Analysis of ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’

I: Introduction

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (or to the Victims…whichever–in Polish, it’s Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy) is an avant-garde composition for 52 string instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced  [ˈkʂɨʂtɔf pɛndɛˈrɛt͡skʲi], the Polish c in his surname, like that of hanyu pinyin, being pronounced ‘ts’).

Composed and premiered in 1961, the piece was originally to be called 8’37”, after its length of performance, since the durations of the sound events of the piece are given in seconds, rather than through the use of, for example, the quarter and eighth notes of conventional notation. Indeed, Penderecki’s score is as experimental as is the music, using a variety of unorthodox ways to indicate how the music is to be played.

The piece was originally meant to be just an experiment with new musical ideas, as Penderecki said, to “develop a new musical language,” hence the original absolute music title. It was meant as an example of sonorism, focusing on timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, counterpoint, and motion to create a form free of traditional ideas of “expressivity” in the playing of instruments. “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” he later said.

When he heard it performed, though, he was struck by the emotive power of what he had written. It was no longer just an abstract experiment with sounds. With what could he associate the feelings of terror evoked in the music?…the victims of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on them at the end of WWII. Hence, the piece’s new name, a threnody, or wailing ode of mourning for the victims’ suffering and deaths.

So though the piece was composed throughout with just the intention of experimenting with new ways to organize musical sound, its new name and dedication have given the piece a whole new dimension of meaning, a meaning that not only inspires compassion for the victims to whom it’s dedicated, but one that also makes the piece especially relevant for our troubled times today, with all the reckless nuclear brinksmanship of the US and NATO against Russia and China.

The 52 string instruments used in the piece are grouped into 24 violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses. The unconventional sounds they are manipulated to make include tone clusters, faster and slower vibratos, slapping, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge. While the sound durations are, as noted above, given precisely in seconds, other aspects of the music are aleatoric, allowing the players a choice of techniques. Nonetheless, specific note clusters are used, as well as quarter tones.

Such unorthodox techniques give the music its terrifying character, which is why the Threnody, as well as other avant-garde works by Penderecki–such as his Utrenja, The Awakening of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris, Kanon, and Polymorphia–have been used in such horror films and thrillers as The Shining, The Exorcist, and Children of Men. Purists in the world of avant-garde music may not like the, to them, excessive associations of experimental soundscapes with the horror genre, but Penderecki’s association of 8’37” with the suffering of the Japanese at the end of WWII was more than justified, as I will argue below.

II: The Historical Background of the Nuking

It is still believed by many that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 people, was regrettable but necessary, so that a long, protracted ground assault, risking the lives of many American soldiers, could be avoided. A closer look, however, at the actual, historical circumstances surrounding the bombings will indicate how wrong this rationalization is.

At the time, Japan’s leaders were ready to surrender, though hoping for at least a conditional surrender, to save their emperor, Hirohito, from being harmed or removed, as a handful of high-ranking Nazis would be tried for war crimes. The US, however, still seething with virulent racial hatred for the Japanese over the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted nothing less than an unconditional surrender.

Pretty much the whole of the Japanese islands were being pummelled with conventional American bombs. The Japanese knew they’d lost. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese at first couldn’t tell the difference between the effect of the older and new kinds of bombs. The use of these two new bombs did not end the war, as many assume; therefore, where was the justification to use them?

A number of American generals dissented over the use of those awful bombs. So what was the real reason they were dropped on those two unfortunate cities? They were a demonstration of a new, deadly toy of the American military…not to intimidate Japan, but to frighten that nation that was already understood to be the new enemy of the US: the Soviet Union!

…and what really made Japan surrender, if it wasn’t the bomb? A convincing explanation comes from what the USSR did, not the US. Up until their surrender, the Japanese were holding out on the small hope that the USSR would mediate negotiations with the US and influence a conditional surrender, one that wouldn’t favour the US too much, to give Japan better terms for their surrender. The USSR, however, invaded Manchuria, clearly indicating no interest in siding with Japan in any way, meaning Japan would be forced to surrender unconditionally. In short, it was the Soviet Union, not the American nuking, that decisively stopped Japan.

Therefore, the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no redeeming moral justification of any kind. They were acts of mass murder on a mostly civilian population (the military portion of which was admittedly significant, but still a minority); in spite of the heinous war crimes of the Japanese military on Korea, China, the Philippines, etc., these victims had done no direct harm to Americans.

Granted, all Japanese were part of the war effort in some sense, as is the case with the people of other countries involved in WWII. Civilian Japanese helped in industry, making weapons, giving material support to the military, etc.; but to a great extent, this civilian support was for defence as well as offence–these particular people weren’t themselves raping and beheading their Asian neighbours, so the way they were killed was way out of proportion to their crime of equipping their soldiers to commit their ugly deeds. Japan’s loss of the war, with the conventional bombings that more accurately targeted military areas, should have been punishment enough for them.

As much as I abhor Nazi Germany, and I would never consider defensible the average “Aryan” civilian supporting Nazi ideology and helping out in their war effort, I would also never consider nuking any German city to be an acceptable way of forcing the fascists and fascist sympathizers to surrender. Similarly, though I detest the US military-industrial complex and wish wholeheartedly for its imminent defeat, I would never dream of such a defeat coming from nukes.

III: The Composition

Here is a link to a video of the Threnody, with footage of the aftermath of the bombing, with images of the destruction and the suffering of the surviving victims of radiation poisoning, and the doctors trying to help them.

And here is a link to a video of the piece with an animated score, so you can follow what is happening in the music, and you can see it broken down into its many parts.

The piece opens with fortissimo tone clusters played first on the first five of the ten violas, next on the first six of the twenty-four violins, then on the first four of the eight double basses, etc., until all of the subdivided groups of strings are playing their own set of clusters. This piling on of tone clusters lasts for fifteen seconds.

The cacophony of all of these clusters suggests the screaming of the residents of Hiroshima as they look up into the sky and see the Enola Gay flying over their city, knowing they’d be bombed, but not knowing the brand new nature of the horror they were about to experience.

After the first fifteen seconds, the music immediately comes down from fortissimo to forte (sub. f), and a slow vibrato is heard on the first six violins, and soon after on the third six, the second six, and the fourth six. This all goes on for the next eleven seconds.

The following four seconds has the first five of the celli doing the slow vibrato; and the last six of the violins switch from a slow vibrato to a fast one, as the two groups of violas have been doing from the previous eleven seconds until now. These vibratos, slow and fast, add an eeriness to the dark, terrifying atmosphere so unmistakably established.

Those violas will, during the next six seconds, immediately come down to pianissimissimo (sub. ppp), as will all the other strings at the beginning of the next thirty seconds. During the six-second section, the last five of the celli will play the slow vibratos as the strings hitherto playing slow vibratos are, group by group, replacing slow vibratos with fast ones.

The switch to ppp sounds especially scary, like a suspenseful scene in a horror movie right after an initial shock of terror. Small wonder Penderecki’s music is, rightly or wrongly, so associated with horror films. One senses, at this moment in the music, the trembling people of Hiroshima looking up at the bomber plane in all helplessness, waiting for “Little Boy” to be dropped.

Next come the experimental sound effects to be made on the strings. In the score, an arrow pointing up indicates the playing of a note of the highest, though indefinite, pitch (recall the aleatoric aspects of this music). An icon of four vertical lines with a horizontal arc crossing them represents, respectively, the instrument’s four strings and its bridge; the straight line under the arc indicates a four-note arpeggio to be played under the bridge.

Some notes are to be plucked (pizzicatopizz.), others bowed (arco). Again, if the straight line is below an arc, one is to play between the bridge and the tailpiece. Vertical lines intersected with short, upwardly diagonal lines indicate a percussion effect: striking the upper sounding board of the instrument with the nut or fingertips.

The symbol of a short, vertical line with a cone shape pointing to the right tells the last five cellists to bow the tailpiece. An umbrella-like symbol tells the first five cellists to play on the bridge.

These string effects are not required to be played at exact speeds. Only the order in which they are to be played matters. As Angus Lee explains in his video analysis of the Threnody, different performers will have varying levels of difficulty or ease in executing each different technique; so there will be considerable freedom in playing these parts, another example of the aleatoric aspects of Penderecki’s piece.

The result, when one hears the differing timing of each player, bowing, plucking, or tapping his or her instrument, is a rather chaotic flurry of sounds. Controlled chaos, yet chaos all the same. When we hear this chaotic texture of sounds, it suggests to us the frenzied panic of the people of Hiroshima, them all frenetically scrambling to run for cover and escape their doom.

Next, a pianissimo note in F is heard on the ten celli, which is briefly sustained, but soon after, some celli slide down to lower notes, others to higher ones (indeterminate pitches here, graphically presented in the score with a thick black line), while the remaining celli stay on the F. This results in another tone cluster; then those upwardly and downwardly straying notes return to the F. This goes on for fifteen seconds. It’s a moment of relative calm, as if some of the people of Hiroshima have found a place to protect themselves from the bomb, and are trying to reassure themselves that they are safe…at least for the moment.

Other strings do the same effect, with the first twelve violins sustaining a note on E and branching out upwards and downwards into a larger tone cluster, this time ppp. Then, the eight double basses, also ppp, do this on an E-flat, then bloat out into a huge dissonant chord before returning to that E-flat.

The ten violas, playing mezzo-forte, give out a huge cluster chord that decrescendos and slides into an A. The last twelve violins then play a sustained high B-flat in ppp, which fans out into a large tone cluster, which is accompanied by another mf cluster chord on the ten violas, which in turn decrescendos and slides into an A.

This shifting back and forth, from single notes to tone clusters and back again, on different groups of strings and at softer and louder dynamics, continues for some time. One senses during this moment that those people are trembling in suspense, waiting for the bombing to be over with.

There’s a brief silence, then groups of ppp tone clusters from all the strings are heard, the notation indicating all the pitches to be played. We’re almost halfway into the piece by now. The feeling one gets from all of these creepy dissonances is a sense of nausea from all those terrified Japanese, nausea from their despair.

Next, a fortissimo cluster chord is heard on the ten violas, notes ranging from about an F (above middle C) to about a c′′. This is soon followed by a similar tone cluster, also ff, on the last twelve of the violins, playing a range of notes from about c′′ to about f′′-sharp. Other groups of strings come in with their own loud cluster chords. It’s as though the bomb has now been released, and the people of Hiroshima are all screaming together as they watch it fall from the bomber and come closer and closer to the ground.

Eventually, all these cluster chords played on all the groups of strings decrescendo and do upward or downward glissandi. It’s as though terror among the people has been replaced with resignation to their fate, just as the bomb is about to hit the ground.

Next, we hear individual notes of distinct pitches played by each cello, notes that are sustained and that fan out upwards and downwards. These are played softly, and are followed by the same fanning out of individual notes played piano on the last twelve of the violins, then on the ten violas, and ultimately on all the strings, ending with each group playing loud tone clusters.

This fanning out of notes suggests the impact of the bomb on the ground, each individual note representing each piece of rock, concrete, brick, etc., that has been shattered from the blast. Again, the clusters represent the screams of those people not yet killed.

We then hear creepy glissandi in the cluster chords of the celli and double basses, suggesting the moaning and groaning of the traumatized survivors, many of whom won’t be survivors for very long. These clusters thin out into single tones and go from fff to f, then decrescendo from f to silence in the double basses, and to p in the celli, and to pp with slow vibrato, ending off with a ten-second decrescendo to pppp.

This slow fading to another brief silence suggests the dying-off of many hitherto survivors, leaving those still living to be doubly traumatized, from their own suffering and from the deaths of loved ones they’ve witnessed dying.

The string effects come back, including the one with the upward arrow symbol mentioned above, as well as certain pizzicato and arco notes of definite pitch. These are played by individual strings from all the groups. The tension in this section suggests the traumatic reaction of the survivors to the horrors just experienced.

The percussive effects remind us of those heard earlier, as if they are PTSD-like flashbacks of the panic felt before the bomb dropped. Sometimes we have individual players making the bowed, plucked, or percussive effects, as if we’re hearing the pain of lonely survivors with no living family or friends to mourn with. Sometimes we have players in groups, suggesting the mourning of living family and friends who are weeping and wailing together, trying to comfort each other in all futility.

A little later on, we get the string effects notated with the umbrella-like symbols mentioned earlier, as well as those with the vertical line going through a cone pointing to the right. These are played on the celli and the double basses. Other string effects are heard on groups of three or four violins, violas, and celli, accompanied by a sustained cluster chord on the violins. The ten violas will join in with a cluster chord of their own as those violins, having done a crescendo from mf to fortissimo, play another slow vibrato.

As the above continues, other strings come in with their own tone clusters. The dissonances pile up, with slow vibratos played on some groups. The dynamics go down to piano and pianissimo, but soon crescendo and abruptly stop, leaving a brief silence.

Next, a climactic cluster chord is played on all the groups of strings, a huge dissonance with notes ranging all the way from about a c to a c′′. The totality of it is like a culmination of all the preceding horrors, as well as of the suffering they caused. The slow decrescendo, fading to silence, suggests again the slow, painful dying-off of many more victims.

IV: Conclusion–What Can the Threnody Mean for Us Today?

Needless to say, this music is disturbing to listen to, especially on the YouTube video (link above) that combines the music with the footage of the aftermath of the bombing. It’s disturbing because it should be. Nuclear war is nothing other than disturbing, though some nut-jobs think it can be used to defeat Russia today.

Another one of the reasons that those two bombs should never have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it ushered in the nuclear age. Faced with the threat of such bombs being dropped on the USSR and, later, China and the DPRK, these socialist states were compelled to make their own nuclear arsenals.

…and look at where we are today.

Threatened with the loss of their unipolar global hegemony, the US and the extension of its imperialism, NATO, have been provoking Russia ever since the counterrevolutionary dissolution of the USSR, with the aid of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (and no, you don’t stop them from being fascists by a mere change of logo), culminating in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even cold-blooded war criminal Henry Kissinger has enough sense to know that the only way out of this war is to give Putin what he wants: Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership for the country, and a reasonable amount of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics…perfectly acceptable requests for the sake of Russian security, except that the US and NATO refuse to grant them.

That this war, if not ended, could escalate into a very nuclear WWIII (as could also happen when the US–via Taiwanprovokes China into a similar war), should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Still, the US and NATO keep pressing their–and everyone else’s–luck…all because they don’t want to accept the emerging multipolar world with rising Russia and China, a world which, if handled well, could lead to a balance of power that could facilitate world peace.

(I go into more detail about these issues in these posts, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.)

The current-day threat of nuclear annihilation is what makes Penderecki’s Threnody not only relevant, but outright urgent to listen to. Let this terrifying music stir up your survival instinct and inspire you to do whatever we can do to stop the psychopaths in power from killing everyone and everything on our fragile planet.

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