Between Poland and the world
After 1955 Kazimierz Serocki was never again a member of the Board of the Polish Composers’ Union. During the 8th General Assembly, he, like Tadeusz Baird, did not even try to stand as a candidate. Zygmunt Mycielski’s reflections, recorded in his Diary and associated with Serocki’s visit to his house shortly before the assembly, show the seriousness of the situation:
There are [in the PCU – I.L] no more than 10 people who really feel responsible for what is happening in music, what is happening with their colleagues, what they are doing... There are even fewer people who know how to carry on a “political” conversation, a conversation about cultural matters. Know how to pursue a “cultural policy”, as it is called today. To face the silliest of absurdities. Moreover, it’s the only union that still doesn’t have a party unit (hasn’t had one for 10 years!). All this really complicates matters.
Lech Dzierżanowski suggests that Serocki’s and Baird’s point was not to relieve themselves of obligations interfering with their focus on creative work, but that their passivity was related to the case of Andrzej Panufnik, the third deputy president for the 1954-55 term, who in July 1954 “chose freedom”, illegally leaving Poland and emigrating to London. They probably had some problems and had to, or decided they should, keep a low profile. Indeed, in subsequent documents related to the preparations for the first festival, there is no trace of Serocki’s and Baird’s names, with the whole burden of preparations resting on the new Board headed by Kazimierz Sikorski (other members: Grażyna Bacewicz, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Włodzimierz Kotoński).
This does not mean that Serocki became indifferent to the Union. In December 1960 he joined the Mutual Assistance Fund established by the Board of the PCU. In addition, from 1963 until his death he was a member of the Admissions Committee, headed by Witold Lutosławski, Kazimierz Sikorski or Tadeusz Baird, and had an obvious influence on decisions related to the admission of new members to the Union. He also was actively involved in the matters of the “Warsaw Autumn”, when its final organisational form was a subject of some disputes. In October 1958, during a meeting of an extended plenum of the Board of PCU, he was unequivocally in favour of the Union remaining in charge, for reasons of prestige, of the content of the Festival. He also clearly expressed his views concerning the concept the “Autumn” programme:
[...] we need to stress, at all costs and as long as possible, various directions [...] – people will like such a festival, because there is no other festival like this one in any other country.
In the following year Serocki was elected, alongside Józef Patkowski, deputy chair of the Presidium of the Festival’s Programme Committee. From that moment he regularly worked on the committees responsible for the preparation of the "Warsaw Autumn" Festival: the Organising Committee and the Programme Committee. He worked diligently and effectively. During a stormy General Assembly of the PCU in February 1969, he defended the repertoire policy of the “Warsaw Autumn”, which was accused of bias and even sectarianism. Thanks to his actions and the efforts of Witold Lutosławski, the status quo of the Festival was preserved. Similarly to a marketing specialist today, Serocki was well aware of the “marketing possibilities” of contemporary music and the specific “customer needs”. In the autumn of 1969, during a Committee meeting, he expressed his conviction that
[...] we should not allow the chronicle [Festival chronicle released on records by Polskie Nagrania – I.L.], which is highly regarded by foreign guests, because it is published overnight and because it serves an advertising and propaganda function.
That Serocki deeply cared about other problems of the musical community in Poland can be seen in one of the surviving documents – a draft of a letter written by the composer to the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Edward Gierek. Replying to his letter of 10 July 1975(?) (the content of which is unknown, but we know that Gierek used to send personal wishes on certain occasions to the leading representatives of Polish culture), the composer suggested that “the internal and external expansion of Polish music” be maintained by means of “increased cultural contacts with the artistic and cultural circles in Europe and the rest of the world” and “effective functioning of state patronage in culture”. He gave his own definition of “state patronage”, which should consist in not only financial support but also “all possible actions the ultimate objective of which is to increase the general level of culture of the entire nation”. What he meant was “systematic education of organisers of cultural life” as well as “marked raising of the professional criteria” which were the basis for granting the right to “present artistic productions in public”. Suggestions so worthy of repeating even today! There is no doubt that Serocki was a truly “political” man, able to negotiate with the authorities and aware of all the nuances of cultural policy.
Serocki gave up both functions associated with the “Warsaw Autumn” in May 1974. In practice, however, his public activity did not lessen. In September that year the Minister of Culture and Art appointed Serocki member of the Commission for the Evaluation of Cinema Feature Films at the Central Board of Cinematography, and in 1975-78 the composer was member of the State Prize Committee.
Regardless of the decision made in 1974, the rhythm of Serocki’s professional life continued to be marked by “Warsaw Autumns”. From 1956 each new work he composed was presented to Polish audiences during this festival. By 1981 twenty-one works composed by Serocki had been performed at the “Warsaw Autumn”: in 1956, 1958, between 1960 and 1964, in 1969–72 and 1974–80, beginning with Sinfonietta for two string orchestras and ending with Swinging Music.
The significance of the “Autumn” as a “window onto the world” and the appreciation of its role in the promotion of Polish music in the world are unquestionable. Kazimierz Serocki was one of the beneficiaries of this situation. His contacts with representatives of the musical circles in the West were facilitated, as his friends stress, by his excellent command of German. On three occasions (1957–59) he was part of the Polish delegation to the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt. He not only gained there valuable musical experience, without which – it would seem – his further artistic development would have been impossible, but also managed to arrange the first performances of his works in Germany. As early as in 1958, Zweites Orchesterkonzert der Tage für Neue Musik in Darmstadt featured his Musica concertante and the performance was the world premiere of the work. Later, in the 1960s, the Summer Course also included performances of his Segmenti (1963) and Symphonic Frescoes (1964, world premiere). With time Serocki’s works became so popular that in the 1960s and 1970s he was seen as one of the leading representatives of the Polish musical avant-garde and of the so-called “Polish school of composition”.
Serocki’s music was promoted in Germany by institutions and people who were able to organise commissions, performances and recordings of his works. They included, first of all, the publisher Moeck Verlag; the director of the Darmstadt course, Wolfgang Steineke; Otto Tomek and Wilfried Brennecke from Westdeutschen Rundfunk (WDR); as well as Heinrich Strobel from Südwestfunk (SWF) in Baden-Baden. Otto Tomek, an Austrian musicologist and music critic, not only coordinated the work of the contemporary music department at the WDR in Cologne, but also at some point replaced Strobel as the director of the Donaueschingen Festival (Donaueschinger Musiktage für zeitgenössische Tonkunst) and the SWF radio.
Serocki’s music was presented at the Donaueschingen Festival on three occasions. In 1963 the Festival’s programme included his Segmenti for orchestra, in 1964 – Symphonic Frescoes and in 1979 – Pianophonie. This last work was even prepared in the SWF Experimental Studio.
The catalogue of Moeck Verlag, which since 1959 had been publishing works by Polish composers in the "Zeitgenössische Orchester- und Kammermusik” series, included twenty-two works by Kazimierz Serocki. It is worth bearing in mind that Moeck was not only a publisher but also a well-known manufacturer of wind instruments. From it Serocki brought to Poland a whole range of recorders and got Czesław Pałkowski from Warsztat Muzyczny interested in them. This led to the composition of a number of works with the recorder in the leading role.
Finally, an important component of the promotion of Serocki’s music in Germany were radio commissions. By 1975 the German radio stations SWF and WDR had commissioned five of his works. In 1960 the SWF ordered his Segmenti, in 1963 – Symphonic Frescoes and in 1970 – Fantasia elegiaca, a work dedicated to Strobel. The WDR, in turn, ordered Forte e piano in 1966 and in 1973 – Impromptu fantasque. Among Polish composers in that period only Krzysztof Penderecki had more commissions and performances in Germany.
Serocki’s works were, of course, performed in other countries too: the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland; they also reached Venezuela, Beirut, Japan and the United States, and were found in the repertoires of famous orchestras, conductors and chamber ensembles. If we compared statistical data, it might seem that his music is more present abroad than in his homeland.
In fact, Serocki led a life of a truly free artist; he lived by composing and – it seems – this satisfied his expectations and suited his temperament. He was a permanent resident of Warsaw (after 1954 he lived at 10 Powsińska Street and from about 1968 at 16/10 Piwarski Street), but his favourite creative haven was a small wooden house in the Tuchola Forest (near Toruń). "I am a slow worker”, wrote Serocki in a letter to Benny Goodman. Indeed, in his work he was quite slow, yet also extremely precise. He sought not just a good idea for a piece, not just absolute perfection in its performance, but a direct contact with artists performing his works, artists to whom he always listened carefully and whose remarks contributed greatly to the final shape of his works.
He would have had a lot to tell young, aspiring composers as well, but he never got seriously involved in teaching. He was not associated with any school of music, even as a visiting professor. What we know about Serocki’s artistic views today comes mostly from indirect narratives: reminiscences of his friends and colleagues, and, first of all, Tadeusz A. Zieliński’s book – the first and so far the only monograph devoted to the composer’s life and work.
Given Serocki’s legendary reluctance to talk about his music, his consistent refusal to provide comments, it would seem that our possibilities of verifying all information of this kind are severely limited. However, the composer did make several valuable exceptions to this rule – though he addressed them to his foreign audiences. The surviving documents show that in 1965 alone he gave two public lectures devoted to contemporary Polish music. First in Beirut, where he was a jury member during the “Jeunesses Musicales” competition for composers, and then during a summer course entitled “Meeting Poland” and organised at Folkwang Hochschule in Essen.
In Essen, he talked about the musical life in Poland and delivered a lecture entitled Komponisten-Selbstportrait, a very valuable source requiring a separate study, just like Serocki’s lectures prepared in 1976 for a composition masterclass at the Musik-Akademie in Basel. Invited by the then director of this institution, Friedhelm Döhl, Serocki prepared a programme dealing with three main issues: Chance der offenen Form (Possibilities of the Open Form, featuring analyses of A piacere, Arrangements and Ad libitum), Klangfarben als Kompositionsmaterial (Sound Colours as Composition Material, with analyses of Swinging Music, Impromptu fantasque, Arrangements and Fantasmagoria), and Notations und Realisationsprobleme (Problems of Notation and Performance, in which he used examples from Segmenti, Forte a piano, Dramatic Story, Fantasia elegiaca and Fantasmagoria). The lectures were not only to present the most important aspects of his own music, but also to place them within the context of contemporary music in general. This does not mean that Serocki was sure that this enterprise would succeed. In the introduction to the course he said many times, “we’ll see what will happen”...
In the second half of the 1970s Serocki was at the height of his creative powers, actively involved in professional and social activities. He had achieved a significant position in the musical circles at home as well as international renown, which could only continue to grow. However, as Stanisław Wisłocki recalls, in March 1979 Serocki felt unwell and was taken to hospital with a suspected heart disease. The composer was not very concerned about this and ignored friendly advice concerning a necessary change of lifestyle. He had many plans: Polskie Nagrania had offered to issue a recording of his works, an initiative Serocki was very pleased about; the composer was also preparing the Polish premiere of Pianophonie. In September 1979, a few days after the work was enthusiastically received at the “Warsaw Autumn”, he suffered a stroke. By the end of the month his condition worsened futher: the composer became hemiparetic on the right side and had difficulty in speaking. However, after a long and laborious rehabilitation, he was slowly recovering and with admirable persistence was practising writing with his left hand. He also returned to his plans. According to Zieliński, he accepted a commission from the Ministry of Culture and Art to write an orchestral piece, in which he intended to use one of his old melodic themes. He must have had a well-crystallised vision of the work, because in the meantime he rejected an offer, which had come from the United States, to write a piece for the trombone.
However, towards the end of 1980, Serocki’s health deteriorated again. He was taken to a hospital in Warsaw, where he died on 9 January 1981.
Official obituaries bid farewell to “a noble, much lamented colleague, eminent composer”, one of those “thanks to whom contemporary Polish music shone brightly” (PCU), recipient of “the State Prize, Award of the Minister of Culture and Art, 1st Class [...]; Order of the Banner of Labour, 1st Class; Commander’s, Officer’s and Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta” (Minister of Culture and Art). However, in accordance with the composer’s wishes, only his closest family members, i.e. his wife and sisters, took part in his funeral.
In his last days Serocki was also accompanied by Sister Blanka, whose recollections are a moving testimony to the passing not of a great composer but simply a human being:
[...] she [Sonia, Serocki’s wife – I.L] called me one day to say that Kazio was very ill. I think he was in that Ministry of the Interior hospital. I found him still conscious, still able to joke about his [...] passing. But I could see that he realised that his condition was very serious.
During the funeral, instead of buying wreaths the mourners made a donation to the Centre for the Blind in Laski. Serocki is buried in the Powązki Cemetery (section I, row I). Posthumously, he received another major distinction – honorary membership of the Polish Composers’ Union.
- Tadeusz A. Zieliński, O twórczości Kazimierza Serockiego [On Kazimierz Serocki’s Oeuvre], Kraków 1985.
- Lech Dzierżanowski, “Jak to się zaczęło” [“How it started”], Ruch Muzyczny 2007 no. 18/19.
- Stanisław Wisłocki, Życie jednego muzyka [The Life of a Musician], Warsaw 2000.
- Zygmunt Mycielski, Dzienniki 1950-1959 [Diaries 1950-1959], Warsaw 2000.
- Bogusław Maciejewski, Twelve Polish Composers, London 1976.
- Ruth Seehaber, "... eine Brücke schlagen ...“ Deutsch-polnische Musikbeziehungen in den 1960er Jahren, De Musica, online.
- Recordings (interviews) of Ewa Szczecińska’s radio programmes devoted to Kazimierz Serocki’s life and work: 9.01, 23.01, 6.02, 20.02.2001 and 7.03.2005.