Disappointments of Memory

Transferring my vinyl to CDs is a trip through my musical adolescence, and part of the trip I retraced today was Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Heroshima. What an incredibly original soundworld with all those prickly col legnos and mass glissandos, what a stunning breakthrough in 1960. No wonder the piece made Penderecki famous. And yet, listening to it today with fresh ears, what a lifeless structure, what a limp succession of effects that never add up to anything, even in the recording conducted by Bruno Maderna. Now that so many others have used those same effects better (and for that matter, Xenakis had already used them more interestingly in the ’50s), it hardly justifies my efforts to bring it into my repertoire class to impress young conductors with. The piece itself pointedly reminds me that the title that made it famous was an afterthought, and that Penderecki had originally planned to call it what it really more sounds like, 8’37″ – eight minutes and 37 seconds.

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