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Krzysztof Penderecki is a Polish conductor and composer who composed Threnody (to the Victims of Hiroshima) in 1960. It was originally titled 8’37”, and is scored for 52 stringed instruments. The piece is written in such a way that it has no bar lines, rather the music follows specifically set time durations for each expression from the instruments. It makes full use of many sounds from a stringed instrument, covering techniques such as glissando, ponticello, pizzicato, while at the same time exploring unconventional sounds from stringed instruments, such as playing behind the bridge, and fingerboard slaps. The word “threnody” means a lamentation, or expressions of profound grief. Penderecki’s Threnody is an example of “sonorism”.
Steve Reich is an American composer best known for being an innovator in the “minimalism” movement, and for his use of pre-recorded material (mainly via tape) combined with live music. Different Trains, composed in 1988, is a strong example of Reich’s mastery of this technique. It is written for string quartet, and also a pre-recorded tape of a triple string quartet, along with train sounds and recorded speech.
Threnody (to the Victims of Hiroshima) is more about sound, tone, and effects than about tonality. Because of this, it is considered an example of “sonorism”. According to Oxford Music Online, “sonorism” refers to “refers to the avant-garde style in Polish music of the 1960s that placed timbre at the centre of compositional interests.” In the score, traditional notation is lacking…there is no staff, no notes, no measures; only durations, lines and symbols indicating to the musicians what sound to play, how to play it, and for how long. At times, the strings sound as if they are voices screaming in anguish, and overall the piece conveys a sense of instability, and even terror befitting a horrific event such as Hiroshima. It is as if Penderecki was trying to give a voice to the victims of Hiroshima, as the title implies.
Different Trains''' was composed some 28 years after Threnody. It is of personal significance to Steve Reich, because through this piece, which paints a picture of the Holocaust of WWII, he explores his own Jewish heritage:
The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. [. . .] Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, accompanied by my governess[, Virginia]. [. . .] I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride on very different trains. With this in mind, I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. . . .The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality, and begins a new musical direction. Reich, “Different Trains (1988),” 151–52.
The piece is divided into three movements:
1. 1. America: Before the War
2. 2. Europe: During the War
3. 3. After the War
The first movement signifies Reich’s own memories of train travel as a young boy in America, and includes the voices of his former governess and a Pullman porter. The second movement draws upon recorded testimonials from three Holocaust survivors and is more somber. The last movement merges the first and second movements together, voices and all, to make a powerful statement. These recordings are woven together with train sounds and pre-recorded strings, while a live string quartet plays along with the recording. The repetition in the strings conveys the repetition and lull of the train itself.
Comparisons and Contrasts:Edit
Both of these works take a part of history and set it to music, and they do this in very different ways. What strikes me is that each composer uses different techniques to make a musical statement about the horrors of war, suffering, and darkness. Penderecki used “sonorism”, and Reich used “minimalism,” two very different compositional devices, to make their statements. They made use of these techniques to bring forth their ideas on what suffering might sound like. Both pieces were innovative in their time. Despite their differences, both pieces draw the listener into a somber place of deep reflection and respect and are, in a word, haunting.
I chose these two works mainly because of the subject matter and what each piece wanted to convey…a snapshot of two very horrific events that took place in World War II. To me, Penderecki’s piece reminds me of what a silent scream might sound like…this is the sound that is made by extreme terror that cannot be articulated, which is what it must have been like for the victims of Hiroshima. It gives a voice to the voices that were silenced by the bomb, and that voice is disturbing. Reich’s piece also gives a voice to the impact of the Holocaust, not only on those who survived it, but also for those who were able to escape it, simply because of where they were born, as in the case of Reich himself. I feel that it is a piece written with the utmost respect for his own fate, with the realization that it would not have taken much for him to have been on a “different train.”
Adrian Thomas. "Penderecki, Krzysztof." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/21246.
"Reich, Steve." Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed.. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/epm/23286.
Paul Griffiths. "Reich, Steve." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/23091.
Christopher Fox, Steve Reich's 'Different Trains', Tempo, New Series, No. 172 (Mar., 1990), pp. 2-8 Published by: Cambridge University Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/945403.
Naomi Cumming, The Horrors of Identification: Reich's "Different Trains,”
Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1997), pp. 129-152. http://www.jstor.org/stable/833682
Amy Lynn Wlodarski, “The Testimonial Aesthetics of Different Trains,”Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 99-141, University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jams.2010.63.1.99