Deceptive Cadence
3:07 pm
Sat November 23, 2013

A Sound Of Fear, Forged In The Shadow Of War

Originally published on Sun November 24, 2013 9:09 am

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki turned 80 on Saturday. You may think you've never heard Penderecki's music, but I'm guessing you have — because I'm guessing you've seen The Shining.

Listen closely to parts of Utrenja or Polymorphia and you'll have a hard time not picturing Jack Nicholson's menacing figure.

Kubrick's movie terrified me as a kid. I assumed the scary music had been composed specifically for the film — so, as a teenager, I was shocked to learn that it was, in fact, Polish religious music. It was pretty far out from what I understood church music to be.

This is not an issue of radically different musical cultures; I'm pretty sure this music sounds spooky to a Polish audience. Even as it terrifies, it draws you in. Why?

Because Penderecki — like every modern European composer — worked in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust.

Sixty-six million human beings died in World War II; about three-quarters of those were noncombatants. This is no doubt why so much modern classical music, from Europeans especially, is so difficult to listen to for a lot of people. How on Earth can you write pretty music after you see what humans do at their worst?

Baroque and classical composers wrote music that imitated thunder, or birdsong. You can pick out different species in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony if you listen carefully; I'm pretty sure I hear a cuckoo and a nightingale in the second movement. Post-war composers like Benjamin Britten or Penderecki, though, are more likely to imitate the sound of air raid sirens.

Penderecki is not Jewish — he's not a survivor — but he is Polish. Auschwitz is basically in his backyard. A devout Christian writing authentically liturgical music, Penderecki seems to be wrestling directly with the question of how you can make peace with God after such horrors.

Maybe this is why you're more likely to hear Penderecki or Gyorgi Ligeti or George Crumb in horror movies than in concert halls, where you're more likely to hear the more familiar and comforting strains of Haydn and Mozart.

But the truth is, hearing this music in horror movies actually makes it less scary. Maybe to do justice to this kind of music we need to peel it away from the movies, and pay respect to the real horrors that real humans have had to endure.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That's the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, who turns 80 today. You may think that you've never heard this Polish composer's music, but I'm guessing you have, because I'm guessing you've seen "The Shining."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

RATH: A lot of you out there are having a hard time right now not picturing Jack Nicholson brandishing an axe. Kubrick's movie terrified me as a kid. I assumed the scary music had been composed specifically for the film. As a teenager, I was shocked to learn that this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

RATH: ...was Polish religious music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

RATH: It pretty far out from what I understood church music to be. This is not an issue of radically different music cultures. I'm pretty sure this music sounds spooky to a Polish audience. Even as this music terrifies, it draws you in. Why? Because Penderecki, like every modern European composer, worked in the shadow of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Around 60 million human beings died in World War II. About three-quarters of those were non-combatants. This is, no doubt, why so much modern classical music - from Europeans, especially - is so difficult to listen to for a lot of people. How on Earth can you write pretty music after you see what humans do at their worst? Baroque and classical composers wrote music that imitated thunder or birdsong. You can pick out different species of birds in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" if you listen carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORAL SYMPHONY")

RATH: There's a cuckoo and then a nightingale. Post-World War II composers, like Benjamin Britten or Penderecki, are more likely to imitate the sound of air raid sirens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Penderecki is not Jewish. He's not a survivor. But he is Polish. Auschwitz is basically in his backyard. Penderecki, a devout Christian writing authentically liturgical music, seems to be wrestling directly with the question of how you can make peace with God after such horrors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Maybe why this is why you're more likely to hear Penderecki or Gyorgy Ligeti or George Crumb in horror movies than in concert halls, where you're more likely to hear the comforting strains of Haydn and Mozart. But the truth is, hearing this music in horror movies actually makes it less scary. Maybe to do justice to this kind of music, we need to peel it away from the movies and pay respect to the real horrors real humans have had to endure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: On tomorrow's show, when gambling is your bread and butter, a recession can be devastating. How Las Vegas is attracting new tourists and new industries to Sin City. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.