Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 1

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OpusNovus: Fascinating Sounds and Rhythms
Saturday, 9 November 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Concert Hall


Contributed by Chong Heng Li (BMUS1, YST)

Born on 23 November 1933, Krzysztof Eugeniusz Penderecki is a Polish composer and conductor, whose best known works include Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Symphony No.3, St. Luke Passion, Polish Requiem, Anaklasis and Utrenja, amongst others. Penderecki is renowned for using traditional instruments in a non-traditional manner, not for the sake of novelty but simply representative of his own compositional style.

From 1955-1958, Penderecki studied music composition under Franciszek Skolyszewki at the Academy of Music in Krakow. Shortly after a year, Penderecki, as a relatively unknown composer, signed up for the second Competition of Young Composers of the Polish Composers’ Union. Remarkably, his compositions: Strophes, Emanations, and Psalms of David (submitted under different pseudonyms) had won the first, second, and third prizes. Strophy was performed again at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1959, and German publisher, Herman Moeck, acquired the score. Soon enough, the piece was being performed all over Europe, and Penderecki received a commission to compose for the famous Donaueschingen Festival that same year. In 1960, a year after his triumph in the competition, Penderecki wrote Anaklasis, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Dimensions of Time and Silence, and String Quartet No.1. The string quartet work was premiered by the LaSalle Quartet in Cincinnati in May 1962. It was an exploration work on the new ‘noise’ world, and a demand for the string quartet to produce a similar sound world as that of a massed string orchestra (such as Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima).

In String Quartet No.1, Penderecki uses traditional as well as extended techniques. These techniques include free serialism, semitonal clusters, glissandos, sul tasto, sul ponticello, and many more. He also uses unconventional methods of notation to indicate his performance directions, such as the use of time-space notation rather than the traditional metered system with barlines. Penderecki divides the score into durational units of a second, and events are notated in these units, and are to be performed according to their spatial appearances within each one-second unit. This gives the piece an aleatoric aspect and perhaps allow greater freedom for interpretation, too.

Penderecki draws upon certain musical traditions in his String Quartet No. 1, notably the use of a neo-traditional Sonata form. He uses the usual Sonata form outline: Introduction – Exposition – Development – Recapitulation, but instead of defining each section using tonality, meter, or tempo, he uses rhythm and pitch to do so. The exposition of the piece consists of three subjects. The first subject is made up of percussive sounds, followed by the second subject consisting of pitch elements. The second subject is heard simultaneously with first subject some time after the beginning of the piece. Afterwards, the third theme arrives, closing the exposition. This theme is introduced as harmonics, playing between the bridge and tailpiece, at the highest possible pitch. A brief pause follows to separate the exposition and development sections. Within the development, the various subjects are layered, juxtaposed, and interact with one another, morphing to form various characters but still retaining their own individual identities. Eventually, the music reaches the recapitulation when the first subject’s percussive material is reinstated; a recall of the beginning. The piece ends with soft passages played between the bridge and the tailpiece at the highest pitch possible, referencing the characteristics of the third subject in the piece.

Categories Compositions

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