The Maciejewski Requiem – A UK premiere at last [4 February 2010, Westminster Cathedral]

Written by: Karol Szyndowski

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is to give the UK premiere of Roman Maciejewski’s Requiem (Missa pro defunctis) in Westminster Cathedral on February 4. This large-scale setting is scored for mixed choirs, four solo voices and large symphony orchestra and is regarded as the crowning work of a composer who, although relatively unknown in this country, is highly regarded in his native Poland. The young Polish conductor Michal Dworzynski will be in charge of this performance. Karol Szyndowski traces the background to the composer and his Requiem

Roman Maciejewski (1910-98). Photograph: Jan Hausbrandt

Roman Maciejewski was born in Berlin, of Polish parents, in February 1910. He studied first at the Julius Stern Conservatory in Berlin and then at the State Conservatory in Poznań with Stanisław Wiechowicz and Kazimierz Sikorski. He continued with Sikorski at the Warsaw Conservatory, having already graduated in Poznań, primarily as a pianist. He soon became director of the largest choral group in Poznań, the Stanislav Moniuszko Choir, and toured with them throughout Poland and much of Germany, beginning a lifetime of travel in connection with his own compositions and his performances as a virtuoso pianist and conductor. In 1932, still only 22, he entered the Academy of Music in Warsaw, where he became a pupil of Karol Szymanowski, and composed what he termed a ‘children’s ballet for piano’, Fairy Tale.

In 1934, on a scholarship, Maciejewski became a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and two years later completed a major two-piano work, the Concerto Pour Deux Piano Solos (or the Piano Duo Concertante). This was performed in London soon after its completion where Maciejewski met the legendary choreographer Kurt Jooss, nine years his senior, who had moved his Ballets Jooss company from Essen to London in 1934. We assume that Maciejewski played Fairy Tale to Jooss, which must have impressed the choreographer sufficiently for him to commission two ballets from Maciejewski.

By the end of the decade, with the political situation in Europe inexorably embarked upon a perilous course, in 1939 Maciejewski moved to Sweden, where he lived with his new Swedish wife (whom he had met through the Ballets Jooss). In Sweden, Maciejewski continued his career and met Ingmar Bergman, for whom he wrote music for several theatre productions including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Camus’s Caligula. While in Sweden, and mindful of the sufferings of those countries embroiled in the War – countries which he had known personally: Poland, Germany, France and England – in 1944 Maciejewski began the major composition of his life, the Requiem – Missa pro defunctis, which he completed fifteen years later.

Arthur Rubinstein in 1975. Photograph: Peter Schaaf

In 1951, Maciejewski had moved to the United States at the suggestion of Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the first major pianists to play his Mazurkas publicly, and where for the following 26 years Maciejewski lived and worked in Redondo Beach, California, one of the three ‘beach cities’ in the environs of Los Angeles. Maciejewski became organist for two Catholic churches and also directed the Choir Roman which he had founded and which visited annually missions and cathedrals throughout California. During his time in America, and as a direct response to his appointments, Maciejewski composed a relatively large number of sacred choral works, including no fewer than six settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. In 1977, Maciejewski moved back to Sweden, settling in Göteborg where he died on April 30 1998 aged 88. He is buried in his family’s home town of Leszno, Poland.

It has been said of Maciejewski’s compositional style that it ‘blends neoclassicism with folk influences and bears traces of his fascination with ideas of creating a modern national style put forward and realized by Karol Szymanowski.’ His Mazurkas are an original contribution to the history of this genre and are claimed to be worthy successors to those by Chopin and Szymanowski. Besides chamber and orchestral works (including a Concertante for piano and orchestra), much of his work is for the piano. Apart from those genres already mentioned, Maciejewski also composed incidental music and transcriptions of classical works for two pianos.

Yet the Requiem remains by far his most significant work. This monumental piece is dedicated to the victims of all wars and is undoubtedly Maciejewski’s best known and highest-regarded composition. The first performance took place during the ISCM [International Festival of Contemporary Music] in Warsaw in September 1960, when it was conducted by the composer and created a deep impression in some quarters.

The British premiere on February 4 2010, in the appropriate setting of Westminster Cathedral, marks both the month of Maciejewski’s centenary and the 50th anniversary of the work’s world premiere. The performance is part of Polska! Year, celebrating the achievements of outstanding Polish artists; the Requiem should suit the acoustics of Westminster Cathedral admirably.

No better introduction to the Requiem itself can be found than the composer’s own commentary upon it. He wrote: ‘Deeply depressed by the horrors, destruction and atrocities of the Second World War, I felt the urge to make a contribution to the efforts of peace-loving people to arouse a general awareness of the tragic absurdity of war. As a musician, I decided to try to make this contribution in the form of a musical work, which by its scope and intensity would make an emotional impact on the listener and direct his attention to the ideological motif of this work. Convinced that lack of respect for life is due to ignorance of the universal order and the divine law of love, I dedicated my Requiem to the victims of human ignorance and in the first place to those who died in wars of all times’.

Maciejewski continued, regarding his compositional language, ‘My harmonic means are based on the natural, acoustic phenomenon of the overtones. The long row of overtones provides unlimited possibilities of variations of colours, lights, shadows, and darkness. I use them, never losing the firm ground of the first four overtones. This procedure fixed my harmony in the solid frame of tonality and, being in accordance with physical and physiological laws, makes it possible for me to be at peace with nature and humans. [In my Requiem] I hoped to help people realize the grim absurdity of wars, and I was looking for a musical expression of this. Christ’s words helped me, and through them I entered the Catholic liturgy, which speaks of death, forgiveness of sins, and eternal light; of responsibility for individual and collective actions; and of a belief in the Good.’

Stanisław Dąbek, writing on Roman Maciejewski in 2000, adds this pertinent comment: ‘Maciejewski’s statement in one of his letters from Los Angeles (1959) resonates with the sense of a personal calling by God “as one of the infinite number of his tools.” These human tools serve to realize what “the Lord has decreed,” i.e. what may be worthy of God, and what is beautiful. Therefore one may assume that one of the fundamental traits of Maciejewski’s aesthetic stance was an understanding of religious creativity in the Biblical sense: as a personal calling and, at the same time, as a commandment of God’.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-87)

Without wishing to press parallels far, one may mention the various contemporaneous Requiems of that time: the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten and the similarly-entitled work by Dmitri Kabalevsky, Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles of 1966 as well as what is generally considered to be Shostakovich’s own reaction, in 1960, to the still-standing destruction at that time of large parts of Dresden, the Eighth String Quartet, and even Penderecki’s St Luke Passion and Milhaud’s Pacem in Terris. At that time (c.1960) when the Cold War was still a daily fact of life for all Europeans, 50 years later the continuing uncertainly of world peace makes the relevance of such works vivid experiences for many listeners. Maciejewski’s Requiem begins with Christ’s words on the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).

Having decided to concentrate on the liturgy of the mass for the dead, and having noted down a number of ideas, Maciejewski began work on the Requiem probably in January 1945, following ongoing surgery, which had initially left him very weak. In hospital, it seems that his own deliberate change of diet to vegetarian proved highly beneficial to his conditions, and he began to recover. Having left hospital, he turned to more natural treatment and exercise, disciplines he maintained for the rest of his life.

He described his physical and a spiritual revivification thus: ‘A healthy body becomes ‘sublime’ and man comes closer to other people, to nature, to God. Life becomes beautiful, interesting, funny, worthy of sustained, even considerable effort.’ He returned to the Requiem, the composition of which now formed an integral part of his daily life. Eventually, the work was composed in three stages over a 15-year period.

As Aleksandra Adamska-Osada has said, concerning the long period of composition of the Requiem: ‘Maciejewski was unwilling to force anything. The process of composition was to remain a part of the order of self-improvement which he had set for himself. With great peace of mind and unshaken belief in his own destiny, the composer worked towards the completion of the work. And so it was, he wrote in cold, sunless Sweden, foggy England, wet Scotland, green Wisconsin and sunny California. He remained indifferent to tempting offers, many of which could have launched his global career…He preferred a humbler job as an organist, so that he could continue his work on the Mass undisturbed.’

Maciejewski further explained: ‘The rhythm of my works is certainly my own rhythm, because I start with myself, with the rhythm of my own, quietly beating, healthy heart. Chaotic or constantly changing rhythms, a musical arrhythmia, just as cardiac arrhythmia, is alien to me. In my pieces, I draw out my own breaths – long breathing phrases. I broke records in the length of breaths, and now I carry these physiological achievements into my music. In melody, long arches dominate in my music, as they are a representation of the physiological function of my lungs.’

At the time of the world premiere in 1960, the somewhat traditional manner of Maciejewski’s language brought criticism from the avant-garde, but as Aleksandra Adamska-Osada has further said; ‘there were also many other voices which hailed the Requiem as an outstanding composition of lasting, timeless value, superior to both the contemporary avant-garde and the work of Neo-classicists.’

Praise came from unexpected quarters: the American conductor Roger Wagner said ‘In my view, this masterpiece can compare in scale and originality to any other great choral composition of the 20th century.’ Final references to Aleksandra Adamska-Osada illustrate the point: the Kyrie, a ‘monumental triple fugue much admired by Roger Wagner as a model of polyphonic technique – demonstrates Maciejewski’s true mastery’. And she describes the final Amen as being ‘(a double fugue with themes from the Amen and Kyrie)…distinguished by a wealth of invention [which] makes use of a large arsenal of polyphonic compositional tools.’ Another admirer, Pope Benedict XVI, who, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote to Wojciech Maciejewski (the composer’s brother) in 2001 concerning the Requiem: ‘It is fresh and brave, anchored in the living tradition of Western music. Thanks to these qualities, it speaks spontaneously, directly to the heart, without demanding, as contemporary music often does, any learned intermediary.’

We must hope that British audiences will respond in like fashion to such an unknown twentieth-century masterpiece of Polish music in the centenary of the composer’s birth; our grateful thanks are due to the BBC for making this performance possible.

  • This article was written for Musical Opinion and published in the January-February 2010 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • Musical Opinion

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