St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates.

What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism.

As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his earliest works to attract international intention, including hisThrenody to the Victims of Hiroshima and St. Luke Passion, were written under the influence of these older composers.

They display, however, emotional qualities which have continued to earn them performances where most post-war avant garde music has never been welcome. Composing the Passion further allowed Penderecki to express his devout Roman Catholic faith and thereby find yet another way to snub communist orthodoxy.

He wrote the St. Luke Passion on commission to honor the 700th anniversary of the Münster Cathedral. The enormously successful premiere took place on March 30, 1966. It is divided into two parts, each further subdivided into shorter sections but performed without pause.

The text comes from Scripture (mostly from Luke, with some passages from John and Psalms) and the Roman liturgy. Except for three short Greek phrases, it is entirely in Latin.

The piece calls for three soloists (soprano, baritone, and bass), and an Evangelist (a speaking role). It requires a large chorus, divided into three four-part choirs and a fourth of sopranos and altos.

Penderecki divides the violins into 24 parts rather than the conventional two. He treats the other string sections similarly. Each stand of two players has its own part. The winds include two saxophones, but no oboes, and more than the usual number of most other instruments. Besides a large percussion section, the orchestra also includes piano, organ, and harmonium.

All of this division enables Penderecki to achieve very dense, complex textures, with harmonies based on tone clusters, using quartertones as well as semitones. In the choir, singers sometimes hiss, jeer, and whistle. Sometimes words are broken up into syllables and tossed back and forth till they become unintelligible.

For all it’s innovation, the St. Luke Passion also acknowledges a debt to the past. It quotes Gregorian chant and a Polish folk song. One section uses the Baroque passacaglia technique. Others use contrapuntal techniques of Renaissance composers, although, of course, not their harmonies.

Comparisons with Bach’s Passion settings are unavoidable. Both Bach and Penderecki wrote from deep religious conviction. Both provided music suitable the the intrinsically dramatic nature of the Passion story: the murder of God by his own people. But they approach the drama very differently.

Bach, in common with other composers of his time, provides opulently descriptive music suitable to portray the outward drama of events. Penderecki’s much more austere and gloomy music portrays more of an inner drama. So where Bach shows Peter rushing from the courtyard, Penderecki portrays a penitence that can only be felt, not seen or heard.

The crowd scenes reverse this contrast. At the words “Let him be crucified,” Bach used tritones and chromaticism to produce remarkably ugly music that nevertheless proceeds in a dignified fugato. His music therefore shows more of an inward ugliness, where Penderecki’s harmonies and counterpoint allow him to portray a howling mob.

The dramatic impact of Penderecki’s mob largely results from the contrast between the overt descriptiveness of those scenes and the understatement of the rest of the work. But where Bach sometimes casts his soloists and chorus as observers commenting on the action, all the singers in Penderecki’s setting participate fully.

When the choir does not portray the mob, it represents a world crying out to God for forgiveness and redemption. The baritone soloist represents Christ. The bass soloist portrays Peter, Pilate, and the penitent thief. The soprano soloist briefly takes the role of a servant girl, but more importantly partakes of the penitent mood of the chorus, representing not humanity as a whole, but the individual.

Two rays of light pierce the pervading darkness and gloom. The Stabat Mater (section 24) suddenly coalesces on a D major triad for its final word, “gloria.” The final phrase of the work, “Thou has redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth” concludes on a triumphant E major chord.

These chords underline the implication of the text at these points: God’s love can conquer the darkness of the world. The Passion story, which ends with the death of Christ, thus also ends on a note of triumph.

Much of the postwar avant garde music produced revulsion in most audiences. It withdrew into into a new music ghetto and developed a strong contempt for classical music audiences. It makes it difficult for any new music to get a hearing even today when that style is now passé.

Penderecki’s achievement goes beyond producing an emotionally powerful work. The St. Luke Passion still receives not only performances, but enthusiastic responses from the audience. Future generations will likely consider it one of the few masterpieces of its time.

Multiple recordings of the pieces mentioned are available from ArchivMusik by clicking on the button in the sidebar.


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