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Polish Music Since Szymanowski.

Polish Music Since Szymanowski. By Adrian Thomas. (Music in the 20th Century.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. [xxiii, 384 p. ISBN 0-521-58284-9. $100.] Music examples, index, bibliography, appendices.

Adrian Thomas' newly published Polish Music Since Szymanowski offers a detailed and objective view of Polish music since the death of Karol Szymanowski in 1937 to the present day, including its interface with political and cultural turmoil. Thomas states that he does not attempt to be "comprehensive" (p. xvii). First and foremost it is a survey of post-Szymanowski Polish music. A comprehensive study would really be impossible and, for that matter, unnecessary or possibly even detrimental to the objectives of this publication. Many Polish composers are unknown outside of Poland while recordings of their works are all too often difficult to find or nonexistent. Hence, instead of making long work lists, Thomas focuses on his objective of presenting a clear picture of the influences that seem to have shaped Polish music of the past sixty years in the contexts of musicology and theory as viewed through a socio-political lens and his own vast experience with Polish music. I personally would have welcomed the work lists, but their absence does not diminish the value of the publication.

As only a few Polish composers have international reputations with Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) being the most well-known names of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (b. 1933), Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) being the three most well-known names in the second half of the twentieth century, it is inevitable that a survey of Polish music includes their names. The rest of the composers included in the book are those whose works make up Thomas' "personal 'canon'" (p. xvii) of compositions that have caught his ear over the last forty years or so, especially at the "Warsaw Autumn" Festival of Contemporary Music in Poland that Thomas began frequenting in the 1970s. He is currently director of the Central European Music Research Center (CEMRC) established in 2000 at Cardiff University (see, a great addition to the already established Polish Music Center founded in 1985 by Wanda and Stefan Wilk at the University of Southern California (see [both Web sites accessed 23 November 2005]).

Thomas writes critically from the objective viewpoint of a musicologist and music theorist who is thoroughly and purposefully interested in his subject. Let the reader be aware that this book assumes fluency in a good bit of technical music terminology. However, with the addition of a glossary, the general reader may find it more manageable and less intimidating. It would be an excellent text for a university survey course particularly if it were taught by Thomas.

As in his monograph on Gorecki (Gorecki [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]), Thomas' love of Polish music is infectious and inspires the reader to run to the nearest computer, music store, or concert hall to hear what he or she has been missing. Alas, the disappointing reality is that only the big names in Polish music have recordings in the bins of major record stores and the inclusion of Polish music other than Chopin on concert programs is difficult to come by. Purchasing a copy of Gorecki's Third Symphony is not a problem, nor a recording by Chopin, Lutoslawski, Paderewski, Penderecki, or Szymanowski. However, it seems that Hanna Kulenty, Elzbieta Sikora, and other fine Polish composers who have not had the benefit of exposure through widely disseminated recordings will sadly remain enigmas for most listening audiences in the world (by contrast, Gorecki's Third Symphony sold a million copies). A great supplement to this publication would be a recording of any of the ninety-one printed music examples it offers. It would reduce the necessity for the author to attempt to explain what the music sounds like to the reader. The foregoing results in occasionally unintended humorous descriptions of the music by the author; he should not be put in this position.

Polish Music Since Szymanowski is divided into five parts: part 1, "The captive muse" is an overview of Szymanowski and his legacy as well as other Polish composers working during the turn of the twentieth century. It examines musical development in the context of the political and cultural currents from the insurrection against the Russians in 1830-31, to the beginning of World War I in 1914, to the Russian Revolution of 1917, to World War II, to the Nazi occupation of Poland, and the rise and fall of the Stalinist policy of the socialist realism (1948-54). With regard to the opening chapter on Szymanowski, I would like to emphasize that in so far as his academic duties were concerned, the composer chose to return to Poland to take on the massive task of improving the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927 over the opportunity to go to Cairo to perform similar duties. He chose the Warsaw post in spite of inferior salary and working conditions and the opposition he faced while implementing reform.

Part 2, "Facing west" turns its attention to the period between 1954 and 1959 and focuses on the role of the "Warsaw Autumn" Festival. The energy and excitement in this section shows Thomas at his best. It is also here that the first references are made to the excellent appendices. Appendix 1 is a list of cultural events in Poland during 1953-56, appendix 2 lists alphabetically by composer the "Warsaw Autumn" repertoire for 10-21 October 1956, while appendix 3 lists the "Warsaw Autumn" repertoire for 1958-61.

Part 3, "The search for individual identity" discusses how individual composers (about twenty are addressed in detail) developed their senses of musical selves during the era of serialism in the 1960s. Thomas discusses how this group managed to maintain a sense of unity and illustrates how these individual quests--from Penderecki to Witold Szalonek--led up to what is referred to as the "Polish School" or "sonorism"--an elusive and complex style of composition drawing on structural linguistics and mathematical set theory. Thomas refers the reader to Danuta Mirka's study The Sonoristic Structuralism of Krzysztof Penderecki (Katowice: Akademia Muzyczna, 1997).

Part 4, "Modernisms and national iconographies," and Part 5, "Postscript" mostly address the decade of the 1970s. These chapters discuss the elements that shaped the post-sonoristic era, including discussions of both sacred and secular music, and the concerns of the post-war generation of Polish composers, including postmodernism and experimentation. Part 4 refers the reader to appendix 4, "Selected Polish chronology (1966-90)" which helps put into perspective the historical events of this period running hand in hand--or perhaps slightly ahead of--the musical changes taking place.

In summary, Adrian Thomas presents us with nearly seven decades of Polish music history. As Thomas' knowledge of his subject is extensive, there are only two items one longs for in this publication: an accompanying recording of available musical examples and more detailed commentaries on specific works. In his discussion of socialist realism (chap. 5) Thomas mentions Tadeusz Baird's First Symphony and states that the "Recitativo e arioso" "makes heavy weather of an essentially Shostakovichian idiom" (p. 62). He goes on to say that the "final 'Toccata e hymne' is a grandiose and virtually monothematic apotheosis, producing one of the clearest Polish examples in the post-war decade of marshalled optimism" (p. 62). Being able to hear the work would help in understanding just what Thomas means, but more detailed discussion would as well, just as he does in his excellent discussion of Panufnik (pp. 65-69). My hope is that this book will further the names of Polish composers and their music. With the emergence of composers like Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, known for his film score to Finding Neverland, Polish composers continue to emerge from obscurity. Hats off to Adrian Thomas for so eloquently contributing to the body of knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Polish music.


Ecole Immersion Francaise, Seabrook, MD, and Georgetown University
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Title Annotation:Karol Szymanowski
Author:Kafka, Laura Grazyna
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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