• Do Historians Hate Music?

I’m a peaceable sort of chap, but occasionally my musical hackles are raised. Today, they’re up again, occasioned by the arrival in the post of Anne Applebaum’s just-published tome Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Allen Lane).  Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve spent a good few years of my life exploring Polish music in this very period.  So for me to head straight for chapters such as ‘Homo sovieticus‘, ‘Socialist realism’, ‘Ideal cities’, ‘Reluctant collaborators’ and ‘Passive opponents’ is a totally predictable action, one undertaken I’m afraid more in hope than expectation.

The plain fact is that most historians seem not to like music.  Or, rather, they avoid writing about it if they possibly can.  Literature and the visual arts – fine, although even they are often poorly attached appendages.  Is it therefore a case of such historians believing that music has no place in social, political or cultural history?  Or is it that they have no analytical or descriptive vocabulary with which to discuss it?  There have been occasional exceptions that bridge this gaping hole, one of them being in the writings of Norman Davies.  Davies not only makes the effort but also understands cultural contexts and has the writing skills to convey the significance of music and the other arts to his readers.  Another exception is the historian Toby Thacker, whose Music after Hitler, 1945-1955 (Ashgate, 2007) is a searching enquiry that covers both East and West Germany.  (Applebaum does quote from a 2002 article by Thacker, but his book is not in her bibliography.)  There are also historians whose brief is cultural history, such as Frances Stonor Saunders and her perspective from outside the Soviet bloc in Who Paid the Piper?  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 1999).

I have been poring over Applebaum’s book this morning.  It’s a weighty volume, focusing on three countries: East Germany, Hungary and Poland.  In major respects, it promises to be a fascinating read, a work of breadth and synthesis which I hope will help me in placing Polish music of the post-war decade within a wider context.  In fact, Iron Curtain barely acknowledges that there was such a thing as music, let alone its crucial role in socialist-realist propaganda.  And propaganda, not least that involving music and the visual arts, was at the heart of the ‘crushing’ communist machine.

There is mention of the prohibition of jazz and dance music as part of early 50s rebellious youth culture in Poland; elsewhere there is a quotation of the text of an East German mass song.  As for the music intended to promote socialist realism through mass songs or cantatas – or the concert music of the period – there’s almost nothing, except an incomplete recollection of one incident from Andrzej Panufnik, which Applebaum misleadingly glosses. Chopin Year (1949) is discussed, but not the two Festivals of Polish Music (1951, 1955).  Władysław Szpilman gets a mention for his radio broadcasts at the start and end of World War II, but then casually to remark that he ‘continued to work for the radio until 1963’ totally ignores his principal role in writing mass songs – some of them extremely popular – in the 1950s.  Applebaum has a few easily-reached quotes from Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself (Methuen, 1987), but these hardly count as a measured response to the issue.  The gaps are yawning.

I have not yet read Iron Curtain through from start to finish, so it is possible that its focus does not require the sort of essential details whose omission is so glaring to me.  Its attention to literature and film, for example, is a little greater, but any book on the period that fails to engage with Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) – although it is in the bibliography – or a literary figure like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, who was forced into ‘internal exile’ in the early 1950s for not fitting in with Poland’s socialist-realist drive, cannot fail to raise serious questions.  The visual arts are as notable for their absence as is music (a couple of illustrations do not make up for the dearth of discussion of painting, sculpture and poster art).  The general level of interest is summed up by a sentence towards the end of the chapter on ‘Socialist realism’:

In due course, the most obviously Stalinist films became embarrassments to their directors, some of whom denounced or disavowed them after his death in 1953.  The crudest High Stalinist paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction and architecture met the same fate.

Why is music excluded there?

Readers who are curious in any way about the role of music in history are normally compelled to look elsewhere for enlightenment, to the work of music historians.  There are several recent books, by dedicated writers on music, which engage meaningfully with the cultural, historical and political contexts of post-war Eastern Europe.  (None of these authors is referenced by Applebaum, and it looks as if no music historians were consulted.  I can’t tell if specialist historians in the other arts were consulted.)  But no-one can pretend that any of these music-oriented books reaches the ‘broad masses’ who might pick up history books like this one.  There is something deeply wrong about this state of affairs.  Why is there so little reciprocity on the part of historians?  Do they not recognise what they – and consequently the reader – are missing?

Don’t get me wrong: Applebaum’s book looks as if it will, in other respects, be an engaging read, not least for its interviews with ‘time witnesses’.  And I promise to read it for what it aims to be, despite my disappointment at the failure of yet another historian to incorporate musical and other cultural aspects closer to the centre of the argument.

• The Hand of Wall Street (Bankers)

The grasping hand of bankers is as insidious as ever.

Bronisław Wojciech Linke: Ręka Wall-Street (Bankierzy) (Warsaw, 1950)

• Lunch on the grass

While posting yesterday on the planned new concert hall in Katowice, I remembered a couple of walks I took with Górecki’s daughter and her family while I was visiting him in 2010.  One was to Nikiszowiec, which I’ll post about sometime soon.  The other was on Sunday morning, 1 November, in the birch forest and parkland on the southern outskirts of the city.

A clear, crisp morning, with a couple of unusual sights: a red squirrel at close quarters

and …

something strangely reminiscent of a certain French painting.  Although it has all the facial hallmarks of socialist-realist imagery of the early 1950s, I think that it must be from a later period, possibly the 1970s.  I can’t work out whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or oh-too-serious … or both.

• The Polish Poet’s Red Bus – in English!

It seems a good moment – the 30th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland – to post an English translation of Jacek Kaczmarski’s 1981 song Czerwony Autobus.  I wrote on this six days ago, but did not then have a translation.  Thanks to extremely helpful friends in Warsaw, I have been able to fashion a more-or-less literal translation, although the bite and cryptic nature of some lines remain hard to render in a foreign language.

Interestingly, Kaczmarski reinvents some of the characters from his source of inspiration (Bronisław Wojciech Linke’s painting Autobus, 1961).  His performance (reposted below) is vehement, but the translation also reveals the anger in the text (the Polish lyrics and English translation are as side-by-side as I can make them in the WordPress system!).  This recording was made before 13 December 1981, so formed part of the cultural-political landscape of the Solidarity period.  Kaczmarski found himself abroad on that date and did not return until 1990.  To give hope and support to his compatriots at home, he worked and broadcast for Radio Free Europe.

Pędzimy przez Polską dzicz
Wertepy chaszcze błota
Patrz w tył tam nie ma nic
Żałoba i sromota
Patrz w przód tam raz po raz
Cel mgłą niebieską kusi
Tam chce być każdy z nas
Kto nie chce chcieć – ten musi!
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie mija czas!

We tear through Poland’s wilderness
Bumpy roads, scrub, mud
Look behind, nothing there
But sorrow and shame
Look ahead, again and again
The destination entices with blue mist
Each of us wants to be there
Those who don’t want to, must!
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus time goes by!

Tu stoi młody Żyd
Nos wskazuje Żyd czy nie Żyd
I jakby mu było wstyd
Że mimo wszystko przeżył
A baba z koszem jaj
Już szepce do człowieka
– Wie o tym cały kraj
Że Żydzi to bezpieka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka, na nas Raj!

Here stands a young Jew
The nose shows if Jew or non-Jew
And as if he is ashamed
He had survived despite everything
A peasant woman with a basket of eggs
Is already whispering to someone
“The whole country knows about it
Jews are the secret police!”
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait, for us – Paradise!

Inteligentna twarz
Co słucha zamiast mówić
Tors otulony w płaszcz
Szyty na miarę spluwy
A kierowniczy układ
Czerwony wiodąc wóz
Bezgłowa dzierży kukła –
Generalissimus!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta! – Luz i mus!

An intelligent face
That listens rather than talks
A torso wrapped in a coat
Tailor-made to fit a gun
And a steering system
Guiding the red wagon
A headless dummy steers
Generalissimus [Stalin]!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!  – Take it easy, it’s a must!

Za robotnikiem ksiądz
Za księdzem kosynierzy
I ktoś się modli klnąc
Ktoś bluźni ale wierzy
Proletariacki herszt
Kapować coś zaczyna
Więc prosty robi gest
I rękę w łokciu zgina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina! Mocny jest!

Behind a worker, a priest
Behind the priest, peasant recruits with scythes
And someone prays, cursing,
A blasphemer who believes
A proletarian boss
Gets what’s happening
So makes a simple gesture
“Up yours” with hand in elbow!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!  He is strong!

A z tyłu stary dziad
W objęcia wziął prawiczkę
Złośliwy czyha czart
W nadziei na duszyczkę
Upiorów małych rząd
Zwieszonich u poręczy
Krew w żyły sączy trąd
Zatruje! I udręczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy! Jedźmy stąd!

And at the back an old creep
Clasps a virgin in his arms
A malicious devil lurks
In the hope of a soul
A row of little ghosts
Dangling from the handrail
Blood dribbles leprosy into veins
Poison them! And torture them!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!  Let’s get out of here!

• Znak czasu (A Sign of the Times)

It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed since 13 December 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, outlawing the free trade union Solidarity  and bringing to an end an extraordinary period in Polish history.  Traumatic though this action was for the country, it proved not to be conclusive, as subsequent history both in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc has amply  shown.

Poles woke up to find telephone lines cut, radio and television rigidly controlled by the military, airports closed and internal travel severely restricted.  Such an information clampdown is hard to imagine today, but back then there were no social networks or mobile phones (many homes didn’t even have a landline).  All people could do was to sit tight, scrabble around for supplies, and think of what had happened to Solidarity’s bid – and that of virtually the entire population – for greater freedom of action and belief.

Mementos of the Solidarity period became even more iconic: badges, publications, photographs, posters.  I had visited Warsaw in September 1981, not only to attend the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival but also to experience the excitement and activism of the Solidarity movement.  I visited one of the Union’s headquarters and while there bought a number of items, including a small A3 poster that quickly became a prized possession.  My copy of ‘Kardiogram’ is now a bit crumpled and faded (it was then a bright Polish red on white), but it still speaks volumes.

‘Kardiogram’s’ direct design is typical of Polish poster art.  It may be a bit crude in its fervent execution (its typed dates at the top are skew-whiff), but that’s the point.  Its rallying message was a powerful one.  As Jacek Kaczmarski said about his 1981 album of songs Muzeum, Solidarity was just the latest in a continuum of Polish social and political movements that stretched way back before the 20th century.  In this brilliant image, the timeline peaks at moments of insurrection and brutal deaths: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the food riots and crisis that came to a head in October 1956, the student and intellectual protests of March 1968, the food riots in northern Poland, especially in Gdańsk, of December 1970, the workers’ protests of June 1976, and finally the lock-in at the Gdańsk shipyards that led to the formation of Poland’s first free trade union Solidarność in August 1980 under its leader Lech Walęsa.  The image culminates in one of the world’s most memorable graphics, a proud march of letters (figures) waving the Polish flag aloft.

‘Kardiogram’ was designed by Czesław Bielecki in 1980 and is stamped at the base: ‘Druk: Komitet Wydawniczy NSZZ “Solidarność” Region Mazowsze’ (Printing: Publication Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union, Mazowsze Region).  It’s worth noting that printing presses and materials, like paper and ink, as well as the new-fangled photocopiers, were not publicly available in those years in Poland.  Such activities were carried out almost entirely ‘underground’.

• The Poet and His Red Bus (1981)

It’s true what they say.  You wait for ages, then three buses come along all at once.  After Szpilman and Winkler‘s happy vehicle, then Linke‘s tortured wreck, here’s another, angry red bus from Jacek Kaczmarski (1957-2004). Pianist, Painter, now Poet.  Kaczmarski was also a singer-songwriter who was one of the voices of the free trade union Solidarity (Solidarność) in the early 80s.

In 1981, Kaczmarski penned a song as a direct response to Linke’s painting.  Czerwony autobus, however, was not the only time that Kaczmarski turned to the visual arts for inspiration.  Over 60 of his 800 poems and lyrics were direct responses to paintings by artists as varied as Pieter Brueghel, Caravaggio, Goya, Hals, Holbein, Manet and Vermeer, with Polish artists such as Maksymilian Gierymski, Jacek Malczewski, Jan Matejko and Witkacy providing equally strong stimuli.  Kaczmarski’s output must have been one of the single most sustained creative collaborations between the visual arts, poetry and music.  Some samples of this interaction can be found on the Polish-language Wikipedia page: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacek_Kaczmarski.

His musical style belonged to both Polish cabaret and the protest movement, with non-Polish icons including Georges Brassens and Bob Dylan.  He was a mean classical guitarist and his vocal delivery was dynamic, expressive and urgent.  This can be heard on his recording of The Red Bus, where he is accompanied on the piano. It comes from Muzeum, the third album he made with Przemysław Gintrowski (also voice/guitar) and Zbigniew Łapiński (voice/piano).  Kaczmarski commented that:

“The programme of Muzeum came into being in 1981 and was based on selected works of historical Polish art. Its intention was to locate the experiences of the ‘Solidarity’ period within an historical perspective so that the listener would understand that he is a witness to a process and not to a one-off event.”

Kaczmarski’s published lyrics, printed below (there are some differences with the recording), make reference to  characters in Linke’s painting, characters who were just as real to Kaczmarski in 1981 as they had been to Linke 20 years earlier.  They were both a long way from the false dawns evoked by songs such as the original Czerwony autobus of 1952.

* The Polish Poet’s Red Bus – in English!, posted six days after this one, gives a corrected Polish transcript and a translation into English.

 

Pędzimy przez Polską dzicz
Wertepy chaszcze błota
Patrz w tył tam nie ma nic
Żałoba i sromota
Patrz w przód tam raz po raz
Cel mgłą niebieską kusi
Tam chce być każdy z nas
Kto nie chce chcieć – ten musi!
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie mija czas!

Tu stoi młody Żyd
Nos zdradza Żyd czy nie Żyd
I jakby mu było wstyd
Że mimo wszystko przeżył
A baba z koszem jaj
Już szepce do człowieka
– Wie o tym cały kraj
Że Żydzi to bezpieka!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz! W mordę daj!

Inteligentna twarz
Co słucha zamiast mówić
Tors otulony w płaszcz
Szyty na miarę spluwy
A kierowniczy układ
Czerwony wiodąc wóz
Bezgłowa dzierży kukła –
Generalissimus!
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta!
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta!
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta! – Luz i mus!

Za robotnikiem ksiądz
Za księdzem kosynierzy
I ktoś się modli klnąc
Ktoś bluźni ale wierzy
Proletariacki herszt
Kapować coś zaczyna
Więc prosty robi gest
I rękę w łokciu zgina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina! Mocny jest!

A z tyłu stary dziad
W objęcia wziął prawiczkę
Złośliwy czyha czart
W nadziei na duszyczkę
Upiorów małych rząd
Zwieszony u poręczy
W żyły nam sączy trąd
Zatruje! I udręczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy! Jedźmy stąd!

• The Painter and his Bus (1961)

Only after I posted yesterday about Szpilman and his cheerful 1952 song The Red Bus did I remember a quite different ‘bus’ altogether.  When I was a student in Poland 40 years ago, I went to the National Museum in Warsaw and was bowled over by one particular painting, completed ten years earlier.  I bought a glossy black-and-white photo of it and put it up on the wall of my room.  I still have it.  It’s pretty gruesome and certainly intended to disturb, so why did I want to look at it every day?  It was because its subject matter still resonated and illuminated my first experiences of Poland.

Szpilman’s music and Kazimierz Winkler’s lyrics had painted a sunny picture of Warsaw under reconstruction in the early 1950s.  Such songs were intended to encourage Poles to look to a bright socialist future under the ‘benign’ gaze of Poland’s eastern neighbour, the USSR, and its leader, Comrade Józef Stalin.  The following year, Stalin died and the later 50s were witness to upheavals in East Germany, Poland and, bloodiest of all, Hungary.  Even the Soviet Union changed somewhat.

Creative artists felt that there were now possibilities for greater freedom (this varied wildly from country to country behind the ‘Iron Curtain’) as well as for criticism and satire of the authorities and their dogmas about the ‘bright future’. One of these artists was the Polish painter, Bronisław Wojciech Linke (1906-62).  Towards the end of his life, 50 years ago, he created his masterpiece, Autobus (1959-61).

Polish buses were still crowded and rickety in the early 1970s, but I never encountered one quite like this.  Linke’s pessimistic, dehumanised vision may seem nightmarish to us, but to its contemporary viewers its metaphors were all too real.  They knew these characters, these distortions, this life.

Within this cut-away red bus are symbols of a broken and divided society. From left to right, they include:

• the Driver, a mannequin made of wood grasping a cobwebbed driving wheel
• the Jew, facing away
• the Polish Army Soldier, helmet in his hands, standing next to a figure with a giant lemon for a head
• the gormless Worker making a common and rude gesture
• the Cosmonaut
• the trendy (= scruffy) Young Man with his gloved girl and her silver handbag, sitting on a missile
• the greedy Priest, with coins for eyes
• a naked Young Girl on her naked mother’s lap
• the faceless (in fact, bodiless) Bureaucrat, sitting neatly on a pile of paper
• the lecherous Old Man with the naked doll
• the Drunk in his czapka krakuska (Kraków cap) and white overcoat, his body a giant bottle of spiritus
• the queuing Woman, clutching a large loaf and bags of shopping
• and, last but not least, Generalissimus Stalin himself, with a prison window for a heart.

Most of them have their eyes shut.  And among them are ghoulish faces, a newspaper that screams with raised arms and clenched fists, pierced by the passengers’ handrail, and a gigantic beetle.  I can’t claim to have picked up all the references (any further observations gratefully received!), but its imagery remains as powerful as it did for me in 1971.

There is not much on this penetrating artist on the web, but the following links may be helpful:

http://polish-art.info/linke.html (some further images)
• http://englishwarsaw.blogspot.com/2011/02/on-bus-bronisaw-wojciech-linke.html  This is a blog entry (25.02.11) by ‘Pan Steeva’, with more Linke images interlacing his translation of the Polish Wikipedia article on the painter.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms5Y0cDJ-3A  This is a strange concoction uploaded only last week.  It’s a freeze-frame download from a Polish TV ‘Kultura’ profile of Autobus made in 1998.  The commentary by the distinguished painter and graphic artist Franciszek Starowieyski (whose art has clear connections with Linke and whose posters had an even stronger impact on me in the early 70s) is discarded in favour of a performance of a Scarlatti sonata …  But this YouTube video, ‘Autobus.wmv’ (3’32”), does give some valuable close-ups of the picture.

See also my subsequent post about Jacek Kaczmarski’s powerful song Czerwony autobus (7.12.11) and another giving its Polish lyrics and an English translation (13.12.11), both with a YouTube audio link.

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