Length: c. 7 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 24, 2013, Gustavo Dudamel conducting
The Ciaccona is an extract from one of Penderecki’s major works, his Polish Requiem, for soloists, chorus, and a large orchestra. An analogy to Brahms’ German Requiem does not apply to this work, for, with the exception of a hymn sung for the Offertory, the texts are not in Polish, but are the traditional Latin words as set by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and countless other composers. Unlike some of those composers Penderecki is a devout Catholic, although he himself has stated that the human significance of the Requiem text means more to him than its traditional liturgical function.
Born in 1933, Penderecki has watched his country survive the grim years of German occupation and Soviet colonization; the experience of suffering and endurance lies behind his setting of the Requiem, with its profound meditation on death. The work has existed in many forms, for it was fashioned in 1984 by absorbing two earlier works, his Lacrimosa, from 1970, and his Agnus dei, from 1981. The Lacrimosa was a response to events in the Gdańsk shipyards in 1970 and is dedicated to Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity Union. The Agnus dei, for unaccompanied eight-part chorus, was composed for the funeral of Penderecki’s friend, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, in 1981. The Requiem had its first full performance in Stuttgart on September 28, 1984, conducted by one of the composer’s most ardent supporters, Mstislav Rostropovich, who had been the first to introduce the Lacrimosa to the USA in a performance in 1981 in Washington, DC, with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya as the soprano soloist.
More was yet to be added to the Requiem, for in 1993 Penderecki wrote the Sanctus and gave its first performance in Stockholm that year. The Requiem was still not complete, for at the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, the composer inserted an instrumental movement between the Agnus dei and the Sanctus in memory of the Polish Pope and gave the first performance on September 17, 2005, in Wrocław. This is the Ciaccona for strings.
As with the traditional baroque Chaconne, the Ciaccona is built on a simple descending bass line with richly ornamental writing for the strings. There are nine reiterations of the basic pattern, supporting a strong melodic line heard mostly in the violins, but also in the cellos. The ending vanishes in high harmonics over a fading, misty chord.