Krzysztof Penderecki

Threnody (for the Victims of Hiroshima), for 52 strings

    Description by Alexander Carpenter

    Threnody was completed in 1960, and remains one of Penderecki's best-known works. Composed at a time when serial technique dominated avant-garde music, Threnody is instead a deeply personal work, disturbing in its evocations of human misery and terror. Though it is dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War, Penderecki drew on his own experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland in composing this work. He noted that Nazi war crimes, especially "the great Apocalypse" of Auschwitz, have been in his "subconscious mind since the war." As a result, this work, like much of Penderecki's music, is emotionally powerful and in large part autobiographical, but at the same time expresses a universal mourning for the victims of war.

    Threnody is scored for 52 strings, and features a number of spectacular instrumental effects -- most significantly microtonal glissandi. Threnody is also a work of limited or "controlled" aleatoric elements: musical gestures are represented graphically on the score, but the performers are at times allowed some freedom in the realization of musical elements like pitch and duration. The work is divided roughly into three sections, with the outermost sections allowing the greatest freedom for the performers. At certain points in the score, performers may simply play their instruments' highest notes, or, when pitch is specified, performers may move from pitch to pitch by quarter tones.

    Penderecki also demands unconventional bowing for effect, including bowing between the bridge and the tailpiece, and bowing the bridge or tailpiece. He also calls for striking the soundboard with the fingers. Instruments were divided into groups and assigned a particular range of pitches, within which they move by glissando. In terms of rhythm, Threnody is very nearly an arrhythmic piece, as there is no regular pulse to be found; instead, individual sections are measured by clock time, in minutes and seconds.

    The result of Penderecki's controlled aleatoricism is a work of considerable expressive force -- a musical representation of human suffering that, despite its considerable technical difficulties, strikes home with surprising sincerity. Each string section, as it ebbs and swells, engages in a kind of dialogue with other sections, and the effect of many instruments playing glissandi at once simulates, rather distressingly, the sound of human voices wailing in a swirling, hellish polyphony. It is a vivid evocation of the horrors of war, and also a good example of Penderecki's so-called "sensualist," Neo-Romantic style.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Brilliant Classics 95354BR
    2012 Nonesuch 7559796251
    2012 Nonesuch 530967
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099967842421
    2012 EMI Classics
    2012 Naxos 8505231
    2011 Chrome Dreams CDCD 5049
    2011 Sony Music Distribution
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921750
    2008 Naxos 8572134
    2008 Naxos 8 504040
    2008 Naxos 8506015
    2007 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 0946381508
    2007 Naxos 8570760
    2006 Varèse Sarabande 066769
    2006 Edel Classics 0002332
    2005 Berlin Classics 0010122
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Dux Records 475
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 74302
    2000 Naxos 554491
    1994 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 565077-2
    McGraw Hill 700808
    Norton 10609
    W.W. Norton
    Vienna Modern Masters 3010