Book Review of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Labyrinth of Time: Five Addresses for the End of the Millennium (1997)

Chapel Hill, NC: Hinshaw Music, 1998, 114 pp.


by Cindy Bylander


As the end of another century draws near, numerous soul-searching commentaries about the current condition of our world will undoubtedly be appearing alongside celebratory concerts and fireworks displays. One such contribution already in print should provide ample ammunition for debate within the artistic community. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Labyrinth of Time. Five Addresses for the End of the Millennium,[1] a collection of five speeches given from 1993-1996, serves as both the composer’s personal manifesto on the state of art at the turn of this century and his public response to those critics who have denounced his mid-1970s’ turn away from experimentation to a more melodic expressiveness in his music.

Four of the five addresses were originally delivered when Penderecki received honorary doctorates in Poland and Scotland. The final talk was presented in Munich as part of an “End of the Century” series of public events. Each of the speeches was originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny or Rzeczpospolita; [2] in 1997 they were published collectively as Labirynt czasu. Pięć wykładów na koniec wieku.[3] The American edition also includes English translations of the texts for Dies Irae, Cosmogony, and Seven Gates of Jerusalem, a brief biography of the composer, and an interview conducted by Ray Robinson in October 1997.

Each of the speeches is replete with the rich imagery of Penderecki’s many non-musical interests, which include nature, religion, literature, and history. In the first address, entitled “The Tree Inside,” he referred to some of these topics as he discussed his reasons for shifting to a more traditional compositional approach. (His own compositions have, of course, fused elements of his avant-garde works with those of 19th-century music.) In his opinion, the utopia that the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s originally represented ultimately became more destructive than useful as a means of enriching classical music. His turn to tradition, or more precisely, to what he calls a “synthesis” of traditional and experimental approaches, became his solution to this personal artistic crisis. In Labyrinth he envisioned this synthesis not as an eclectic mix of styles, as some critics have described it, but as a “homogeneous alloy resulting from a unifying experience.”[4]For him, “the conscious use of tradition became an opportunity for overcoming … dissonance between the artist and the audience” (p. 16).

Penderecki also related his ideas about synthesis to a return to, or a “regeneration of” nature. The “tree” represents both tradition (its roots) and modernity (its growth and cyclical regeneration of leaves), which together form a perfect whole. In music, synthesis does not necessarily refer only to compositional techniques. For example, Penderecki described his St. Luke Passion as a synthesis of old themes (the historical crucifixion of Christ, plus its newer references to Auschwitz and Sarajevo) and new musical techniques (p. 17). Moreover, the Stabat Mater, originally an independent piece that was later incorporated into the Passion, is itself a synthesis of modern and traditional (even medieval) compositional techniques and texts.

In his second address, “The Artist in the Labyrinth,” Penderecki turned to his views about contemporary Western society (which here includes Poland). The labyrinth symbolizes the chaos of modern life, which has been caused in part by the “kaleidoscope of information” that confronts everyone on a daily basis. Penderecki claimed that as a result of this continuous informational overload, “artistic language has become superficial and impoverished” (p. 23-24).

Alongside this depiction of chaos, however, Penderecki introduced a positive note, linking the labyrinth to a second image-a blend of predictability and unpredictability that he feels many of this century’s great artists (e.g., Picasso, Kantor, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Prokofiev) have possessed. Penderecki explained this idea further by stating that for all artists “only error and the roundabout way lead to fulfillment, … (one must) have a keen intelligence, … listen intently to one’s inner world,” and “seek hope in the paradoxes” of the labyrinth. Composers can be successful and still remain true to their own beliefs (a pointed jab at Penderecki’s critics and, possibly, at humanity in general). Penderecki believes that another period of compositional experimentation will occur, which will be a positive force in music. However, to realize this “future avant-garde,” composers must “have the courage” to be independent and to use their innate creative skills (p. 23-25).

In the third and fourth addresses (respectively, “The End of the Century Does Not Mean the End of Art” and “Elegy for a Dying Forest”) Penderecki continued his polemic about contemporary culture. He deplored what he saw as the tendency in democratic societies to renounce the elite-that is, to favor populism over bona fide distinctions in taste and quality. The result in art has been “stagnation and inertia,”(p. 28-30) as society’s willingness to judge the value of a piece of art has been obliterated in its rush to treat everyone and everything equally. Moreover, the decadence of contemporary society has resulted in a loss of spiritual values, an unnecessary emphasis on material success, and art that “shocks us with images of aggression, decay and death, bereft of all artistic refinement” (p. 36). Indeed, Penderecki believes that “never before has the Faustian passion for destruction run to such extremes” (p. 38).

In Penderecki’s opinion, “cheap spiritualism” has replaced “authentic spiritualism” (p. 37). He appealed for a return to spiritual values, saying “one cannot cut oneself off from one’s spiritual roots” (p. 40). In this regard, he noted that his Seven Gates of Jerusalem marks a return both to the sources of music in Judeo-Christian culture and to the beginning of Penderecki’s own career-his Psalms of David and Seven Gates both quote from the Biblical Psalms, and according to Penderecki, Seven Gates borrows some of its melodic approaches and structure from the Psalms of David (p. 40, 71-72).

Penderecki returned to the symbol of the tree in the fourth address in order to offer another positive note. “No new paths of development can be seen. Artists are exploiting old ideas and turning back into the past … [But] … Is it really necessary … to fear going back? … No creation can come about without roots”; hence, a return to the ideas and ideals of the past can “have a revitalizing force” (p. 39). This is, in essence, Penderecki’s rationale for his return to traditional compositional values and elements.

The fifth and final address is titled “The Ark.” For Penderecki, this symbol of Biblical imagery offers the possibility of new life and rejuvenated art, which will arise from the decay of modern art and society. Penderecki has created his own personal ark of values, which he feels all composers must develop before starting a composition. He has chosen the symphony as his “musical ark, [a vehicle] which would make it possible to convey to coming generations what is best in our twentieth-century tradition. . .” (p. 59). He held up Gustav Mahler as a composer who successfully synthesized the high points of 19th-century music in his symphonies. In partial fulfillment of his own ark, Penderecki has accepted commissions from the Munich Philharmonic to write three symphonies-designated as Nos. 6, 8, and 9.

In the interview printed at the end of Labyrinth, Penderecki discussed his own music in more detail than he had in the doctoral addresses. Perhaps the most significant topic, however, concerned his desire to develop a universal musical language, or “common practice.” This language would be one that all contemporary composers could utilize and that would contain “elements from the past, though transformed to the idiom of our time” (p. 76). At the same time, however, he admitted that every composer develops his/her own musical language, at least to some extent: “I would never write according to a formula” (p. 89).

Clearly Penderecki has thought extensively about the topics he spoke of in Labyrinth. That nature and religion are close to his heart is obvious to anyone acquainted with him; he has an arboretum, garden, and even a labyrinth (!) at his home in Lusławice, Poland, and many of his works have sacred themes. But would many of Penderecki’s colleagues in the field of music agree with his ideas, particularly those concerning a crisis in the arts within a decadent 20th-century society and the need to retain traditional musical values in order to be true to oneself? Certainly many of these colleagues have chosen, for one reason or another, to incorporate some elements of the music of past centuries into their own music. Whether they agree with Penderecki’s reasons for doing so is highly debatable. Even those who, like Penderecki, have experienced their own compositional shift from an innovative style to one that is more conservative do not all seem to agree with him. For example, George Rochberg, originally a serial composer who turned to a neo-Romantic style, has stated that musical traditions are part and parcel of all contemporary music, including those usually described as experimental. [5] This belief contrasts with Penderecki’s view, which is that his own experimental music bears little or no relation to the music of the past and in fact was intended to present a completely new musical language, thereby contributing to a musical revolution.

Other composers as diverse as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Meredith Monk, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough—to name just a few—have continued to compose highly experimental works in the late 20th century. Ferneyhough’s highly complex, virtuosic music has been described as “close centring [sic] … on materials and issues which are proper to it alone.”[6] In a similar vein, Babbit “has invented and explored a musical world that is entirely his own, constructed afresh … It refuses all the usual routines of performance and presentation.”[7] These comments are examples of the diverse opinions and even dissension that are apt to greet the thoughts expressed by Penderecki in Labyrinth. Certainly these four composers have chosen values and compositional means that are very different from what Penderecki has espoused.

Penderecki’s volume of speeches will certainly be among the most thought-provoking artistic contributions of the fin-de-siecle tracts and events that will be appearing in the next year or so. This publication will serve as a lasting commentary not only on his own music, but also on the music – and the arts in a broader sense – of this entire century. The issues that he has raised are critical and need to be examined by all artists, not just composers. What are our values and how do they apply to the arts? Penderecki has given his response. What is ours?



[1]. Krzysztof Penderecki, Labyrinth of Time. Five Addresses for the End of the Millennium, ed. Ray Robinson, trans. William Brand (Chapel Hill, NC: Hinshaw Music, 1998). [Back]

[2]. Ibid., 10. [Back]

[3]. Krzysztof Penderecki, Labirynt czasu. Pięć wykładów na koniec wieku (Warsaw: Presspublica Publishers, 1997).[Back]

[4]. Penderecki, Labyrinth, 17. The following reference to page numbers from this book are integrated in the body of the text.[Back]

[5]. George Rochberg, “The Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Survival,” in The Aesthetics of Survival. A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music, ed. William Bolcom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984), pp. 215-20.[Back]

[6]. Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After. Direction Since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 298-99.[Back]

[7]. Paul Griffiths, “Milton Babbitt: Navigating Without Maps or Compass,” New York Times, November 8, 1998, Arts & Leisure section.[Back]

Cindy Bylander received her Ph.D. in musicology from The Ohio State University. Her research specialty is post-World War II Polish music, particularly the Warsaw Autumn Festival and the music of Penderecki. She is currently preparing a Bio-Bibliography on Penderecki for Greenwood Press, and has published articles and reviews in Studies in Penderecki, Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Music(forthcoming 1999), Ruch muzyczny, MLA Notes, and Fontes Artes Musicae. She has also written on American music and is an active flutist in San Antonio, Texas