Book Review by Marek Zebrowski

For over two centuries, Polish music has been inextricably linked to history and politics. A multitude of turbulent events (including the loss of independence, uprisings, revolutions and worldwide conflicts, with Poland’s territory being invaded and pillaged and its citizenry suffering unimaginable tragedies) inevitably turned the arts, literature and music into a welcome and often a sole national refuge. Within such an environment, artists became the society’s leaders and served as torchbearers of hope for a nation undergoing historical trials and tribulations.

This exceptional situation gave rise to the uniquely Polish concept of wieszcz—a term derived from the verb wieść, “to lead”—and to Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) being the first to carry this flag of destiny for his compatriots. Besides being revolutionary in a purely musical sense, Chopin’s music also carried a political message. This was quite clear to Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Chopin’s friend and admirer who, already in the mid-1830s, wrote for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that,

If the autonomous, mighty monarch of the North knew what a dangerous foe was threatening him in these utterly simple mazurka melodies, he would doubtless ban this music. The works of Chopin are cannons concealed amongst flowers.

The “mighty monarch of the North” in Schumann’s description was the Tsar of Russia, whose empire—together with Prussian and Austrian empires—deprived Poland of its sovereignty for well over a century until the end of World War I.

Political repressions followed by numerous (and failed) uprisings throughout the 19th century inevitably led to mass emigrations, mostly to Paris, especially among the intellectual elite. These were the beginnings of another socio-political and cultural development, that of Polish émigrés being perforce deputized to represent the voice of independent Poland abroad. Alongside Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), one of Poland’s greatest poets and a lifelong political activist, was also acclaimed as wieszcz—the suffering nation’s bard and spiritual leader—who bravely fought for his homeland’s freedom with pen and sword and died in a faraway Constantinople. Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) was still another great Romantic Polish poet who was universally recognized as a national bard. Part of the anti-tsarist resistance, Słowacki was forced to emigrate following the defeat of the November 1830 Uprising. He shuttled between Paris and Geneva with extended forays to Italy and the Middle East. Both Mickiewicz and Słowacki incorporated Poland’s glorious history and her tragic political predicament into their evocative and deeply spiritual literary works. As fellow exiles in Paris, both were close friends of Chopin, and together with Chopin’s music, their legacies served as the encouragement for the hearts (ku pokrzepieniu serc) of their suffering compatriots back home.

The tradition of exiled musicians carrying the torch of liberty for all Poles reached its zenith with Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), who was instrumental not only in the restoration of Poland’s independence but also served as the head of government for the first Polish cabinet after World War I. Poland’s new political and cultural situation presented many unique challenges for all kinds of artists active in the 1920s and 1930s. They came from diverse backgrounds and their educational trajectories were shaped to a significant degree by the competing Russian or German traditions that vied for dominance in their respective spheres of influence all across the partitioned territories of Poland. As a result, creation of a “national style” in the newly independent Poland became not only an artistic but also a political goal for many Polish artists—something that became quite clear to the successive generations of Polish composers from Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) onwards.

This fascinating cultural intersection of history, patriotism, politics, artistic influences and identities is a rich vein that is successfully explored in Awangarda – Tradition and Modernity in Postwar Polish Music, a new and comprehensive study by Lisa Cooper Vest recently published by the University of California Press. Assistant Professor of Musicology at USC’s Thornton School of Music, Lisa Cooper Vest is an enthusiastic researcher and a great scholar of contemporary Polish music and culture. Her admirable fluency in the Polish language and deep understanding of the cultural and political landscape allow Vest to present a complex and multifaceted portrait of Polish music during a very specific period of transition in the 1930s, from the post-Szymanowski era to the emergence of the Polish School avant-garde in the late 1950s.

As it turned out, Szymanowski’s “cultural foundation” for the future development of Polish music “facilitated fruitful discussions about what modernity in Poland might look and sound like, even across ideological and aesthetic lines,” as Vest aptly summarized it. But history and politics once again intervened; barely two years after Szymanowski’s death in 1937, World War II broke out and the development of new music in Poland was subjected to yet another upheaval. The consequences of this calamity lead Vest to examine closely the concept of “backwardness” (or zaległość in Polish) resulting from the 19th century cultural and political disruptions that shaped works by Polish composers during the first half of the 20th century. She continues her inquiry by focusing on the concept of deficiencies or lack (brak) that partially describes the post-World War II musical developments in Poland.

As noted at the outset, for two centuries music in Poland was shaped by events totally outside of control by Polish artists. The lack of a free forum for the development of ideas, the perceived or real lag behind other cultural centers in Europe, which brought about the sense of backwardness among Polish artists, and questions of how to disseminate culture (before and after World War II), how to define modernity within the local contexts and, finally, what is the Polish School and Polish avant-garde, are the main topics of Vest’s fully engrossing volume. On the pages of her Awangarda, we encounter a multitude of names and important figures in Polish contemporary music, not only those that are now very familiar to audiences outside of Poland. The works of leading post-war Polish composers, including Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) or Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010), as well as of many others, are duly presented and extensively discussed. Their accomplishments are carefully analyzed within the context of the path-breaking Warsaw Autumn Festival, itself the outcome of the political thaw that followed yet another episode of political turmoil in Poland in 1956.

Vest vigilantly examines the cultural landscape in Poland as it was subjected to a steady tightening of the ideological grip brought about by Soviet authorities after 1945, and culminating at the 1949 conference of the Polish Composers’ Union (ZKP) in Łagów. After Zhdanov’s 1948 directive to the Union of Soviet Composers to follow the leadership of the masses and eschew empty modernistic experiments in favor of the established Russian/Soviet tradition, Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski, and the ever-present musicologist-cum-political enforcer, Zofia Lissa, attempted to graft Zhdanov’s ideological guidelines onto Polish music. Perhaps they should have been more aware of Joseph Stalin’s infamous 1944 quip that “fitting communism onto Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow.” As Vest astutely observes,

… officials working in the Ministry of Culture and Art and in the party’s Culture Department understood that artists and intellectuals could not actually look to the mass audience for leadership. This audience, which included the peasant and working classes, still lacked consistent access to educational and cultural institutions.

Here once again we encounter the recurring crosscurrent themes of lack, lag, backwardness and feelings of insufficiency that permeated the cultural landscape of post-war Poland. As such, it was coupled with a remarkably strong feeling of independence among composers who, as Vest notes, “… resisted the loss of their autonomy, and … continued to assert their agency in leading Polish culture into the future.”

In Vest’s Awangarda, we also find a wide-ranging discourse on such generally lesser-known topics as the history of the Polish Composers’ Union and its leadership’s constantly shifting positions on the prevailing political and artistic conditions. With much satisfaction, we also read about the important role of publications, such as the Ruch Muzyczny, in shaping public opinion and in bolstering composers’ rankings and achievements vis-à-vis those of their peers in Poland and abroad. Awangarda deftly captures the lively state of polemics about art and its place in a contemporary society expressed by such colorful intellectuals as Piotr Rytel (1884-1970), Zygmunt Mycielski (1907-1987) or Stefan Kisielewski (1911-1991), among others.

Stalin’s death in 1953 finally led to the abandonment of the ideologically and creatively suicidal track advocated by Sokorski and Lissa at the 1950 Composers’ Union Congress. As quoted by Vest, Sokorski’s stern admonishment to Polish artists is well worth remembering for its astonishing hubris and monumental delusion. According to Sokorski, only by following the example of the Soviet Union’s musical pioneers (including such nonentities as composer Tikhon Khrennikov or musicologist Boris Iarustovskii, both present at the 1950 gathering in Poland), “Polish composers would overcome their lack of struggle towards a new music that will serve the nation.”

Unlike the politically docile situation inside the totalitarian Soviet state, Poland’s communist government overwhelmingly lacked legitimacy among the entire population and thus could not impose cultural and artistic norms of any kind on the creative elements within their citizenry. Once Stalin—another “mighty monarch of the North”—finally exited the scene and the “errors” of the ways he governed his Eastern European fiefs began to be voiced, Sokorski (who by 1952 had advanced to the post of Minister of Culture) and Lissa were reluctantly forced to admit that the Polish art scene, including music, would continue to develop only when all kinds of state-imposed restrictions were lifted.

This transition to stabilization and the rapid growth of new music in Poland is well chronicled by Vest in Awangarda. She examines the role of emerging artists and intellectuals after the 1956 political revolution, carefully tracing its aftermath across the musical landscape in Poland. The tectonic ideological shift that followed Khrushchev’s legendary speech at the February 1956 Soviet Party Congress instantly reverberated throughout Poland with, in Vest’s words,

… a powerful discursive chemistry of Polishness, progress and ideological reform that allowed the student-intellectual movement to grow, and alongside it, a fully-fledged group of revisionist thinkers within the party.

Here then we witness the origins of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, a now venerable institution initiated in 1956 by composers Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) and Kazimierz Serocki (1922-1981) and founded by the Polish Composers’ Union. It enshrined progressive thinking and experimentation, re-established links to the latest trends in contemporary music outside Poland, and served as a home base for the development of the so-called Polish School after World War II.

Lisa Cooper Vest then moves on to extensively examine the phenomenon of the Polish avant-garde—what it actually espoused and what are its links to the Polish musical tradition. The colorful figure of Bogusław Schaeffer (1929-2019), an enfant terrible of modern Polish music and a tireless experimenter in literature and visual arts, invigorates Vest’s fascinating discussion of the Polish avant-garde, even as Schaeffer initially denied the existence of the Polish avant-garde as a national movement in music after World War II. Throughout the late 1950s and well into the future, lively discussions among the experts of “new music” and “newness” lit up the intellectually charged discourse centered on theories and explanations for applying such a terminology. At the same time, composers proceeded to work out the latest concepts of sound, texture, color, as well as rhythm, meter and time in their ever more daring new works. Poland being Poland (and Poles being Poles), the inevitable comparisons on whether domestic art is on par with developments in Western Europe were once again hotly debated among all concerned, with the predictably wide differences of opinion adding to the heady atmosphere of the moment.

Reflecting on Vest’s considerable accomplishment, one gradually becomes conscious of the astonishing fact that the exceptionally rich creative environment in Poland this author had brought to life so convincingly covers a relatively short period of time, only three decades in fact, from the 1930s to the early 1960s. The next thirty years in Polish music—up to the end of the communist rule in Eastern Europe—were also a fascinating period of changing styles and many new artistic currents emerging (as ever) against the political backdrop. This too, would be a great topic for the author of Awangarda to tackle, as well as music in Poland after 1989 seen within the wider context of developments in modern music worldwide. But here we are talking about future volumes II and III of Awangarda and hoping that, in due course, they will follow in the footsteps of this very important study.

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Attend a virtual Book Chat for Awangarda with author Lisa Cooper Vest on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 12:00 pm Pacific Time. Event & registration details: