Ideologically engaged works


The artistically significant consequences of the formation of “Group 49” (August 1949 – see Calendar) are just one, brighter side of the musical reality in Poland after the Łagów Congress. After all, “struggle for realistic music” was the overriding task of the period. The authorities called upon artists to pay more attention to the promotion of the main ideas of socialist realism: the artists wrote mainly programmatic vocal and vocal-instrumental music, including mass songs and cantatas. Both these poetic-musical genres were to a large extent copies of their Soviet originals or were based on the traditional folk song model, which was to be filled with new, ideologised content.

In order to save the foundations of their artistic independence, all members of the group, this – to quote Jerzy Waldorff – “state-owned collective farm of composers”, had to “pay the devil his due”, to contribute to realistic music. This is not the right place to ponder to what extent these productions were a result of giving in to coercion, can be read as a form of servility or became “only” a response to the government’s prompting – through commissions – to produce the “right” works. After all we know that in each case the circumstances were so different and so complex that it would be impossible to provide easy answers.

It is true, however, that Serocki’s oeuvre expanded at that time to include a number of ideologically correct pieces. This was true especially with regard to mass songs. Although they were the domain of composers of much lesser talent and skill, even “premier league” composers (including Witold Lutosławski or Andrzej Panufnik) would give in to pressure and create “utilitarian” works, having to face many moral dilemmas in the process.

Mass songs – with the demand for mass appeal in their very name – were part of the artistic programme of various song and dance groups, and were used for propaganda purposes during official state celebrations. There is no doubt that their most important element was the text, which usually dealt with social, political, military or youth issues, and fulfilled functions analogous to those performed by journalism “in other areas of culture and society’s life”, as Zofia Lissa wrote. Usually such songs had a verse-refrain structure, sometimes with an introduction of several bars. With their catchy melodies, simple rhythms (often dance rhythms) and consonant harmonies they lent themselves easily to popularisation through the radio, records and various print publications.

Kazimierz Serocki’s songs usually did not diverge from the preferred model; however, they stood out by virtue of their “catchy” melodies, which probably resulted from the composer’s experiences with artistic transformation of folklore and his experiences with popular music. His mass songs analysed in detail by Tomasz Kienik, include a lyrical song entitled Two Loves , a folk song entitled A Rowan Tree Song (lyrics by Tadeusz Urgacz) as well as two “military songs” – A Pilot’s Heart and Through a Forest (lyrics by Henryk Gaworski). Jan Gałkowski and Tadeusz Urgacz wrote the lyrics to what is probably the most popular of Serocki’s mass songs: Song of Youth. It was used in such films as Feliks Falk’s Jazz or Jerzy Domaradzki’s Great Run (both made in 1981) as a means to reproduce the musical phonosphere of the period. The song speaks of young people, “enamoured of their homeland”, building the communist Poland and “storming their way into the future”. We hear of “the flame of youth” and “factory sirens awakening a new day”.

Song of Youth

An interesting example among Serocki’s mass songs is Tractor Drivers’ Song (to words by Zygmunt Koczorowski), the text of which openly draws on the model introduced by Vasyl Kumach (music by Isaac Dunayevsky) beginning with: “Hey, horses, mounts of steel...”. In Koczorowski’s text tractors are “a new voice of the Polish countryside”, “heard from dawn till midnight dew”. Serocki’s music bravely, maybe even irreverently, imitates their unremitting whirr, using rather bold chromatic solutions in the accompaniment.

Tractor Drivers’ Song

While mass songs used themes drawn from “everyday life”, cantatas fulfilled ceremonial functions. They were to demonstrate power and support for the authorities, though – as Mieczysław Tomaszewski writes – they paid cynical, insincere homage to a “sham and negative value”. Here, too, the text was the most important element, dealing with mostly revolutionary or occasional topics. Serocki paid this kind of duty – requiring much greater technical skills than mass songs – to the authorities on two occasions. This does not mean, however, that in the context of Serocki’s entire oeuvre these works matter at all. A Warsaw Bricklayer with words by Domaradzki did win an award at the Polish Music Festival in 1951 (along with Alfred Gradstein’s Cantata of Stalin and Kazimierz Wiłkomirski’s Wrocław Cantata), but Serocki withdrew the cantata and today we know it only from an archive radio recording.

There is a lot to suggest that Serocki treated these commissions as a carefully planned game with the authorities. We know that in 1951 he was to have written a Peace Cantata to words by Tadeusz Borowski, but the commission was cancelled. In a letter to the Polish Composers’ Union Serocki explained: “as Borowski, despite his promises, did not deliver the text, I could not compose the piece”. Instead he suggested that the grant he had been awarded be earmarked for the cantata Mazovia and Three Songs with folk lyrics. Thanks to some clever manoeuvring he was able to focus on works which, although intentionally utilitarian, nevertheless avoided unequivocal links with the communist ideology. The words of Mazovia come from a poem by Władysław Broniewski and refer primarily to patriotic feelings associated with a love for the landscape of one’s homeland. In the music Serocki used folk motifs, being, after all, a master at transforming them. He must have felt much better in this familiar “environment” than when he was working on A Warsaw Bricklayer and had to adapt his music to a subject full of unbearable pathos and requiring march- and hymn-like tones.

In any case, all of Serocki’s ideologically engaged works, though characterised by solid compositional workmanship and full of qualities increasing the attractiveness of their message, are from today’s point of view merely peculiar curiosities, testimony to their times.

  • Jerzy Waldorff, “Byli i już ich nie ma” [“They were here but now are gone”], Polityka 31.01.1981.
  • Zofia Lissa, “Raz jeszcze o polską pieśń masową” [“Once again on Polish mass songs”], Muzyka 1950 no. 1.
  • Mieczysław Tomaszewski, “O twórczości zaangażowanej: Muzyka polska 1944–1994 między autentyzmem a panegiryzmem” [“On engaged works: Polish music 1944-1994 between authenticity and panegyrism"], in: Muzyka i totalitaryzm [Music and Totalitarianism], ed. M. Jabłoński, J. Tatarska, Poznań 1996.
  • Tomasz Kienik, Kazimierz Serocki i jego pieśni i piosenki okresu socrealizmu. Wstęp do badań [Kazimierz Serocki and His Songs from the Socialist Realist Era. An Introduction], in: Muzyka wokalna: dzieła — wykonawstwo — konteksty [Vocal music: works — performances — contexts]. Księga pamiątkowa dedykowana Profesor Irenie Marciniak, red. B. Tarasiewicz, Poznań 2008.