Reliefy - Andrzej Krzanowski International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn

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“He was, without a doubt, an original poet of music, with a poetic attitude to people and the world, tinged with a little melancholy but also marked by cheerful kindness,” wrote Leszek Polony many years ago about Andrzej Krzanowski. ese words can equally be applied to the person and the character of his music. He left a sizeable output: more than a hundred items in his catalogue, including extensive symphonic works (Symphony no. 1, Canti di Wratislavia, Concerto per orchestra), string quartets, as well as a musical stage cycle that represents a completely new genre: that of Programmes, culminating in the meta-opera Programme V. The accordion (playing solo and in chamber ensembles) has a separate place in his output. Krzanowski composed six Books for Accordion, which are unique in the instrument’s repertoire, as well as many minor pieces not incorporated into that cycle. 

To claim that Krzanowski revolutionised accordion music is an understatement. In his compositions, the accordion emerges as a no-less-worthy cousin of the time-honoured organ, and it sounds just as fresh as electronics (which was then only making its first tentative steps in Poland). The excellent musicologist and brilliant critic Andrzej Chłopecki described Krzanowski’s accordion as “an instrument of the common folk, more small-townish than folk-related in nature” and saw it as “an aesthetic provocation, causing embarrassment in the circles of high culture.” It was with reference to Krzanowski’s music that Chłopecki used the term “new romanticism” for the first time, pointing to this quality as the leading element in his music. The independent romantic spirit manifested itself directly in his music, in its recognisable expression and surges of emotion that were somehow overly literal in an intimidating fashion. ese factors determined the key element in Andrzej Krzanowski’s music: its expressive power, supported by unparalleled authenticity, which served as an antidote for the lies and insincerity of the 1970s and 1980s’ propaganda over owing from radio and TV sets in the then Poland. 

While deeply immersed in romantic expression, Krzanowski did not eschew the greatest achievements of the musical avant-garde. He used the orchestra with freedom and imaginative panache, making his orchestral works are up like reworks and delighting the audience with instrumental colours. He did not hesitate to combine the string quartet’s venerable traditional line-up with a percussion group and tape (in String Quartet no. 1, version B) or with a soprano part (in Programme VI). He was equally able to draw on well-tested models, as when he used a wide array of performance means in his Programmes. He crossed established boundaries with ease, opening his music up to unusual articulations, rare instruments or their combinations. What distinguished him from the avant-garde was the form these compositions took, which, rather than displaying a palette of sound effects, served as a space to implement a superior musical idea, a preplanned story-like form with a preconceived purpose. 

Another key aspect of Krzanowski’s music is its personal and autobiographical dimension. He was inspired by everyday life, which he observed with his sensitive eye (and ear). The social and historical context of the 1970s, inherent in his Programmes, seems even more distinct from the present-day perspective. Family and roots were important to him, as were other things that were close, directly felt and experienced. Traces of that life can be found in his titles, for instance in the accordion quintet Alcagran, or One Place on the Vistula’s Eastern Bank, which is an acronym made up of the first syllables of his wife and children’s first names but also referring to his hometown of Czechowice-Dziedzice, where he spent almost his entire life. The personal character of his output is also reflected in numerous dedications, among which those to Krzanowski’s masters, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Witold Lutosławski, hold pride of place, and, finally, in the originality of his sound world, in which the leading role is frequently entrusted to a siren, whistles, flexatone, or bells, which may reflect the location of his family home between an emergency ambulance service, an oil refinery, and a railway station. It is also in this homeliness and authenticity that the composer’s romanticism did manifest itself. 

The individual sections of the Reliefs cycle, written between 1984 and 1988, represent the composer’s mature period. Before starting his work on Reliefs, Krzanowski had already completed two other cycles: Studies, with the accordion at the centre, and Programmes, in which sung or recited poetry was used as a vehicle for many dimensions of meaning. What united the pieces within these cycles, apart from the common title, was not the same instrumentation but the musical genre conceived as a space for solving a certain problem of composition. This is also the case with Reliefs, in which the performing forces vary from a solo instrument to a small chamber ensemble. The title, borrowed from the visual arts, refers to “a sculptural composition on a slab, standing out against a surface,” and reflects Krzanowski’s concept of “an experiment in colours and architecture.” 

Nearly all the sections of the cycle were written for a specific performer—one of the composer’s friends—or as a tribute to a composer whose aesthetics Krzanowski found congenial. Relief I is thus dedicated “To Suzanne, Hélène, Claude and Pascale Menard”; Relief II “Japanese”, to an eminent composer from that country, Toshio Hosokawa. Relief III was composed with the composer’s friend, the excellent organist Julian Gembalski, in mind, and it was he who premiered this piece. Relief IV was written for soprano Małgorzata Armanowska; Relief V, dedicated to Witold Lutosławski; Relief VI is a piece for the French accordionist-composer Alain Abbott; Relief IX, for Józef Patkowski and the Warsaw Autumn festival. The multiplicity of these dedications reflects the personal character of the cycle. 

Krzanowski’s “sculpting” in musical material is audible in his novel approach to sound colours and to musical dramaturgy, as in the sections for solo accordion (Relief I, 1984 and Relief II, 1985) and those for accordion with electronics (Relief VI, 1986, for amplified bass accordion and Relief VIII, 1988, with tape). All these pieces use similar compositional tools and means in different variants: expression ranging from furioso to dolce e tranquillo, narrow “piercing” clusters clashing with unison segments or chorale passages. Musical dramaturgy is enhanced by the presence of extreme registers and a broad palette of articulations, prominently featuring tremolo and molto vibrato. The recurrent tritone-and-second structures and the unique accordion colours make the composer’s style immediately recognisable. Colour also plays a leading role in the two Reliefs which employ solo percussion. In Relief IV (1985) the solo soprano (vocalise without text) is accompanied by the sound of chimes, which, in combination with the high and clear voice, introduces a mysterious sonic space tinged with sadness and melancholy. The symbolism of bell colours takes us into the sacred sphere, adding numerous extramusical meanings to the otherwise asemantic material. The integrity of the whole cycle is more preeminent in Relief VII (1988), where motifs from the previous sections distinctly return. is piece, like many of Krzanowski’s late works (including String Quartet no. 3), features the tempo Lento appassionato e lontano. The music thus becomes distant and seems detached from this world. 

Musical time is a separate issue, and its treatment in this cycle is different from that in Krzanowski’s earlier works. This is particularly evident in Relief II “Japanese” (1985) and Relief IX “Scottish” (1988), which lack typical dramaturgy and traditional connections between events in the musical story. In Relief II time becomes contemplation, an unhasty ritual rooted in Oriental culture. In Relief IX this lasting-in-time is coupled with something more: a transfer to otherworldly realms, meditation, and coming to a standstill. is is Krzanowski’s new idea of musical architecture: uniform and tension-free, a pure being-there. Sound, interpreted in terms of light and darkness, is again the colouristic essence of these pieces. 

Several unique features of Krzanowski’s style come into focus in the Reliefs cycle: the consistency with which he planned the cycle’s overall form as a space for introducing extramusical ideas and endowing the whole with meaning; the architecture of each section, formally drawing on traditional models, but filtered through the composer’s aesthetic and sensitivity; gradual reduction in the number of musical events as space and the more distant horizon are expanded. On the sonic level, we observe the return of leitmotifs and melodic structures not only within individual sections, but throughout the cycle, which provides unity to the whole. 

Andrzej Krzanowski’s untimely death at barely thirty-nine provoked many comparisons with Chopin: they died at the same age. Both were reformers of their respective instruments and mapped out new directions of their development. Both le behind semantically multidimensional compositions, filled with expression that comes from a sensitive heart. Krzanowski, moreover, became an aesthetic guide for an entire group of composers, whereas his own generation, as Leszek Polony beautifully commented, saw him as a romantic bard. 

Magdalena Stochniol