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BBC Music Magazine puts spotlight on Polish composers

06.02.2023 19:00
The prominent British music critic John Allison has compiled a list of Poland’s greatest composers, with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. 
The prominent British music critic John Allison has compiled a list of Polands greatest composers for the BBC Music Magazine, with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.
The prominent British music critic John Allison has compiled a list of Poland’s greatest composers for the "BBC Music Magazine", with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. National Museum in Warsaw, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In a comprehensive article for the BBC Music Magazine's website, Allison “explores how Poland’s turbulent history has left an exceptional musical heritage”, stressing that after the third partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795, “political activity was suppressed, but it found artistic expression and the arts became not just a reflection of events but a replacement for them”.

Chopin, Moniuszko, Wieniawski

The British critic states that Fryderyk Chopin, whose genius flourished in this climate, was not alone, noting that other important Polish composers of the 19th century included: “Stanisław Moniuszko (celebrated especially for his operas and songs), Henryk Wieniawski (also a virtuoso violinist), Juliusz Zarębski (a pupil of Liszt who died tragically young, aged 31), Zygmunt Noskowski (teacher of almost all the Young Poland composers), and Władysław Żeleński (something of a late Romantic who lived long enough to witness Poland’s return to nationhood)”.

x Fryderyk Chopin.   Photo: TheClassicalMusicGuy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lipiński, Elsner, Gomólka

The BBC Music Magazine’s author places all these composers in a broad context, stating that “to understand the depth of Polish musical culture in the 20th century and beyond, it’s necessary to remember not only Chopin’s direct predecessors – Maria Szymanowska, Karol Lipiński, Franciszek Lessel, Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński – but the much earlier figures who are only now beginning to gain recognition in the wider world.”

Allison adds: “Indeed, through a line of such figures as Mikołaj of Radom (born around 1400) to Mikołaj Gomólka and Bartłomiej Pękiel, Poland can claim some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque composers”.

Paderewski, Szymanowski, Weinberg

In his essay, the BBC Music Magazine’s author profiles such Polish composers as legendary pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who “was plunged into a dual life of music and political activism”, Karol Szymanowski, who “in any ranking of more recent Polish composers, must be regarded as second greatest after Chopin”, and Mieczysław Weinberg, whose “Jewish Polish background had formative influence on his style, [and whose] single most important work is the opera The Passenger, inspired by the writings of the Polish Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz.”

x     Ignacy Paderewski.   Photo: TheClassicalMusicGuy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bacewicz, Lutosławski, Panufnik

Moving closer to our times, Allison notes that “Poland was unlucky again after the war, falling under Soviet domination, [with musical life coming] under the strictures of socialist realism”.

There were some composers, though, who “succeeded in steering clear of the dogma”, the British critic says, mentioning Grażyna Bacewicz, Witold Lutosławski, and Andrzej Panufnik.

Warsaw Autumn, Górecki, Penderecki

In the final section of his article, Allison highlights “the creation of the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1956, set up by the progressive composers Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki as a platform for contemporary music and a vital window onto the outside world” and pays tribute to such figures as Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, whose Symphony of Sorrowful Songs sold over a million copies worldwide, and Krzysztof Penderecki, who “travelled a similar route from reckless avant-gardism to post-Romanticism and is now the most widely performed of all living Polish composers”.  

x Krzysztof Penderecki.   Photo: Secretaría de Cultura de la Nación, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons