Iron Curtain Avant Garde: Recordings from the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival

Album Cover

Album cover for Lutoslawski’s “3 Poems by Henry Mirchaux” and Szabelski’s “Preludes for Chamber Orchestra.”

In 1956, Poland was well under Communist rule with much of Eastern Europe beyond the Iron Curtain. However, the artistic mainstream of Poland was vastly different from the Social Realist style that dominated murals, music and other public art of neighboring USSR and East Germany. Though funded by the government, artists and musicians openly embraced Avant Garde compositions, which manifested itself in everything from cinema posters to the annual Warsaw Autumn Music festival.

The communist state strongly supported composers, and encouraged them to compose music that was distinctly national, which composers like Lutoslawski and his peers accepted as a challenge. His works were strongly influenced by Polish folklore, but he took stylistic liberties to craft strikingly original works that were viewed abroad as successes in Modern Classical Music.

From 1949 to 1956, Poland was cut off from the Western music world, so Polish composers were unable to keep up with Western contemporaries’ new trends in composing. But once the Stalinist Rule was overturned in 1956, scores of scores were finally available to them to reconnect with the rest of the Musical World. This climate created the perfect environment for the Warsaw Autumn, where composers debuted new works for the entire world and groups from around the world were invited to play concerts at the National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw.

The festival helped launch the successful careers of several Polish composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, who, in 1959 at the age of 25, debuted “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” which used extended instrumental techniques—such as playing behind the bridge on string instruments—and used tone clusters to add musical texture. This work gained him international acclaim and firmly cemented Warsaw as an international center of Avant Garde composition.

In the 1960s, the festival gained more serious international attention, drawing significant audiences of fashionable Poles and international music critics. According to Eric Salzman, The Pittsburgh Orchestra earned a swell of applause for their performance of a work by Gunther Schuller, however the works they performed by Copland, Piston and Hindemith failed to capture the attentions of the audience.

In 1963 the Warsaw Autumn held 17 events with a total of 96 works performed to 18,900 listeners throughout the duration of the festival. Among the works performed, Witold Lutoslawski debuted “3 poems by Henry Michaux,” a work for chorus and orchestra and Boleslaw Szabelski debuted “Preludio” for chamber orchestra. The works were recorded upon their debut and paired as a 10 inch record distributed internationally by the Warsaw-based Muza label. The compositions are both strong examples of the prominent Polish Avant Garde style–full of haunting sonic textures mixing voices and scattered orchestra instruments like piano and flute, unconventional meter and technique.

This record went on to win the 1964 Koussevistky International Recording Award in New York as well as the First Prize of the Tribune de Compositeurs from UNESCO in Paris the same year.

In the Marr Sound Archives, we have many works from Polish Avant Garde composers active in making the Warsaw Autumn an unqualified success that continues to this day. This recording of two remarkable performances from the 1963 Warsaw Autumn is available for in-library use.