European context

Four selected composers were living in a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. In order to take advantage of artistic freedom or simply to develop their skills, they had to travel or even move. For composers from the Eastern Bloc a window onto the world was provided by festivals of contemporary music, for instance the Warsaw Autumn.

The composers we have selected lived in turbulent times. The Second World War cast a shadow over the childhood of two of them and took the youth away from the two others. Boulez was studying at the University of Lyon, when power in France was seized by the Nazis. The Frenchman’s memories of that period include those of hunger and posters with information about the killing of civilians, posters that were to persuade the local resistance movement to lay down its arms. The war also hindered the promising pianistic career of Kazimierz Serocki, who continued his education in a clandestine conservatory and played jazz in Warsaw cafes to earn his living.

When the Second World War ended, the composers found themselves on two sides of the Iron Curtain that now divided Europe. In the case of Kazimierz Serocki and Arvo Pärt this division meant that they had to pursue their careers in an oppressive, authoritarian system which used censorship and blocked access to Western culture. Even before the official introduction in Poland of the doctrine of socialist realism in 1949, Serocki managed to go to Paris on a scholarship. Pärt learned about the latest tendencies from books sent to him by Stockholm-based Estonian composer Eduard Tubin. Thanks to the political thaw that followed Stalin’s death, in 1956 a window onto the world appeared in the Eastern Bloc in the form of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. The event was particularly important for composers living in the USSR (since the Second World War until 1991 Estonia was one of the Soviet republics), i.e. a state that was even more oppressive than the People’s Republic of Poland. That is why Arvo Pärt had to leave the country. He managed to do that in 1980, when he emigrated to Vienna from where he moved to Berlin one year later.

While for composers living in countries within the USSR’s sphere of influence revolution had unequivocally negative connotations, in the West young people were enthusiastic about radical left-wing slogans. The most evident example of such a state of affairs was the unrest of 1968. It was at its most intense in France, where students went on strike as did workers. Those tendencies were reflected by the lecture “Where Are We Now?” delivered by Pierre Boulez at the University of Saint-Etienne. In it the composer suggested breaking with tradition, getting rid of nostalgia and making an attempt to create a new language, also musical language, that would respond to the needs of a modern Europe. The French protests, referred to as May 1968, left their mark on events in other countries. In the autumn of 1969 Louis Andriessen and several other Dutch composers interrupted a concert in Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw. The protesters demanded that the institution be opened to contemporary, progressive works.

The situation in Europe changed dramatically after the collapse of the communist bloc. In 1991 Estonia declared independence. Thanks to the declaration Arvo Pärt could return home. Kazimierz Serocki did not live to see the first partially free elections in the post-war history of Poland, as he died in 1981. Yet for years he earned his living largely from commissions from the West made possible thanks to a degree of liberalization of cultural policy in the People’s Republic of Poland. Officially, however, Serocki could never take full advantage of the success as similar commissions would be called today.

During the Cold War the socio-political context had a considerable impact on the work of European composers. Today, when the homelands of all four composers are in the European Union, the challenges facing artists are different. The problem is not a division but, on the contrary, a fight to maintain one’s artistic identity at a time of widespread globalization.

Jan Błaszczak