Folklorism and neoclassicism

 

The first important breakthrough in Serocki’s work came when he formed the so-called “Group 49” with Tadeusz Baird and Jan Krenz (see Timeline). This move enabled the three young artists not only to survive under the officially proclaimed socialist realism, but also to organise performances of new works more easily. It also created an opportunity for them to present their own artistic arguments. The neatly and somewhat cunningly formulated artistic programme of the group, its “manifesto”, contained the following statement:

Encumbered with neither the pathos of mission, nor with the pathos of a misconstrued national art, what these young musicians want first of all is to break with the traditions of unbridled novelty and restore lost contact withthe listeners, whoare becoming the main consumers of culture today. Their music is anti-elitist in spirit, but does not intend to pander to cheap petit bourgeois taste, which is why in pursuing their objectives they do not want to give up any achievements of modern harmony.

And they did not give them up, though, of course, they had to resort to compromise solutions. This is how Serocki himself talked about his own and his friends’ work in that period during a guest lecture at Folkwang Hochschule in Essen:

At that time we composed grand symphonies, sometimes full of pathos – though technically quite decent – in a style which dominated Polish musical life of the period and which consisted of neoclassicism, lyrical emotionalism and elements of Polish folklore.

However, he also stressed that he was increasingly attracted to the dodecaphonic technique and some formal solutions used by Bartók. Young Serocki’s aspirations were thus quite high and when we look at the works he composed before 1956, we can see that he managed to fulfil most of them despite various restrictions.

What mattered most to him was folk music and its artistic transformation. This turned out to be perfectly suited to the composer’s temperament: he was able to express himself unpretentiously using quite modern means – with regard to harmony, rhythm and colour. In addition, this type of works fitted in deftly with the official postulate of creating “progressive music”: national music drawing on folk traditions and using gestures regarded as characteristic of the Polish style. However, it must be stressed – as Tadeusz A. Zieliński noted – that Serocki’s fascination with folklore should be seen as authentic, free from any ideological pressure and born “even before the official canons of socialist realism were proclaimed”.

There are two important examples of folk elements in Serocki’s music – two piano works that won him awards at the 2nd Fryderyk Chopin Composers’ Competition in 1950: Sonatina and Four Folk Dances. The three-part Sonatina, testifying to a thorough familiarity with solutions used by Bartók or Prokofiev, contains in its middle part a reference to the folk dance kujawiak, which is not a quote here but a wholly original stylisation. On the other hand, the folk material in Four Dances, also arranged for a chamber orchestra, undergoes far-reaching harmonic and instrumental transformations. Oscillation between classical formal models, folklore-derived motivic ideas and a modern harmonic layer became a characteristic feature of Serocki’s style in subsequent years.

At that time Serocki wrote pieces that were both arrangements of original folk melodies and texts, and their stylisations; he composed purely instrumental works (e.g. Symphony No. 1, Romantic Concerto for piano and orchestra), vocal works (e.g. Three Folk Songs, Sobótka Songs, Opole Suite) as well as vocal-instrumental works (e.g. Three Kurpian Melodies for sopranos, tenors and 16 instruments, Symphony No. 2). They reinforced Serocki’s image not only as a technically mature artist but also one with a “clearly defined artistic ideology”. When reviewing the composer’s oeuvre up to 1954, Tadeusz Marek described its most important characteristics in the following manner:

In his works Serocki tackles national themes, drawing on the profoundly creative achievements of Szymanowski and Bartók. The Polishness of Serocki’s music is a consequence of a clearly defined artistic approach, formulated in the composer’s own words: 'it is not enough to use folklore as a technical tool; one should explore it, become saturated with it, so that it could be turned into a composer’s means of expression'.

Opole Suite for mixed choir
Opole Suite for mixed choir

Three Songs for mixed choir
Three Songs for mixed choir

 

This attitude gave rise not only to works that directly referred to folklore (already in their titles), but also to ones in which “despite a lack of a programme, Polish elements are openly manifested”. They include Symphony No. 1 (1952) with a “dramatic oberek scene” in part two and a cantilena in part three with “echoes of folk intonations transformed by the composer”. Something similar happens in Romantic Concerto where a reference to romantic expression, a virtuoso texture and a classical form are combined with folk themes and a sophisticated harmony.

The most characteristic example of a folkloristic trend in Serocki’s early works is his Symphony No. 2 called Symphony of Song (1953). The introduction of a mixed choir resulted from his fascination with authentic folk poetry. Serocki selected the texts from Kolberg’s collection, combined them and, in a way, dressed them in his own robes. When it came to melody, he used modal and pentatonic elements, consistently avoiding purely tonal turns; his treatment of rhythm was not conventional either. In the orchestral part he showed many original ideas with regard to texture and colour, ideas that heralded a future master of the sonorist technique.

It is worth mentioning here that one of the earliest examples of the application of unconventional performance techniques in Serocki’s oeuvre is the score for Symphonic Pictures for bass and orchestra, written in 1950. As Maciej Ziółkowski notes, the middle part of this cycle, entitled The Landscape, contains the following remark: “all black keys [of the piano] between the notes given should be pressed with a 60-centimetre-long rigid ruler”.

A separate group of Serocki’s early compositions is made up by works for trombone, which he wrote in 1953-1954. There, too, we will find folkloristic elements, e.g. in the finale of Trombone Concerto in the melody of the second theme based on a modal scale. Suite for 4 Trombones, made of seven short dance sections, is also a manifestation of the “Polish character”, while Sonatina for trombone and piano is, according to Tadeusz Zieliński, a work, in which “folklorism occurs [...] in an even stronger, more literal and persistent form”. At the same time Serocki’s trombone pieces are the most vivid manifestations of links with the aesthetics of neoclassicism in his entire oeuvre. This can be seen in their form – corresponding to a four-part small symphony in the case of the concerto – but also in the elegance of texture and instrumentation as well as the large dose of subtle humour. These works have remained an integral part of the trombone repertoire to this day and are also highly appreciated by audiences. Suffice it to say that a Youtube search for Serocki’s works brings fifteen results for Sonatina, six for Concerto and four for Suite, with one-item result lists being generated for his later compositions, representative of his mature style.

His involvement with folklore enabled the composer to test various solutions for modernising the sound language. His interest in dodecaphony, aroused during his stay in Paris on a scholarship, prompted him to use, increasingly frequently, sequences containing nearly all notes of the chromatic scale.

Full twelve-note rows appeared for the first time in Suite of Preludes for piano from 1952. In the fourth and fifth part of this work Serocki used not only sequences of twelve different notes but also their transpositions. This is not, however, dodecaphony strictly speaking, because there are no so-called mirror transformations of the series (retrograde, inversion) and the presentation of its successive elements tends to be inconsistent.Twelve-note themes also appear e.g. in the second part of Trombone Concerto, in the first part (second theme) of Sonata for piano (1955) and in Sinfonietta for two string orchestras completed in 1956. In this last work Serocki took another important step towards dodecaphony: the motivic material is based on the intervals that occur between consecutive notes of the rows he used, a solution that makes his music cohesive. On the other hand, the antiphonal correspondences between the two orchestras signal the colour and space disposition of many of his later works. Sinfonietta is thus a borderline work: on the one hand, it successfully crowns the early period of Serocki’s work, and on the other – it introduces its next stage.

  • Tadeusz A. Zieliński, O twórczości Kazimierza Serockiego [On Kazimierz Serocki’s Oeuvre], Kraków 1985.
  • Tadeusz Marek, review of Kazimierz Serocki’s oeuvre [typescript], Warsaw, PCU Archives.
  • Kazimierz Serocki, Komponisten-Selbsportrait [Self-Portrait of a Composer] [typescript, 1965], University of Warsaw Library.