The Polish Requiem by Krzysztof Penderecki is totally steeped in Polish history – referring to both current events and those that date back half a century– and its individual parts all bear dedications.

Lacrimosa, with which Penderecki started the Requiem series in 1979, was composed at the request of Lech Wałęsa to mark the unveiling of the monument to the victims of anti-government riots in December 1970. It was also dedicated to Lech Wałęsa. It was first performed in Gdańsk on 16 December 1980. Dies irae commemorates the victims of the Warsaw Uprising. Libera me, Domine is dedicated to the Polish officers murdered in Katyń (fragments of the piece were incorporated into the soundtrack for the film Katyń directed by Andrzej Wajda). Agnus Dei was composed following the death of the Primate of the Millennium, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and first performed during a mourning ceremony in 1981. In 1982, Penderecki wrote the section Recordare to celebrate the beatification of Maximilian Maria Kolbe. After its première (28 September 1984, Stuttgart), he added the Sanctus in 1993. Finally, in 2005, he composed one more instrumental fragment, the Chaconne, dedicated to the recently deceased John Paul II.

It was not the first time that Penderecki’s work had been closely related to historical events. His Saint Luke Passion (1966) was already composed to mark the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral. Kosmogonia (1970) was commissioned by the United Nations for its twenty-fifth anniversary. Magnificat (1974) commemorated the 1200th anniversary of the Salzburg Cathedral. The opera Paradise Lost (1976–78) based on the poem by John Milton was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the United States, while the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution was celebrated with his Symphony No. 4. Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996) marked 3000 years of Jerusalem, Hymn to St. Daniil (1997) – 850 years of Moscow and the Hymn to St. Adalbert (1997) – 1000 years of Gdańsk and the martyrdom of Saint Adalbert. The Piano Concerto ‘Resurrection’ (2001–2002) was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
The Polish Requiem lasts for over 100 minutes. It is intended for four solo roles (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass), a mixed choir and an expanded symphony orchestra (quadruple woodwinds, six horns and a huge percussion section). The final version comprises the following parts: Introitus; Kyrie; Dies irae (the most extensive); Sanctus; Chaccone for the orchestra; Agnus Dei for a capella choir; Lux aeterna; Libera me, Domine; Holy, Almighty God and Libera animas. In 2014, the Requiem was performed on the third anniversary of Archbishop Józef Życiński’s death, in a shortened version (called the Lublin version) running less than sixty minutes.

The full version starts with deep silence. Low string sounds beg to be heard and are finally joined by the choir: ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis… / Eternal rest grant them, O Lord …’ A moment passes before silence breaks into a scream that subsides and rises again like a candle flame moved by the wind. Lacrimosa begins in a similar way – the low rumble of strings followed by a signal from the brass section and, finally, the wonderful soprano vocalise. Everything swells, being surprisingly light and trustful.

Out of this silence, a quartet of soloists emerges in a most beautiful way (‘Kyrie eleison…’). The lines of their voices criss-cross: first the soprano and tenor, then the bass and, finally, the alto. The soloists are supported by the choir that starts the dramatic Dies irae with a powerfully sung ‘Christe eleison!’ It is worth mentioning that, in 1967, Penderecki wrote a short oratorio Dies irae for the unveiling of a monument to the victims of the Auschwitz death camp. At the time, he used the text of the biblical Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelations) together with fragments of works by Aeschylus, Paul Valéry, Louis Aragon and Tadeusz Różewicz. In the Dies irae from the Requiem, there are no quotations, at least for the time being.
Quoting other texts and foreign melodies is the hallmark of the composer. The practice enhances the drama, creates new contexts and builds a very elaborate structure – Penderecki excels in that. In Credo (1998), we can hear the antiphon You Who Suffered Wounds For Us… and the song People, My People; in Te Deum (1980), written in praise of the newly elected Polish Pope – the hymn God Save Poland; in St. Luke Passion – the melody Holy God. In the Polish Requiem, this last prayer provides the melodic backbone for the part Recordare, Jesu pie. It is one of the most beautiful fragments of the work scored for individual instrument and vocal lines.

The composer put off composing the Sanctus for a few years. He came back to the idea only after Poland became fully independent, which may explain its distinct laudatory tone. The Chaconne per archi part is dark and full of anxiety. Light comes back in Agnus Dei and stays with the final Libera me, Domine (where the motifs of Dies irae and the song Holy God can be heard again). The last fragment is honest, clear and uncontaminated. A short tenor vocalise (on the words ‘misericordiam tuam’) stands out among quiet sounds, while phrases of lonely instruments lead to a summary of all the main themes. The piece is concluded with the prayer: ‘Fac eas, Domine… / Grant them, O Lord, to pass from death to life.’ The entreaty is accompanied by the sound of bells.