They wanted to be able to relate to the music and feel closer to it.
Schoenberg didn’t pioneer this musical system with the audience in mind though. He devised it for the sake of musical development, as a means of discovering and exploring new worlds. And there were plenty of those, as can be seen by the huge variety of contemporary musical languages that have branched off and evolved in their own directions since. Serialism is theory based. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful or that it can’t be felt. But if you want to unlock the formal secrets of its construction, you need to sit down with the score and analyse it. Even if you know nothing of musical theory though, you can still sense the shapes, the energy that drives them, the direction of the gestures, the rich, romantic orchestral textures. Here is an excerpt from the first piece of large-scale orchestral music that Schoenberg wrote using this technique:
As you can hear, this is very different music to Penderecki’s. In fact, compared to Penderecki it sounds positively old fashioned. There are recognizable and familiar things about this music, despite its lack of traditional harmonic focus. It still has expressive melodic shapes and patterns – even if you can’t sing the melody you can still feel the presence of it. The orchestra is used in a familiar way – you can recognize the sounds of the instruments that are playing. The music is notated in a traditional way, you can look at the score and see notes and time signatures and all of the other conventions of classical music.
Not so with the Threnody:
The score is as direct as the sound. This is called graphic notation, where shapes and patterns take the place of notes to give directions to the players.
Once harmony was abandoned, other musical priorities arose in its place. Nature seeks balance. I liken it to losing a sense; if you lose your sense of sight, your hearing becomes more focused to compensate. In the case of composers like Penderecki, the loss of harmony led to a greater focus on instrumental timbre (the unique colour and quality of a sound) among other things. He was part of an avante-garde movement called ‘sonorism’ which was concerned with exploring new textures and timbres, new forms of notation (see above) and the juxtaposition of extremes – for instance, wide variations of volume, the highest and lowest edges of an instrument’s range etc.
The focus on complexity, as embodied by late serialism, also created a movement of composers who wanted their music to be more emotionally direct and less abstract.
Penderecki inhabited a new musical frontier – one of the many that were concurrently evolving from the ashes of conventional harmonic tradition. So, when I say that the Threnody was an attempt by him to articulate the sounds that he had in his head, I’m not saying that the interior of his head was full of blood-baths and firestorms. I’m saying it was full of experiments and sonic possibilities.
The temptation with this music – especially now that film directors like Stanley Kubrick have realised the emotional impact of it and applied it to imagery and narrative in such incredible ways – is to take it at face value. It’s easy to think, because this music sounds so anguished and dramatic, that this is what it ‘means’ and perhaps even to further extrapolate that there’s a distressing parallel in Penderecki’s own inner landscape. But if you liberate yourself from this perception then you will be able to hear many more things in it: perhaps things like bravery, abandon, prescience, unselfconsciousness, a simple intellectual process or pure, unbridled expressiveness…
It was only after Penderecki heard the first performance of this work, when the force of the music was revealed in its fullness, that he realised his abstract experiment had resulted in a work of huge emotional impact. He made a personal decision to direct that power towards an equally powerful point in history.
“Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.” Krzysztof Penderecki (1964)
Penderecki’s later music does dwell in the darkness, he was artistically fascinated by catastrophe and sorrow and by traumatic periods in history – and he continued to develop the huge expressive potential in this new language by using historic events as starting points for his music: his Polish Requiem contains music dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz and ‘Resurrection’ was written in response to the events of September 11, 2001, to name a couple of examples.
It’s interesting to note though, that as Penderecki’s career has evolved he has made a pendulum swing back to harmony and to traditional structure. He felt that he had said everything he could say with sonorism. That’s his prerogative.
The reason I included Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (pictured at the top of the page) in this post is because it too began as one thing and became another. Guernica was originally a mural commission for the Spanish exhibit at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. Picasso had begun work on it but completely changed tack when news of the bombing of Guernica came to his attention. Picasso said “A painting is not thought out and settled in advance. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.”
Penderecki’s Threnody is an example of a piece of music for which the meaning has evolved. Just as these two works of art changed in the eyes of their creators, so too can they continue to evolve for you. You may, when you hear the Threnody for the first time, hear it as Penderecki did after it was performed – as something literal and direct. I encourage you to listen to it, first thinking about the true circumstances of its origins. Let its subtleties make themselves known; experience the manipulation of texture, the oscillation of sound, the rebellion against tradition, the transformation of musical language, the altering of your aesthetic perceptions.
And then, listen again. Look at the desolated landscape of Hiroshima and experience the music from that perspective too. Penderecki wants you to do that. But bear in mind that one piece of music can mean many things to many people, even to the composer. And that it doesn’t actually have to be about anything at all.
The photograph of Hiroshima after the bombing is called ‘Aerial view of Hiroshima after atomic bomb blast’ and is taken from the website of the Harry S Truman Library and Museum.
The quote from Picasso is taken from a book called ‘Picasso’s War‘ by Russell Martin.
HERE is a fantastic article about Penderecki’s music and its application to horror films, from Tom Service in The Guardian.