Sunday, August 07, 2005

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

Today is the 60th anniversary of the first deliberate use of an atomic weapon upon a population during wartime. Most estimates of the casualties of Hiroshima from this single terrible weapon in the 250,000 range.

Tonight I am listening to Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima composed by Krzysztof Penderecki from 1959 - 1961. This work has long been cited as an example of extended technique and unusual notation applied to full orchestra. I first became aware of it visually as a frequent reference source in many music notation texts. Then I had a chance to hear it played live in Toronto. What an intense, brutal piece of music! This version performed by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra is especially focused and nuanced.

The aggressive language of the European avant garde from this period is particularly well suited for this terrible subject. The scrapes and clawings upon this large number of string instruments creates such an angry tension as the drifting pitches and microtones provide a sonic blur. It is an exceptional expression of the violence and terror of this event. It's a short work that flashes an atonal image of angst.

This work also highlights one of the shortcomings of both the "atomic age" and the European avant garde of the same era. In the wake of so much violence and vivid, forceful rage I'm left searching for the humanity of both the event and the expression. The lives lost in this tragedy is the immediate source of mourning, which is ostensibly the definition of a "threnody." The profound magnitude of this loss is, not surprisingly, well beyond the 1959-1961 avant garde vocabulary. Few aesthetics or vocabularies can and it remains a struggle to do so verbally even today. But Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima continues to be an impactful, if incomplete, addition to the human comprehension of the incomprehensible.

Upon reflecting on the current political realities of nuclear weapons on this dark anniversary I am less than convinced that the "leadership" holding the largest arsenal of these terrifying bombs has made even a partial effort to learn from Hiroshima. Is 60 years so long ago that we cannot understand why such weapons should never be used? These weapons are so extreme that they do not serve any tangible defensive or offensive purpose. This is basic humanity that should trump even bad Texas-style politics.

No comments: