Listening Outside of the Box by Eileen Zhang

When Anthony Kelley taught our class a couple of Tuesdays ago, he decided to let us
listen to a clip of Krzystof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, in preparation for the New York Philharmonic performance we were to attend that night. What ensued after he pressed play was what sounded to my ear like, excuse the cliché, nails on chalkboard. I raised a skeptical eyebrow, especially when Anthony said that this was Penderecki’s most famous work. Great. We’re in for a real treat.


I tried to keep an open mind, but as a pianist I have always gravitated toward composers like Chopin and Debussy, who really emphasized melody. Penderecki was definitely in a different category. A polish composer born in 1933, Penderecki in his early days was influenced by composers like Austrian Anton Webern, who did a lot of atonal work, and the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was written in 1959 for 52 string instruments. During this time Polish music was being allowed to spread its wings under Soviet control, and Penderecki would be a major driving force behind this development. By the 1970s, Penderecki started to take a more melodic approach and turned toward semitones and tritones. A semitone is a half-step, or, on the piano, the interval between a white key and the next key up, most likely a black key. A tritone spans three whole tones and is also called an augmented fourth. Both produce a rather dissonant and dark sound, so even though Penderecki was being a bit more conservative, he still retained his rather gloomy tone.

What we heard at the Philharmonic, his Cello Concerto No. 2, was a product of this later phase of his career. The piece began with the rather jarring violin sounds that I had been anticipating. The percussion, which had 18 different instruments, as cellist Alisa Weilerstein says, created “such a powerful rhythm, a really engaging type of rhythm.” The cello’s part seemed extremely intricate and complex, and I cannot even begin to imagine how challenging it was to play.

So 35 minutes later, I came to the conclusion that I had thoroughly enjoyed the piece. A lady sitting in front of me turned around and asked what I had thought of it. My inarticulate struggle to find the right words proved that alas, I still don’t really understand Penderecki. But I was on the edge of my seat through the whole piece, kept in a constant state of tension, taken by the music
through moments of great anxiety and then incomplete relief, and basically just caught in a whirlwind of powerfully emotional sound. My ears heard things they were not accustomed to and were not wholly comfortable with, but the effect wasn’t completely unpleasant, and it was definitely gratifying.

I guess in music, as well as art and literature and maybe anything that requires creativity, we can become too attached to things we are accustomed to and familiar with. So I’m glad that there are composers willing to experiment with sound and to embrace the avant-garde, so that sometimes-unadventurous music lovers like myself will think outside the box a little more and look at music in a new way. Just to show how far I’ve come, I’ve even bought Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima on iTunes.

Visit and scroll down to watch videos of interviews with Alisa Weilerstein discussing the piece.





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