In the past few weeks, we have lost two of our major contemporary composers. On March 11, American modernist Charles Wuorinen died. Then this Sunday, March 29, it was announced that Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki had also passed. Wuorinen, born in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his electronic piece, Time’s Encomium. Despite these and other successes, he was someone who stood outside the mainstream of American art music, which since the 1970s has been dominated by post-minimalism and neo-tonality generally speaking. He could be critical of these composers who did not adhere to serialism, although he was also reluctant to define himself simply as a serialist. Mainly he sought an intellectually rigorous and complex aesthetic—twelve-tone, pitch-based serialism becoming a cornerstone of this aesthetic, but not an ends in itself. In some sense, then, he was a “man out of time” and his music can be more clearly associated with the sound world and the philosophical views of the preceding generation of American modernists: Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Stefan Wolpe, and others. He was a professor at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music, and in 1962 co-founded the United States’ first professional new music ensemble—the Group for Contemporary Music—inspiring the creation of similar organizations across this country. His operatic setting of Brokeback Mountain in 2014 became a defining later work, although it faced mixed reviews; I have not heard it myself. The works I know instead are the Dante Trilogy, Time’s Encomium, and several compositions for solo cello. I like these and do find them intellectually stimulating, though I admit they are not the easiest of music to listen to.
Penderecki, born in 1933, was a composer whose music I have always identified closely with. His was some of the first contemporary classical music I heard—as early as September 2008 when I listened to a recording of his Seventh Symphony, The Seven Gates of Jerusalem. I have now heard most of his symphonies, the largescale choral works for which he is best-known, and the radical sound essays of his early years, works like Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Anaklasis, and Polymorphia. Penderecki was one of the defining figures of Polish music for over sixty years. His edgy early works helped give Warsaw Autumn, Poland’s annual festival of contemporary music, its distinctive feel. They have also been used in horror films like The Exorcist and The Shining, serving as the perfect backdrop here and introducing his music to a large international public. Around 1970, his aesthetic began to shift from its avant-garde origins to a consciously neo-Romantic idiom, reminiscent at its purest of Anton Bruckner but sometimes with the intensity of Dmitri Shostakovich or Ernst Krenek. Some criticized that he had abandoned the avant-garde with this shift, but I would offer that he simply gave dramatic meaning to his existing idiom. Penderecki received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1992 for his Fourth Symphony, one of his innumerous honors. I was, in fact, present in 2017 when he received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University following a performance of his epic St. Luke Passion. At times Penderecki’s music can be extraordinarily dissonant, such as in St. Luke, the Threnody, or my favorite work by him, Utrenja. His music can also be incredibly beautiful as in the Ciaccona—written as a memorial to Pope John Paul II and added to his Polish Requiem—or the Adagio from his Third Symphony which I listened to for the first time just yesterday. That his music can attain these extremes and also plenty of other emotional states speaks to the tremendous ability he had as a composer.
In this age of coronavirus, it is no surprise that we would lose figures such as these. Yet, coronavirus claimed neither composer—their deaths were after full, rewarding lives and were the result of long illnesses. Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the Marsalis dynasty of jazz musicians, whose death was announced Wednesday, was, however, the victim of COVID-19, yet, he too, at age eighty-five, had also lived a long, full life. Coronavirus, even for those who so far have not tested positive, has at least been a reminder of our own mortality, and with that reminder we should take time to relax, examine our lives, and make sure we are doing what makes us happy. I for one have used this time away from the stresses of daily life to return to my creative projects. I have been catching up on this MusicCentral blog, listening to new music, reading books that have sat neglected on my shelf for too long, and also taking time to hike and reconnect with friends and family even though I cannot see them in-person. Unfortunately, we have had to cancel the 2020 Sugarmill Music Festival, and its accompanying lecture on Solomon Northup must, too, be delayed. I have had to temporarily abandon my life in Louisville—the friends I had made, the connections I had built, and the jobs I had attained—while I wait here, relatively safe in the woods of central Louisiana. But, I have confidence that those things will return when this is all over.
I have chosen to write about Charles Wuorinen and Krzysztof Penderecki this afternoon because of how much their music means to me. They were among the last of their generation—the composers who have had to come to terms with the end of modernism and react accordingly. Perhaps their reactions demonstrated that the vocabulary pioneered by modernism need not disappear altogether but could be integrated into something else—something, certainly in the case of Penderecki, with wider listener appeal. Their lives can also be a reminder to all of us how much can be accomplished in the short span of eighty years. Each composer was incredibly prolific, and I still have much to listen to by them. If we desire to follow their examples, be productive on their scale, we must be persistent every day, or else when our own lives end we will not have something similar to show. Also, we must seek to accomplish the work we ourselves consider valuable and which we feel will most benefit our communities and our world.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a freelance concert annotator based in Louisville, KY. He serves as Director of Scholarship to the Sugarmill Music Festival held each May in Alexandria, LA. A project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jackson earned an M.M. in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville with a thesis entitled, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” There he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. He has shared his research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN; the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS; and the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux, LA. Aside from his studies, Jackson is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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