The 'Warsaw Autumn' (Warszawska Jesień) is a festival with a long history, an enormous tradition, and can be called a witness to history. It is the only festival in Poland on an international scale and with an international status, dedicated to contemporary music. For many years, it was the only event of this kind in Central and Eastern Europe. It is still, however, a living organism: it develops and thrives to the extent that the Polish cultural budget and the general state of music allow it to. The Festival is organized by the Polish Composers' Union (Związek Kompozytorów Polskich). The Repertoire Committee, which is in turn appointed by the Board of the Union, determines the program of each particular festival.
The Festival was created in 1956, during the thaw that followed years of Stalinist dictatorship. Even though the government quickly left the democratization course, the Festival continued without interruption (with two exceptions) during the entire communist era - its finances were secured by the state (up to this day, its main source of funding comes from public funds). Only recently has the new economic and social situation of a country working its way to prosperity threatened the financial stability of the 'Warsaw Autumn'. Nevertheless, the Festival still plays an essential role in shaping contemporary culture in Poland.
Paradoxically, the communist era was a period in which the 'Warsaw Autumn' thrived. It constituted an evident crack in the Iron Curtain, it was an island of creative freedom. Socialist Realism was not obligatory here: the most varied forms of artistic invention were possible. These created a sense of freedom of expression in general, and were viewed as a form of political protest. The government tolerated this situation, wanting to present itself as a liberal patron of the arts.
And anyway, art itself back then - I am thinking of the first two decades of the festival's existence - was a site of incredibly interesting and new phenomena, which roused the interest of the general public. Thus, after a period of being cut off from new musical currents and phenomena in Western Europe caused by the war and later by Stalinist isolationist politics, Poles were now doubly driven to make up for lost time, and got to know the works of Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Varese, or even Bartok or Stravinski through the festival. At the same time, they followed the current avant-garde experiments of those years: Boulez, Nono, Dallapiccola, Maderna, Cage. On the other side, composers, performers, critics and musicologists from the West were eager to come to Warsaw: on one hand, out of curiosity about the countries that were on the other side of the curtain, but soon enough also simply because the 'Warsaw Autumn' gained world-wide recognition as one of the most important places where new music is performed. The modernist image of the Festival formed itself almost from the very beginning: conservative music definitely stays on the margins of the festival. The 'Autumn' has an open formula, and tries to present a variety of phenomena and tendencies typical for the music of our times: from the sonic radicalism derived from the Webernean tradition (Lachenman, Ferneyhough, Hollinger), though the currents that make reference to the music of the past or traditional cultures, all the way to audio-art or sound installations. It is said - appropriately - that the 'Warsaw Autumn' is positively eclectic. That is the way it has to be, if the festival wants to inform its Polish audience about what is going on in the musical world as fully as possible - which is what it wants to do and what it should do. The program books for the 'Warsaw Autumn' are the Polish musicologist's or journalist's first source of knowledge about the newest music. The Sonic Chronicle ('Kronika Dźwiękowa') the full set of recordings that appears after every festival, performs a similar function (up until recently, these only included Polish music; the record Aimard plays Ligeti, published as part of WA 2000 Chronicle, began the broadening of the series to include music from abroad as well).
Today, one of the organizers' main goals - to familiarize the Polish listener with the classic works of the 20th century (i.e. with works that were seen as such already at the beginning of the festival) - has been fulfilled, of course. At the same time, new gaping holes in terms of the classic works from the second half of the XX century have appeared. For example, Stockhausen's Gruppen was performed for the first time in Poland only at 'Warsaw Autumn' 2000. The two other goals, however, remain timeless: to present new music from Poland and abroad.
Contemporary music in Poland works on somewhat crazy terms; in general this kind of music is considered hermetic, made only for a narrow group of specialists, unrelated to reality. It is thus important to abolish this stereotype and these efforts have been partially successful. For several years, new groups of listeners have been attending the 'Warsaw Autumn's' concerts; the auditoriums are full, sometimes even overflowing. And what is important - the majority of the listeners are young. It seems that after a long pause, the interest in more refined, complicated music is growing. An elite group of young people is being formed - they are not afraid of 'difficult' things, they want to set themselves apart from the consumers of popular culture that is made for young people. These people are looking for the 'other', for the 'new', for the exotic in the broad sense of the word. But simultaneously they are looking for a music that is enriching for the listener. This was shown by the aforementioned performance of Gruppen - a sports hall was filled to the brim, mainly by an audience of young listeners, by the memorable performance of Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil in 2003; this was also visible at other concerts at the last decade.
Despite all obstacles and difficulties that Warsaw Autumn encounters, it is still seen as a creative event that can boast enormous achievements and prestige. It is Warsaw’s cultural flagship. A festival enjoying an international reputation. Among numerous Polish cultural institutions which traditionally cooperate with Warsaw Autumn are the National Philharmonic, Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera, Polish Radio, Polish Television, Adam Mickiewicz Institute and, what is exceptionally significant, embassies, cultural institutes and foundations of the countries, whose music is represented during the festival. Occasionally, when the music of a given country or region is presented more broadly, we establish very close cooperation. In 1998, the memorable Scandinavian theme was carried out with the support of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Such events as Michel van der Aa’s opera “One” supported by Dutch institutions, the abovementioned “Répons” by Pierre Boulez performed in cooperation with French cultural institutions on the 80th anniversary of the composer’s birth, or Heiner Goebbels’s opera “Landschaft mit entfernten Vervandten” presented as part of the Polish-German Year (WA 2005), will all go down in the history of the Festival.
Certainly, the atmosphere of the Festival in recent years has been different to that of the early 90’s and before. The concerts have gone “out on the town”, to the audience. Next to the traditional places of performances, such as National Philharmonic, Academy of Music, theatres or churches, the Festival events are also hosted by venues of a less classical character: sports halls, old factories, modern buildings and clubs. New colour is being added to the Festival by young people, who prevail in the audience. They are not professionally involved in music, or any kind of art. They just participate in culture. As to the music itself, it is more often accompanied by the electroacoustic layer. The performances require complex systems of sound distribution. Composers treat spaciousness as an important factor of form. They introduce video projections and use new technologies. A good illustration of the above is the audiovisual orchestra concert presented during the 48th Warsaw Autumn Festival. The incredible scenery of The Highest Voltage Hall’s “futuristic” facilities, wonderfully illuminated by Polish Television, became an additional element of the show.
However, let us not be misled by the inevitably spectacular character of these big projects. This is the way contemporary composers think and create. This is a feature of the present. Keeping up with this trend, Warsaw Autumn consistently maintains its credibility as a place, where independent and disinterested art, free from commercial aspects, is cultivated. And every guest at the Warsaw Autumn concerts can be convinced that the Festival will make them feel well informed about the latest news from the world of new music.
Director of the Festival