The composer's personality


On 20 September 1973 a newspaper published an article entitled Wielka piątka polskiej muzyki rozmawia z "Expressem" w przededniu "Warszawskiej Jesieni[The great five of Polish music talk to Express on the eve of “Warsaw Autumn”], a compilation of brief contributions from Tadeusz Baird, Henryk M. Górecki, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Kazimierz Serocki. The first four composers were happy to share their reflections with the journalist, but Serocki’s name was followed by a comment:

For more than ten years not a single answer has been given to questions posed to Kazimierz Serocki and concerning his work. The composer is silent. He has not given a single interview. He does not want to talk about his music. He is one of the several leading composers to whom Polish music owes its high standing in the world, but remains the least known, even mysterious figure to the audiences. [...] Kazimierz Serocki’s persistent silence is explained in a variety of ways. Some claim it is an experiment through which the composer wants to find out whether music can attain the place it deserves without advertising, information in the press or any other way of attracting the audience. Others are convinced that he wants to speak with music only and does not want to trivialise it with words. He is not even interested in reviews or any comments on his works. He wants people to be interested not in him but in his music.

Kazimierz Serocki was undoubtedly one of the most mysterious figures in contemporary Polish music. Although he was interested in his reviews – which can be seen in their large collection among the composer’s legacy donated by his heirs to the University of Warsaw Library – his taciturnity remains legendary. Thus all we know about the composer comes from second-hand accounts, from reminiscences of people who knew him. Serocki even avoided being photographed. The few photographs we have show us a broadly smiling man – stocky, with a large round head and cheerful look. At first glance – perfect type of an optimistic extrovert, honest and open, life and soul of the party with temperament, a “mine” of jokes and anecdotes. This side of Serocki’s personality is mentioned by all his friends. Augustyn Bloch, for example, says that

Kazio Serocki was a force of nature. [...] Everything was bursting in him. [...] It was like boiling water. [...] I was sometimes happy I could be with him, because although I’m a chatterbox myself, I don’t have that strength...

According to Szábolcs Esztényi, Serocki was

A wonderful, beautiful man – in all his vast knowledge and his naturalness [...]. First of all, no hypocrisy whatsoever, huge honesty, guilelessness even [...]

And his memory was extraordinary. A veritable bagful of thousands of jokes and none of them is repeated.

This is echoed by Czesław Pałkowski’s reminiscences, concerning, however, Serocki’s attitude when he was working on some new musical ideas:

He was a charming man, with temperament. If he was [...] “fired” with enthusiasm for something, he could [...] be “beside himself” to emphasise it, get a dramatic effect: maybe like this, maybe like that...

Włodzimierz Kotoński, on the other hand, adds a more spicy note to the composer’s portrait:

He liked to tell jokes, he liked anecdotes, funny stories from the lives of musicians or generally people he knew. But he also loved puns and [...] humour with allusions [...]. He could be catty sometimes. [...] There was one person he always had topick on – Penderecki. Penderecki, who started his international career later than Serocki, but was off to a very quick start. [...] And Serocki, it seems to me, always envied him this popularity. Whenever Penderecki was mentioned, he didn’t fail to stick a needle or two. [...] I don’t think he said that when Krzysztof was present, but when friends were around, he was very willing to do so...

A charming portrait of Serocki was also painted by his friend from his Łódź days, Hanna Wąsalanka, later the famous Sister Blanka from Laski near Warsaw, known as Laski’s “minister of culture”:

His personality made the formation of a circle of friends easy. [...] He was really affectionate, everyone was a friend to him [...], even a potential one. [...] He was so open. [...] He was – something so nicely spoken of today and so highly appreciated – a free man. [...] He was always himself. [...] Slightly ironic, a bit satirical, witty, a tiny bit catty, though this cattiness wasn’t very unpleasant [...].

Joseph Häusler, a German musicologist responsible for the programme of the Donaueschingen Festival, expressed his opinion about Serocki in the following manner, synthesising in a way the above remarks:

[...] he was the opposite of an introvert artist. Wherever he turned up, he immediately became the focus of attention, not because of any penchant for egoistical domination, but thanks to his spontaneous ability to establish a rapport with those around him. [...] He could engage in heated, biting polemics, and his charm was irresistible. Those who had an opportunity to see the grandezza with which Serocki – who was truly attached to the pleasures of life – banqueted after the success of a premiere will never forget it.

A voracious appetite for life is, in fact, a common thread of stories about the composer. Augustyn Bloch, for example, recalls “long conversations into the night” in his Warsaw flat in Wybieg Street, referring to the characteristic features of Serocki’s physique – of a man of imposing frame and former boxing champion, who was more resistant than many to hard liquor:

Kazio would come, but always made a phone call first: “Bloszeńku, is Hania there? [...] See you in an hour”. And he came. [...] These were always riotous parties of the make-yourself-at-home kind, when it came to the non-alcohol part. [...] We did have, thanks to my wife [...], some excellent beverages at home [...]. I remember that, because [...] I owe my not-so-healthy liver to him, as he himself was huge [...] – there is this French actor, Depardieu: more or less the same physique [...] – before the war he was a lightweight champion in Toruń or somewhere...

Various pranks played by “Kazio” on his friends have become legendary. As Włodzimierz Kotoński recalls: 

His perfect knowledge of German enabled him to tell Polish jokes in German and Germans would often laugh not immediately but only [...] five minutes later, because this kind of humour, characteristic of the Poles, with puns and allusions was completely alien to the Germans. [...] Kazio loved to get the Germans drunk. He claimed he had a very strong head, which wasn’t always true, but he taught the Germans that vodka couldn’t be drunk in small sips, but that you had to knock back your glass in one gulp, just like the Poles did. As the glasses were often quite big, the effect was immediate. I will never forget when – during a summer course in Darmstadt – [...] Kazio had a performance of Segmenti. He invited the composer Boris Blacher, who was quite old at the time, and decided to drink him under the table, which he managed to do and Boris had to be carried from the room...

The composer Humphrey Searle talks, with truly British reserve, about evenings spent together in the “Bazyliszek” restaurant during the 1961 Warsaw Autumn:

Here we ate, and drank vodka; the usual toast was “Na zdrowie ex!”, which meant that the drink had to be knocked back in one gulp. After several of these toasts some of us began to feel a bit wobbly; we were provided with glasses of water as well as vodka, which were indistinguishable from each other. Fiona [Searle’s wife], who was pregnant at the time, switched her vodka glass for a glass of water; unfortunately the final toast required each of us to exchange glasses with the person sitting opposite, and Serocki was disgusted to find himself drinking pure water! Nevertheless we remained good friends as always [...]

However, this was just one side of Serocki’s personality. The friends’ stories also suggest the composer’s character was full of contradictions. As Jan Krenz recalls:

Serocki was a secretive man. He rarely revealed his inner self. He expressed himself most truly in his music. His attitude in his contacts with other people was either serious, responsible, or sarcastic and ironic. But he was very sociable. He had a characteristic grin, from ear to ear, he could laugh wholeheartedly.

In addition, he was very discreet when it came to his own private life. To illustrate that, let us quote Jan Krenz again:

[...] one day Kazio introduced me to Zofia, called diminutively Sonia. It turned out she was his wife. It was a complete surprise, because none of us knew that he was married; he didn’t think it fit to announce that fact.

In Włodzimierz Kotoński’s reminiscences, the duality of the composer’s personality concerns his attitude to work and social occasions:

I would say that there were two Serockis. One was very serious, focused on his work. When he composed, he rarely went out to meet his friends, he wasn’t really sociable at that time [...], anyway, he was like that also when rehearsing his pieces [...], always very well prepared. [...] But when in company, Serocki was completely different. I have to admit that this was linked to alcohol and this is something you cannot fail to mention when talking about Serocki. Two, three glasses made Kazio a firework of humour, wit.

Thanks to Joseph Häusler we know that Serocki’s “other face” had another dimension as well:

I don’t want to talk about melancholy or depression, “silence” would be a better word. He was eager to find it. When you met him at international events devoted to contemporary music, he seemed to be the epitome of urbanity; however there was something that brought him just as much pleasure as contacts, conversations, artistic disputes, who knows, maybe even more pleasure: direct contact with real, unspoiled nature. Every year, as the weather got warmer, Serocki would disappear from the capital. He would hide in a lonely lodge in the Masurian forests, with not a human soul to be met within miles, where he could watch his favourite habitats of the European bison, row in the lakes and fish, and where was born and where matured what he would later – in autumn, winter and spring back in the city – put to paper.

However, few had an opportunity to get to know the real Serocki, who, as Jan Krenz recalls,

[...] wore a mask every day, did not reveal his inner self to everybody. You had to get close to him, become his friend to get to know him as he really was: full of warmth and friendliness. He kept it hidden very deep, usually covering it with sarcasm and brusqueness – this was his mask, this was how people knew him. If someone touched his heart, he could be a true friend. This is how it was between us. I won’t forget an incident which testifies to true friendship. When my father died (Kazio knew him very well) and the funeral had to be organised, various small things had to be done and details settled, the first person who came to me offering help was Kazimierz Serocki.

A similar picture of “Kazio” emerges from the recollections of Bernadetta Matuszczak, a composer who, like Serocki, also came from Toruń:

As a colleague he was very open, friendly, cheerful – sometimes even unceremonious – and always ready to help the weaker in the ruthless daily struggle for survival. He was brimming with joie de vivre, which was voracious almost, and daring, which perhaps bordered on self-annihilation. He laughed at the so-called inspiration, though he was a romantic by nature and under his mask of irony, often self-deprecation, he hid great sensitivity to goodness, beauty and truth. He looked at the realities of life without any anaesthetising lens, seeing and sensing the paradox and complexity of existence with sharpness greater than others had; in his final years this imbued his interesting and peculiar philosophy with a tinge of sadness.

The following words by Zygmunt Mycielski bring back the atmosphere of those rare moments when he was able to “touch the composer’s soul”:

When we were members of some jury in Katowice, he came to my hotel room with a bottle of wine. It turned out that I had written [...] warmly [...] about one of his works, probably Impromptu fantasque. However, in the subtlety of Serocki’s instrumental and sound experiments it wasn’t about those experiments but about music. He was happy about that. [...] I don’t think it was only vanity and obnoxious prima donna traits. Serocki was really without any such traits, but he felt at that time that he could establish some contact with me. I felt it again in Nieborów. He wrote in one tower and I in another tower. We saw each other’s windows and knew how long the light was on at night. We visited each other. He would explain to me the variants and movable elements which he put together and organised. I could now not so much hear but see how precisely and with what instrumental expertise he knew what he wanted, where he was going and what he could achieve. [...] Only on those two occasions, in Katowice and Nieborów, did I have this (concrete!) impression that I could touch his soul, which was, in a way, locked in some musical box.

That music was for Serocki the most important thing is also confirmed by Jan Krenz:

Serocki was very responsible for everything he did, not only as a composer but also as a member of the Polish Composers’ Union and organiser of musical life. Sometimes this sense of responsibility made him put on a mask of an uncompromising, strict man. [...] Various emotional states went through his psyche, from cheerfulness and gentle kind-heartedness to scepticism and excessive self-criticism. This scepticism and excessive criticism might have to some extent hindered his freedom and imagination. Despite many successes, deep down he lacked confidence in his own talent. He was so afraid of boring his listeners that his works seemed incomplete, too short, they left you unsatisfied and were never “long-winded”.

This paradoxical lack of confidence in himself as an artist must have made Serocki shy away from cameras or even congratulations after performances of his works. He was uncompromisingly against any self-promotion and did not want to talk at all about his music. When asked about his reflections by the pianist Hisako Abe, he replied with a smile: “There’s nothing to talk about. I just write music”. Instead of talking, he preferred to sit at the piano and demonstrate how Serocki’s music should sound. "Serocki playing Serocki’s music. When I listened to him, I was happy I had come to Poland,” says the Japanese artist.

Even when he did allow himself to be persuaded to say a few words about himself, he was very self-conscious doing that: “What can one say about oneself? Not much, in my opinion, and besides it always seems to me a bit pretentious,” he remarked, for example, in Essen in 1965. He finished a lecture – carrying a Confucius quote “to know that we know what we know and that we don’t know what we don’t know. That’s true knowledge” – with the following words:

It is always better to listen to music than to talk about music. If a composer is not convincing through his music, no words he will utter will help. I have uttered many words here. Since words are not enough, before the end of my life I would like to compose a work that would be totally convincing as music. I continue to hope I will.

In a commemorative article published by Ruch Muzyczny, Bernadetta Matuszczak recalled a maxim the composer had once quoted in a casual conversation:

You can’t go through life without hurting anyone, you can only try to hurt them as little as possible. Suffering is the price we pay for awareness and loneliness is the price we pay for freedom.

These words probably express the most important elements of Kazimierz Serocki’s own philosophy of life and art. The fact that he was fully free and aware is stressed by nearly all his friends and acquaintances. However, we can only guess how big a price of suffering and loneliness he paid for his ideals. Towards the end of his life he handed a “testament” of sorts to Szábolcs Esztényi, the first performer of his Pianophonie.  In a conversation with the pianist, he stressed the utmost importance of artistic independence and uncompromising approach, the special value of “being oneself” in all circumstances:

He spoke very seriously, he may have felt that the end was near [...]. He said: “There is no greater value now than being self-reliant, independent. And I would really want you to live your life in this way. [...] We are artists and there is no other way: just independence. Remember, no one will forgive you your independence. [Even] if there are lots of not very friendly, even openly hostile people around you, [...] be yourself and always do what your psyche tells you to do. Do not make unnecessary, idiotic compromises just to be a bit better off financially in the short run”.

He remained himself till the very end. As Stanisław Wisłocki recalls, even when we was battling against a serious disease, he still

wanted to live, he still had plans. Together with his wife he made corrections in his last work and started to learn to write with his left hand. He wanted so much to return to composing, which was his aim in life.

  • “Kazimierza Serockiego wspominają Tadeusz Baird, Zygmunt Mycielski,  Bernadetta Matuszczak, Joseph Häusler, Hisako Abe” [“Kazimierz Serocki remembered by Tadeusz Baird, Zygmunt Mycielski, Bernadetta Matuszczak, Joseph Häusler, Hisako Abe”], Ruch Muzyczny 1981 no. 17, pp. 3–5.
  • Elżbieta Markowska, Jana Krenza 50 lat z batutą. Rozmowy o muzyce polskiej [Jan Krenz’s 50 Years with the Baton. Conversations about Polish Music], Kraków 1996.
  • Stanisław Wisłocki, “Kazimierz Serocki” [a tribute], Kultura 25.01.1981.
  • Humphrey Searle, Quadrille with a Raven. Memoirs By Humphrey Searle, © Fiona Searle, online.
  • Kazimierz Serocki, Komponisten-Selbsportrait [Self-Portrait of a Composer] [typescript, 1965], University of Warsaw Library.
  • Recordings (interviews) of Ewa Szczecińska’s radio programmes devoted to Kazimierz Serocki’s life and work, 9.01, 23.01, 6.02, 20.02.2001 and 7.03.2005.