Saturday 5 May 2018

Deepening the listener's experience: I talk to Paweł Łukaszewski about his inspirations

Paweł Łukaszewski
Paweł Łukaszewski
The Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski is 50 this year and in celebration Nigel Short and Tenebrae is releasing a disc of Łukaszewski's sacred choral music, Daylight Declines, on the Signum Classics label in June this year. Whilst Paweł Łukaszewski's output includes music in a wide variety of genres, with four symphonies, it is for his choral music that he is best known in the UK. I spoke to him by telephone from Warsaw, where he is based, to find out more about his inspirations.

When I commented about Paweł's choral music being known in the UK, he commented that choral music, notably sacred music, was the goal of his life. He virtually always writes Latin settings and is aware of following on from fantastic composers of the past.  He has been writing sacred music for 30 years, and clearly differentiates between sacred music (which is how he refers to a lot of his repertoire) and liturgical music.

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa with crown (Photo Robert Drózd)
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa with crown (Photo Robert Drózd)
Paweł's own religion is important to him, a Roman Catholic born in Częstochowa which is notable for its famous Jasna Góra Monastery with its image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, whom Paweł refers to as the Queen of Poland, a religious image of the Virgin as famous in Poland as those of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. Paweł was born just a mile from the monastery and lived there until he left for Warsaw in 1987 to pursue his studies.

He has had a strong relationship with the church and was a member of the choir of the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw, a choir which gave a number of first performances including Henryk Górecki's motet Totus Tuus written for the visit of Pope John Paul I to Poland and which the choir (including Paweł) premiered at the airport for the Pope's arrival. In complete contrast, Paweł notes that there is a fantastic recording of the motet by the Kings Singers.

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) is one of Paweł's notable predecessors; Paweł notes that Górecki did not write a lot of Latin sacred music, though there are some big titles such as Beatus Vir and Miserere. But it isn't just this variety in output which reflects the difference between the two composers, Paweł feels that he composes with a bigger difference in harmony and melody to Górecki.

Paweł adds that he takes inspiration from a lot of sources, not just the music of his great predecessors, and Gothic architecture is one notable inspiration, particularly cathedrals such as the one in Rouen. But writing sacred choral music, Paweł is aware of his big relationship with the music of great masters of the past.

St Florian's Cathedral in Warsaw, where Paweł Łukaszewski conducts Musica Sacra
St Florian's Cathedral in Warsaw,
where Paweł Łukaszewski conducts Musica Sacra
He explains that the avant-garde approach is not his way, not the goal of his compositional activity. As Professor of Composition at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music he feels that avant garde music is interesting for his students with such examples as the Warsaw Autumn Festival (the largest international Polish festival of contemporary music). For his own compositions, he wants his music to deepen people's experience, to help with prayer and to lead listeners to be better people.

Whilst Paweł started studying composition at the age of 17, he had been studying cello before this and initially, he finished his cello studies in Warsaw before developing his composing. Paweł's father was also a composer, Wojciech Łukaszewski (1836-1978), who had studied with Nadia Boulanger.  Wojciech Łukaszewski died at the age of 42 when Paweł was 10 and Paweł thinks that the idea to compose came to him as possibly the last will of his father.

Tenebrae's new disc includes settings of the Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations, which are both very popular Latin texts with a significant musical history behind them, but also The Beatitudes which are rarely set. The text is very important to Paweł, the selection of the text can contribute strongly to the formal structure of the resulting piece. In fact, the text can give rise to the idea for the music. Having chosen a text, he looks at the important words and will assign special intervals to particular words. And he finishes this part of the discussion by saying that it might be better to say that it was not the text, but that he began with the words. For sacred music, he always sets the Latin text, frequently taken from Liber Usualis.

The Tenebrae Responsories on the disc were in fact commissioned for the Kings Singers in 2010. Paweł describes the moment when he was in the car and heard on the phone, 'Hi, I'm David from the Kings Singers', something which Paweł calls a miracle. 40 years ago, the Kings Singers had commissioned Penderecki's Ecloga which Paweł describes as very different and a very difficult piece.

Paweł is also a conductor of the Music Sacra choir at St Florian's Cathedral in the Praga district of Warsaw and has conducted the group for 15 years. It is part of a bigger project, including an international composition competition which has Stephen Layton on the jury and also publishes CDs and music.  With the choir, he conducts both his own and other music, including a number of British composers, John Taverner, John Rutter, James MacMillan and Paul Mealor.

With Paweł, conducting and composing feed into each other, he is always thinking about conducting when composing, when writing something he is thinking whether it is good for performance. And when he is conducting, he looks at the score with a composer's eye, sees what is good and what is bad; he feels that some composers are theoretical rather than practical. For Paweł, it is important to have had the experience of being a member of a choir and a conductor, important for his composing activity.

When I ask about his composer heroes, Paweł's first name is something of a surprise, Francis Poulenc whose music Paweł's likes, but also Mahler, Brahms and Mendelssohn. From the last 100 years he names Górecki, Arvo Part and John Taverner, composers whose sacred music is on his wavelength.

Nigel Short and Pawel Lukaszewski at Tenebrae recording session - May 2016 - credit Pawel Lukaszewski
Nigel Short and Paweł Łukaszewski at Tenebrae recording session - May 2016 - credit Paweł Łukaszewski
Not every composer likes talking about their own music and inspirations, and English is not Paweł's first language but in the event, we had a most enjoyable telephone conversation which really illuminated the thought processes and emotions which lie behind Paweł Łukaszewski's music.

Paweł Łukaszewski's music on disc:
  • Daylight Declines - Choral music by Paweł Łukaszewski, Tenebrae, Nigel Short
  • Paweł Łukaszewski motets, Polish  Chamber Choir, Jan Łukaszewski
  • Paweł Łukaszewski Missa e Maria a Magdala, Chor Akademii Techniczno-Humanistyczney, Śląska Orkiestra Kameralna, Jan Borowski
  • Paweł Łukaszewski Via Crucis, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton
  • Paweł Łukaszewski choral music, choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stephen Layton

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Sonorous debut: Neil Ferris & Sonoro in Frank Martin & James MacMillan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Gilbert & Cellier: A work of real musical personality, The Mountebanks rediscovered  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivica Genaux & Sonia Prina recreate the music sung by two great castratos at the Wigmore Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • The story of a journey: Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn in Schubert's Winter Journey  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Welcome to the Magical Garden or perhaps the Garden of Magic: the piano music of Robert Saxton (★★★★) - CD review
  • Philip Venables' 4:48 Psychosis returns (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Thrilling revival: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • Striking double in Clapham: Shadwell Opera debuts a new work with powerful Janacek song-cycle (★★★½) - opera review
  • Music from Handel's London Theatre Orchestra (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Passio: from Tallis & Purcell to Kevin Hartnett via Bach (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
  • Beethoven unbound and Schubert cycles, I chat to Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams - interview
  • Bernstein, Debussy, Parry, Smyth, Bridge, Boulanger, Owen - BBC Proms 2018 - preview
  • What an unalloyed joy! And if all this isn’t advert enough for some sensible funding I don’t know what is (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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