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.

An early song about Chicago

Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place?

In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, but I hope you enjoy the words, along with Higgins’ preface:

Some slanderous writer in a Pittsburg (sic) paper vents his spleen upon the Queen of the Lakes in a manner most disrespectful and cheeky. He must have fallen into very bad company to have formed such an unjust estimate of our city and citizens. His rhyme is good, though its sentiment is atrocious. For the gratification of our St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee friends, we have set it to music, well knowing that Chicago can “Hoe out its own row.”


I have been to the North, I have been to the South,
But in traveling a man may afar go
To the jumping-off place before he will find
A town to compare with Chicago.
If you never have altered your name in your life
Nor ever did up to the bar go,
Or else run away with another man’s wife,
They won’t let you live in Chicago.


Oh Sodom was some and Gomorrah was great,
And in Venice each man’s an Iago.
But nothing out there can a moment compare
With the sweet state of things in Chicago


Some people send on by Adams’ Express
And some put their faith in a Fargo,
But if you would go to the devil direct
You enter yourself at Chicago.
They won’t let a clergyman live in the town
On such they have put an embargo,
Unless he drinks sherry with all his young friends
And they he may stay in Chicago.


There the infants are fed on whiskey direct.
For liquor they all to their ma go.
And the muley cows give, as a man might expect,
Milk punch in the town of Chicago.
The town with fast ladies and gay gamblers
Is as full as a ship with her cargo;
And the very best men, it is truthfully said,
Fight cocks in the town of Chicago.


There all the boys play at “poker” and “cram,”
For most of them did to the war go.
And they sing that wild song call’d “I don’t care a — cent”
All night in the streets of Chicago.
Yet it cannot be said that their morals are bad
Or that they too much below par go.
For the devil a moral the folks ever had
Who live in the town of Chicago.

Children and classical music

My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera.

I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even as I write, because she’d play the same song half a dozen times in a row.

She also grew up hearing everything Dad played. It didn’t take her long to outgrow the cheap kiddie music, but she still loves the popular music of the big band / Tin Pan Alley era. I understand some children think they’ve outgrown the music of their parents’ generation by the time they’re teenagers, but since none of us did, I can’t relate.

I thought of that when I came across a video of a five-year-old conducting to a recording of The Rite of Spring. He has obviously listened to that piece a lot, because his gestures match the music pretty well for such a complicated piece. Just as obvious, he has seen conductors well enough to imitate them. I was not surprised to learn that his father, Lawrence Loh, is the Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, among other accomplishments.

Little Charlie probably likes all kinds of things that make his dad cringe. The Rite of Spring makes my dad cringe; many people still find twentieth-century “classical” music an acquired taste, but children don’t know that. If they grow up with it, chances are they’ll like it. Charlie will outgrow his current tastes for a lot of things, but will always enjoy The Rite of Spring, among other classical masterpieces.

The classical music of the eighteenth century, surely the most listener-friendly music ever written, appealed to all levels of society. It appealed to people who wanted an artistic experience and to those who only wanted entertainment. It was contemporary and familiar.

Ever since then, it has been something old. For some reason, people have found it easier to love old paintings, old statues, old buildings, even old literature than old music. Children, however, don’t know what’s old. They know what they like. Whatever they like as children that is good, they will keep liking it as they grow into adulthood. Every child deserves the right to hear good music often.

And now, here’s Charlie Loh, with an appearance by his little sister at the end.

Menuhin on Toscanini

As a teenager, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the baton of the volatile Arturo Toscanini. While they rehearsed in Toscanini’s apartment, the young soloist was treated to perhaps the calmest, quietest temper tantrum of Toscanini’s life. As he described it later:

It was during the preparation for this performance that Toscanini showed me what it meant to be sure of oneself. In his apartment at the Hotel Astor on Times Square–which had an Italian proprietor and no doubt reliable pasta–we had reached the middle of the slow movement where, after the second tutti, the sound marked perdendosi [dying away] hangs by a thread, when the telephone rang.

Naturally I ignored it; so did my father in his unobtrusive corner; so fumbling at the piano (for he was not a great pianist) did Tocsanini. There was a second ring. We went on playing, I at least tensely aware that the pressure in the room was boiling up to a reaction.

At the third ring, Toscanini stopped, rose from the piano stool, and with light quick determined steps walked not to the telephone, but to the installation in the wall and jerked the whole thing bodily out, wooden fitting, plaster, dust, severed dangling wires; then, without a word uttered, he came back to take up where we had stopped, in total serenity.

When the third movement ended there was a timid knock at the door. Relaxed, unembarrassed, amiable, Toscanini gently called, Avanti!–his first word nice the incident–and the door opened on an abject trio, his wife, the hotel proprietor and an electrician, all  promising to do better another time.

I couldn’t find a picture of young Menuhin with Toscanini, but here he is with Bruno Walter.

But cell phones hadn’t been invented yet! (A Beethoven eccentricity)

As recently as ten years ago, it seemed strange to see someone walking down the street talking to no one visible and gesturing. Everyone wondered about whether that person was really all there. Since then, of course, we have gotten used to cell phones.

Nowadays, we still might meet people who talk out loud and make gestures and don’t have a cell phone. We can still wonder about them. Are they crazy? Or maybe just an eccentric genius? Here’s how Gerhard von Breuning described Beethoven in 1825:

Beethoven’s outward appearance, owing to that indifference to dress peculiar to him, made him uncommonly noticeable on the street. Usually lost in thought and grumbling to himself, he not infrequently gesticulated with his arms as well when walking alone. When he was in company, he spoke very loudly and with great animation and, since whoever accompanied him was obliged to write down his answers in the conversation notebook, the promenade was interrupted by frequent stops, something which in itself attracted attention and was made more conspicuous by the replies he made in pantomime. . .

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók

Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years.

The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944.

As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became concerned, but he refused to accept charity. Two of them, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, suggested to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitsky, much wealthier than either of them, that something should be done for Bartók.

Koussevitsky went to Bartók’s hospital room and offered him a commission for any kind of orchestral work he wanted to compose. The emaciated Bartók protested that he was in no condition to write a new piece. Koussevitsky told him he could write it when he felt better and Bartók, with some apparent reluctance, said he’d be glad to.

When Koussevitsky took out his checkbook to pay the commission, Bartók protested that he could not accept the money until he finished the work. The quick thinking Koussevitsky replied that commissions required that half the payment be made up front, and only the other half on completion. Now, of course, Bartók had no choice. He had to write something.

At the final rehearsal before the premiere performance of Concerto for Orchestra on December 1, 1944, Koussevitsky urged Bartók not to hesitate if he had any comments. Bartók took him up on it every few measures for twenty minutes.

Koussevitsky then suggested that perhaps it would be more efficient if the composer simply took notes. Bartók wrote feverishly until the orchestra had completed the last  movement.

He seemed full of pep as he and the very tired conductor went to Koussevitsky’s dressing room to talk it over. When they finally came back out, after a longer than usual rehearsal break, Koussevitsky had a spring in his step and Bartók shuffled back without energy. Kousssevitsky mounted the podium and told the orchestra, “Gentlemen, Mr. Bartók agrees with everything.”

Statue of Bartók in Brussels

Like all of his mature works, Bartók’s new orchestral work does not follow traditional expectations. Its opening movement has a slow introduction, like so many Classical symphonies, but otherwise, it has only isolated moments of symphonic density.

It more nearly resembles a classical serenade and has passages that demand soloistic virtuosity from every section of the orchestra. The latter feature certainly justifies the title.

The mainly joyful mood of the work gave Bartók a couple of chances to express his political and artistic views. He heard, and disliked, a radio broadcast of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and responded in his fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted intermezzo).

The march from Shostakovich’s symphony, partly borrowed from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, interrupts the main musical idea. The whole orchestra grimaces, especially trombones. The exposed bass trombone glissando is one of the most notoriously awkward passages in the entire orchestral repertoire.

The fifth movement shows Bartók’s lifelong preoccupation with folk music. It includes not only the central European folk music he had studied so diligently, but also some tunes, played by trumpets, that sound very African-American. Perhaps in the evocation of American music, Bartók intended to thank the United States for it’s hospitality and victorious advance against Nazi Germany.

How old is that trombone joke? Really?

When I was in fifth grade, just learning trombone, one of my friends, who was learning clarinet, asked me how I could play trombone. Doesn’t it go up into my mouth? I had to take the slide apart to show him how it looked.

Some time after that, I started to hear jokes about some hayseed who watched a trombonist intently, and then declared to one and all, “He don’t really swaller that thing.”

Since I actually knew someone who thought I did, I guess it should be no surprise how long the confusion has been around. For those who don’t mind jokes “as old as the hills and twice as dusty:”

And when one of his companions demaunded him what kind of Musicke did please him best of all he heard there [in Venice], hee saide: “All were good, yet among the rest I saw one blow on a straunge Trumpet, which at every push thrust it into his throate more than two handfull, and then by and by drew it out againe, and thrust it in a fresh, that you never saw such a greater wonder!”

Then they all laughed, understanding the fond imagination of him that thought the blower thrust into his throat that part of ye Shagbut that is  hid in putting it back againe.

Source: Baldassare Castiglione. The Book of the Courtier (1528), translated from the Italian in 1561.

(Sackbut, in various spellings, was the sixteenth-century English equivalent of the original Italian word trombone.)

Klemperer on Mahler

Otto Klemperer met Gustav Mahler when he had the opportunity to conduct the off-stage brass at a performance of the latter’s Second Symphony in 1905. The two became friends, and Mahler helped Klemperer become the conductor of the German opera company in Prague two years later. Klemperer, in turn, became one of the foremost interpreters and champions of Mahler’s music.

Later, Klemperer recalled an incident that occurred when Mahler was conducting in Vienna:

There were few soloists in the Phiharmonic’s concerts at this period, and only the very best got a chance to appear. Mahler engaged [Ferruccio] Busoni, for instance, to play Beethoven’s Concerto in E Flat Major. Traveling down from Berlin on the night express, Busoni reached Vienna just after 9:00 a.m. to find a message awaiting him at his hotel. It said to report to the Opera House at once, where Direktor Mahler had something important to tell him.

Without breakfasting, washing or shaving–a circumstance he found highly distasteful–he rushed to the Opera House. Mahler kept him waiting for an hour, then burst from his office and extended his hand. “Not to fast in the last movement, Herr Busoni–all right?” he said, and whistled the main theme. Then with an “Auf Widersehen! he vanished again.

A cruel abuse of classical music

Life has begun to imitate life in the worst way. In Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (written in 1962), authorities subject an unruly but music-loving youngster to “the Ludovico technique.” They force him to take nausea-inducing drugs and watch violent movies while listening to Beethoven. In the end, he is no longer able to enjoy Beethoven’s music. They stole his former love with that treatment.

Lately it has come to my attention that certain British authorities have reinvented “the Ludovico technique.” Apparently having eliminated exposure to classical music from the curriculum, they assume that young people will automatically find repugnant.

Combined with high-pitched noises, unpleasantly bright lights, and camera surveillance by unmanned drones, classical music has been drafted to serve as a repellant against loitering, graffiti, and other mildly anti-social behavior. It works like a charm.

It’s automated, too, so no adult need actually interact with the youth. It merely teaches them that they’re worthless, to be herded like sheep. It also teaches them, like Burgess’ young man, to associate the  most beautiful music ever written with punishment and unpleasant memories.

For years, I have heard stories of individual store owners who decided to play classical music to get loitering kids to leave. Never before have I encountered schools and governments across an entire nation seemingly bent on trashing a cultural heritage that was so carefully built up over such a long time.

In this country, many school districts have already cut music of any kind, not just classical music, from the curriculum. In times when the school budgets face cuts, even popular and highly successful music programs face the axe.

Put classical music stations on the endangered species list. That they face extinction is not because of any lack of people who want to listen to them. If the conglomerates who own most radio stations find it in their interest to limit format choices to what they find most profitable, no existing regulations stand in their way.

When I moved to the Chicago area I could enjoy two classical stations, WFMT and WNIB, the latter a privately-owned commercial station. When the owner decided to retire, he sold it to a radio station conglomerate.

Despite a well-organized campaign in favor of keeping WNIB classical, the new owners decided that one classical station was enough for Chicago and changed the format. They stole a successful, profitable classical music station from Chicago hoping to wring more  profit out of an already crowded format.

In many areas, NPR stations provide the only classical programing, but only at times not occupied by the network’s news and talk shows.

With diminishing chances for children to learn about classical music in school or stumble upon it while listening to the radio, we already have multiple generations that think “music” is whatever commercial interests serve up for them. One generation has little understanding of another generation’s music.

I certainly hope that the British experiment in turning classical music into a weapon for social control doesn’t happen here.

The birth of an ancient tradition: the gorsedd at the eisteddfod

The eisteddfod, a traditional Welsh competition in literature and music, has served for a little over two centuries as a rallying point to define and glorify Welsh culture, customs, nationhood, and above all, language. The competition itself can be traced back to the twelfth century. Its revival in the eighteenth century introduced some new practices, although the person who invented them never admitted it.

The earliest reliably documented eisteddfod was summoned in 1176, although others undoubtedly took place much earlier.  From the earliest times until the seventeenth century, eisteddfods occurred at irregular intervals, with at least one purpose being to examine the professional qualifications of bards in order to exclude incompetents from their number.

For example, English Queen Elizabeth I ordered an eisteddfod at Caerwys in 1568 because of the intolerable number of vagabonds who made nuisances of themselves and created difficulties for skilled musicians and poets.  All who desired to make their living from these arts were required to appear.  Whoever failed to make the grade rendered themselves liable to imprisonment if they did not quickly find some other line of honest work.

The need for this method of discouraging vagrants disappeared along with professional bards and minstrels.  No such gathering approached the size or importance of the Caerwys eisteddfod for more than 250 years.  History records very few of any size in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the late eighteenth century, a renascence of Welsh nationalism gave birth to the modern eisteddfod.  A growing scholarly interest in Welsh antiquity led to the founding of the Society of Cymmrodorion (in London!) in 1751 and the Society of Gwyneddigion in 1771.  The latter represented one of the first stirrings of the romantic movement, with its love of the strange and remote.

Under the auspices of the  Society of Gwyneddigion, Edward Williams, known by the bardic name Iolo Morganwg, undertook to find as many ancient Welsh manuscripts as possible.  Sickly as a child, he was educated at home by his mother, although he later claimed to have taught himself to read by watching his father carve inscriptions on grave stones!

Unknown to his benefactors, Iolo was looking not only for old manuscripts, but also for evidence to substantiate his hope that the medieval eisteddfod could be traced back to the ancient Druids.  Not finding what he needed, he resorted to forgery.  His fabrications were so skillful that scholars have not yet succeded in separating fact from fiction.

The first eisteddfod in modern times was sponsored in May 1789 by Thomas Jones of Corwen and actively supported by the Society of Gwyneddigion.  Later that year, the society  sponsored its own eisteddfod.

On June 21 1792, Iolo Morganwg unveiled his most colorful invention, a highly ritualistic, quasi-religious ceremony called the gorsedd  By 1819, he had persuaded his contemporaries that an authentic eisteddfod should begin with a gorsedd.  And so at the eisteddfod held that year at Carmarthen, an ancient tradition was born.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, most Welshmen accepted Iolo’s “scholarship” as genuine, although some expressed skepticism.

One writer noted five eisteddfods spoken of in tradition, but without documentation, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, and then reached back hundreds of years before the Roman invasion, when

Prydain, the son of Aedd the Great, was, in conformity with the principles originated by Tydain, “the father of Poetic Inspiration,” proclaimed monarch of the island.  After the death of Tydain, a duly proclaimed Eisteddfod was held. . . 
Three persons–Plenydd, Alawn, and Gwron by name–stood pre-eminent among the assembled bards for their knowledge of bardic lore, and they were authorized therefore to draw up a code of regulations for the government of the country, for the regulation of the Cimbric language, and (be it carefully noted) for the preservation of the rights and privileges of the bards. . . 

No Welshman, even though he were a bard, need believe this interesting little story, nor need he pretend  that he believes it, except perhaps once a year, in open Gorsedd, in the face of the sun–the eye of light, when it seems to be expected of Welshman that they shall assume a credulous attitude towards everything, except  the truth.

(Source: T. Marchant Williams, “The History of the Eisteddfod,” The Cambrian 12 (1892): 136-37).

Not many shared this skeptical attitude.  Many publications reported that traveling druids visiting the Greek Olympics took back to Wales a more cultured, intellectual version.   As late as  1911, no less authoritative a  reference work than Encyclopaedia Britannica passed on the story of Prydain without hesitation.