About Warsaw Autumn
Warsaw Autumn (Warszawska Jesień) is a festival with a long tradition and a true witness to music history. It is the only contemporary music festival in Poland on an international scale and with an international status. For many years, it was the only event of this kind in Central and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, it remains a living organism: it thrives as much as Polish cultural funding and the general condition of music allow. The Festival is organised by the Polish Composers’ Union. The Repertoire Committee, an independent body appointed by the Union’s Board, determines the program of each edition of the festival. Warsaw Autumn is, therefore, an international and nonprofit festival of a nongovernmental association.
Warsaw Autumn was created in 1956, during the thaw that followed years of Stalinist dictatorship. Even though the government quickly abandoned the democratisation 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, it is primarily finances from public funds). In the 1990s, Poland’s new economic and social situation threatened the financial stability of Warsaw Autumn. With a new model and procedures of culture financing developed since, the subsequent editions of the Festival may now be planned in a much more predictable way.
Paradoxically, the communist era was a golden age for Warsaw Autumn. The Festival was an obvious crack on the Iron Curtain, an island of creative freedom in a sea of compulsory Socialist realism. Here, the most varied forms of artistic invention were possible. That created a sense of general freedom of expression, and the Fesrtival was seen as a form of political protest. Audience attendance reached 120 per cent; Warsaw Autumn made the headlines, and there were several hundred international guests, both from the East (for Soviet citizens, it was the only opportunity to experience new currents in music) and the West. The government tolerated this situation, presenting itself as a liberal patron of the arts. Another important goal for the authorities when allowing the Festival was to demonstrate the superiority of socialist music over the bourgeois art of capitalist countries. Of course, there was censorship, and a permanent threat of the authorisation being annulled, especially under pressure from the Soviet government, who considered avant-garde music and the entire atmosphere of Warsaw Autumn as ideological diversion. In order to pursue our artistic endeavours, it was often necessary to use a ruse.
“This edition of the Festival,” Krzysztof Baculewski wrote about the 16th Warsaw Autumn in 1972 in a timeline published for the Festival’s 50th edition, “again verges on the political. The Ministry of Culture and the Arts orders for the work of Edison Denisov to be deleted from the programme, as the composer is not well seen in the Soviet Union. As we know, such orders could not be discussed, so ‘in exchange,’ we got the Piano Concerto of the Soviet Composers’ Union secretary general for life and member of the Supreme Soviet, Tikhon Khrennikov, with the composer as soloist. This concert is partly boycotted by the Warsaw public; the younger audience, especially youngsters and students, do attend to have a laugh. As a sign of protest, the Warsaw Autumn Repertoire Committee withdraws its members’ names from the programme book. And Denisov’s work would be played soon anyway—but this time, he appears under the maiden name of his wife, Gala Varvarin…”
Regardless of the independent image that continued to attract audiences, music in the 1960s and 1970s abounded in new and exciting events, rousing the interest of the general public. After years of isolation from the new musical currents and phenomena in Western Europe following World War II and Stalinist isolationist politics, Poles were now decided to make up for lost time, learning the works of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Varèse, and even Bartók or Stravinsky through the festival. Warsaw Autumn was also an opportunity to follow the latest avant-garde experiments of those years: Boulez, Nono, Dallapiccola, Maderna, and Cage. Composers, performers, critics, and musicologists from the West were eager to come to Warsaw, too: out of curiosity about the countries on the other side of the curtain and simply because Warsaw Autumn gained worldwide recognition as one of the most important places for new music.
Warsaw Autumn’s modernist image was established almost from the very beginning: conservative music remained marginal in the programmes. The Festival retains an open formula, and aims at presenting a variety of phenomena and tendencies typical for the latest music: from Webern-inspired radicalism derived (Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, Hollinger), through currents that refer to the music of historical or traditional cultures, up to audio-art and sound installations. Warsaw Autumn is often termed—appropriately—as pluralistic and positively eclectic. This is necessary in order to familiarise Polish audiences with the latest developments in the world of music. For Polish musicologists and journalists, Warsaw Autumn’s programme books are the primary source about modern music. The Sound Chronicle, a full set of recordings that is published after each festival, performs a similar function (until 1999, these chronicles included Polish music only; since the Aimard plays Ligeti record in 2000, the series was extended to international music).
Today, one of the main goal of Warsaw Autumn’s creators—to familiarise the Polish audience with the classic works of the twentieth century (i that were seen as such already at the dawn of the Festival)—has of course been fulfilled. Yet there remain gaps regarding the classics of the second half of the twentieth century. For example, Stockhausen’s Gruppen was performed for the first time in Poland only at the 2000 Warsaw Autumn festival, and Boulez’s Répons as late as 2005. The festival’s two other objectives, however, are timeless: to present new music from Poland and abroad.
From all the above, an important aspect of Warsaw Autumn emerges: the new and newest trends are presented in the context of modern classics. The Festival’s identity is that of an event that shows modernity in its relation to tradition. Moreover, the Festival is a debate, a forum for different tendencies and opinions. Finally, the phenomenon of Warsaw Autumn is that it performs its mission continuously, year after year. It is not a one-off event, a news campaign, or a themed concert. The essence of Warsaw Autumn is that it has stayed—for nearly sixty years—the same. And yet it is continuously renewed, following the evolution of art, cultural situation, and overall reality.
Contemporary music in Poland has long functioned on somewhat odd terms; it has been considered hermetic, abstract, and specialist. Hence the challenge undertaken by the organisers, in the new socioeconomic reality of Poland, to overcome that stereotype. Indeed, Warsaw Autumn’s audience continues to grow, sometimes overflowing the concert venues. Importantly, the average age is low. The public is increasingly interested in more refined, complex music. In the last decade or so, a young musical elite has emerged that is not afraid of “difficult” music, and wants to stand out from the mass consumers of pop culture. These people are looking for something new and different; for the exotic in the broad sense of the word. But they also look for music that enriches the listener. In today’s world, dominated by the internet, contemporary music has moved away from the ridiculous or the indifferent of yesterday. A large number of new festivals, initiatives, and projects are created around new music. The question today is no more whether contemporary music makes sense but what it really is—whether modern music can only make sense in the historical context of the Western tradition of serious art music.
All obstacles and difficulties notwithstanding, Warsaw Autumn remains a creative event with first-class achievements and an international reputation. It is Warsaw’s cultural flagship. Warsaw Autumn has cooperated with leading Polish cultural institutions including the National Philharmonic, Grand Theatre–Polish National Opera, Polish Radio, Polish Television, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, National Audiovisual Institute, and National Institute of Music and Dance, as well as, significantly, the embassies, cultural institutes and foundations of the many countries whose music is represented at the festival. When Warsaw Autumn has a national or regional theme, the cooperation is very close, such as in 1998 with a Scandinavian programme supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers, Pierre Boulez’s 80th anniversary with French cultural institutions on the 80th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the Polish–German Year in 2005, and the North Rhine–Westphalia Cultural Season in Poland in 2011.
The atmosphere of the Festival has certainly changed in recent years, compared to the early 1990s and earlier. Our concerts have expanded to different venues across Warsaw in search of new audiences: apart from traditional venues such as the Warsaw Philharmonic, Music Academy, theatres, and churches, Warsaw Autumn now also take place in less “classic” places: 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 professional musicians or artists: they just participate in culture. As to the music itself, it increasingly often features an electroacoustic layer. Concerts require complex systems of sound distribution. Composers treat space as an important factor of form. They introduce video projections and new technologies. A good example 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.
But don’t be misled by the spectacular character of these big projects. This is the way contemporary composers think and write. 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. Every guest at Warsaw Autumn concerts can be confident to be hearing the best and latest from the world of new music.
Festival Director from 1999 until 2016