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about the festival


The Warsaw Autumn (Warszawska Jesień) is a festival with a long history, an enormous tradition, and can be called a witness to history. It is the only festival in Poland on an international scale and with an international status, dedicated to contemporary music. For many years, it was the only event of this kind in Central and Eastern Europe. It is still, however, a living organism: it develops and thrives to the extent that the Polish cultural budget (0.33 %) and the general state of music allow it to. The Festival is organized by the Polish Composers' Union (Związek Kompozytorów Polskich). The Repertoire Committee, which is in turn appointed by the Board of the Union, determines the program of each particular festival. This year, the festival will take place for the 44th time.

The Festival was created in 1956, during the thaw that followed years of Stalinist dictatorship. Even though the government quickly left the democratization course, the Festival continued without interruption (with two exceptions) during the entire communist era - its finances were secured by the state (up to this day, its main source of funding comes from public funds). Only recently has the new economic and social situation of a country working its way to prosperity threatened the financial stability of the "Warsaw Autumn". The Festival still plays an essential role in shaping contemporary culture in Poland, but culture itself - even high culture - is given low priority. It is wanted neither by society, easily swayed by mass culture and mainly understanding culture as entertainment, nor by the subjects that shape social life: politicians, the media or even the public patronage. These want, above all, to be seen and to be watched, and thus only need art as an emblem and celebratory decoration for various celebrations and anniversaries. Furthermore, they deem that for such a function, a work by Beethoven or Chopin will be better than a work by Spahlinger or Szalonek. It is necessary to remind people in Poland about a more contemporary approach to culture.

Paradoxically, the communist era was a period in which the "Warsaw Autumn" thrived. It constituted an evident crack in the Iron Curtain, it was an island of creative freedom. Socialist Realism was not obligatory here: the most varied forms of artistic invention were possible. These created a sense of freedom of expression in general, and were viewed as a form of political protest. The government tolerated this situation, wanting to present itself as a liberal patron of the arts.

And anyway, art itself back then - I am thinking of the first two decases of the festival's existence - was a site of incredibly interesting and new phenomena, which roused the interest of the general public. Thus, after a period of being cut off from new musical currents and phenomena in Western Europe caused by the war and later by Stalinist isolationist politics, Poles were now doubly driven to make up for lost time, and got to know the works of Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Varese, or even Bartok or Stravinski through the festival. At the same time, they followed the current avant-garde experiments of those years: Boulez, Nono, Dallapiccola, Maderna, Cage. On the other side, composers, performers, critics and musicologists from the West were eager to come to Warsaw: on one hand, out of curiosity about the countries that were on the other side of the curtain, but soon enough also simply because the "Warsaw Autumn" gained world-wide recognition as one of the most important places where new music is performed. The modernist image of the Festival formed itself almost from the very beginning: conservative music definitely stays on the margins of the festival. The "Autumn" has an open formula, and tries to present a variety of phenomena and tendencies typical for the music of our times: from the sonic radicalism derived from the Webernean tradition (Lachenman, Ferneyhough, Hollinger), though the currents that make reference to the music of the past or traditional cultures, all the way to audio-art or sound installations. It is said - appropriately - that the "Warsaw Autumn" is positively eclectic. That is the way it has to be, if the festival wants to inform its Polish audience about what is going on in the musical world as fully as possible - which is what it wants to do and what it should do. The program books for the "Warsaw Autumn" are the Polish musicologist's or journalist's first source of knowledge about the newest music. The Sonic Chronicle ("Kronika Dźwiękowa") the full set of recordings that appears after every festival, performs a similar function (up until recently, these only included Polish music; the record Aimard plays Ligeti, published as part of last year's Chronicle, began the broadening of the series to include music from abroad as well).

Today, one of the organizers' main goals - to familiarize the Polish listener with the classic works of the 20th century (i.e. with works that were seen as such already at the beginning of the festival) - has been fulfilled, of course. At the same time, new gaping holes in terms of the classic works from the second half of the XX century have appeared. For example, Stockhausen's Gruppen was performed for the first time in Poland only at last year's festival. The two other goals, however, remain timeless: to present new music from Poland and abroad.

Contemporary music in Poland works on somewhat crazy terms; in general this kind of music is considered hermetic, made only for a narrow group of specialists, unrelated to reality. It is thus important to abolish this stereotype and these efforts have been partially successful. For several years, new groups of listeners have been attending the "Warsaw Autumn's" concerts; the auditoriums are full, sometimes even overflowing. And what is important - the majority of the listeners are young. It seems that after a long pause, the interest in more refined, complicated music is growing. An elite group of young people is being formed - they are not afraid of "difficult" things, they want to set themselves apart from the consumers of popular culture that is made for young people. These people are looking for the "other", for the "new", for the exotic in the broad sense of the word. But simultaneously they are looking for a music that is enriching for the listener. This was shown by the aforementioned performance of Gruppen - a sports hall was filled to the brim, mainly by an audience of young listeners; this was also visible at other concerts at the previous festivals.

Despite all of the resistance, and all of its difficulties, the Festival is seen as a creative event, with an enormous amount of work to its credit, and great prestige. Traditionally, numerous other Polish cultural institutions, such as the National Philharmonic, the Polish Radio and Polish Television cooperate with the "Warsaw Autumn"

What is also very important is that many embassies, cultural institutes, as well as foundations in countries whose music is presented at the festival, work together with the festival. This kind of cooperation can be very tight, especially in the case when the music of a given country or region is being broadly exposed at the festival (the Scandinavian theme in 1998 was a memorable case of this kind of cooperation: the festival happened with the support of the Nordic Council of Ministers).

The festival usually takes place in the second week of September, and lasts eight days. This year's Festival will take place from the 21st to the 29th of September 2001. The main composer exposed this year is Galina Ustwolskaya. All of her symphonies will be presented: at the inaugural concert, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Simonov, will play the first symphony, for two solo voices and orchestra. The other four will be performed by Jadwiga Rappé (mezzo-soprano) and the orchestra of the Silesian Philharmonic, conducted by Jacek Błaszczyk, at Ustwolskaya's monographic concert on September 26th. As part of the Dutch Polder, the Nieuw Ensemble will perform with the group Loos from Amsterdam, and a new opera will be premiered. The multimedia opera Tattooed Tongues by Martijn Padding with libretto by Friso Haverkamp was commissioned by the "Warsaw Autumn", and is based on the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg. This is a broader project: next year, two further operas commissioned by the Festival will be premiered - one by Barbara Zawadzka (using texts by William Blake) and one by Osvaldas Balakauskas (based on poetry by Oscar Miłosz). Together, these three operas constitute a kind of metaphysical triptych, entitled The Land of Ulro and inspired by the ideas of the Polish Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz in his book of the same name, in which he describes the need for an unorthodox spirituality. An innovation of the program this year is Continuum - a kind of marathon where every composition will be presented autonomically, unrelated to the other works, differently than in a normal concert situation. There will be two events of this type. In terms of Polish music, the most important event will certainly be the performance by the National Polish Radio Orchestra from Katowice, in which it will present new pieces by leading middle-aged composers: Paweł Szymański, Elżbieta Sikora and Eugeniusz Knapik.

Tadeusz Wielecki
Director of the Festival