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Polish Radio opera of the 20th century. Sketches from the archives of Polskie Radio SA

29.11.2022 / Bartłomiej Wezner / Akademia Muzyczna w Bydgoszczy, Regionalna Inicjatywa Doskonałości
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It was during the second half of the 20th century that Polish composers became interested in radio opera. The first form of artistic expression of this kind known today is Aleksander Tansman’s Le serment: episode lyrique (The Oath: a lyrical episode), which is a dramatic adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Le grande bretèche. The said composition, dating back to 1953, was commissioned by French radio and first performed by the orchestra of this radio under the baton of André Cluytens. Most likely, the radio premiere of the piece took place on October 10, 1954. The opera gained acclaim from the public and critics, and was also nominated for the Prix Italia. Shortly after, Tansman’s radio opera was staged – the performance was held on March 11, 1955 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and conducted by the composer himself[1]. In the following years, Le Serment was frequently performed on stages around the world, including France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States. The popularization of the work was also supported by numerous radio broadcasts and reperformances. The piece is considered one of the most important in Tansman’s oeuvre, as pointed out by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, among others[2]. The success of Le Serment was encouraged by the English (The Oath) and German (Der Schwur) versions of the libretto[3].

The same year that Le Serment was composed, Ludomir Rogowski’s radio opera Kad se mladost vratila (When Youth Came Back, 1953) was also written. The literature of the subject lacks information on the specific radio station for which the work was composed. The Croatian title may point to a radio station in Dubrovnik, the city where Rogowski emigrated to in 1926[4].

More operas by Polish composers were composed mainly under the aegis of Polish Radio. The first three works from the 1950s written for the abovementioned radio station include: Jerzy Sokorski’s Opowieść o końcu świata [Almost the End of the World] (1958[5]), Grażyna Bacewicz’s Przygoda Króla Artura [The Adventure of King Arthur] (1959) and Zbigniew Wiszniewski’s Neffru (1959)[6]. All of the above works vary in terms of subject matter, stylistic compositional language, and the way in which they adjust the traditional opera to radio. A noteworthy discrepancy occurs between two works created in 1959. Przygoda Króla Artura is a comic piece, similar in structure to vaudeville. Due to its radio-related designation, the work is quite easy to listen to. Moreover, keeping in mind the characteristics of radio drama, the composer and the librettist (Edward Fiszer), decided to use for example linguistic neologisms as a means of parody. The music is completely subordinate to the text, and thus plays an important auxiliary role from the perspective of radio. There are also numerous illustrative moments. Wiszniewski’s Neffru is a work of a different character, both in the musical aspect, in which the artist employs contemporary compositional techniques, and in terms of the content of the libretto. It is characteristic that both Bacewicz and Wiszniewski decided to add a narrator part to their radio operas. This phenomenon was extremely popular in the first radio dramas, and was intended to compensate for the lack of the visual layer. The value of some of the first Polish radio operas, Neffru and Przygoda Króla Artura discussed above, is evidenced by the fact that both pieces were nominated for the Prix Italia in 1959. As a result, Wiszniewski won the RAI prize at this competition. Bacewicz’s radio opera was only one point behind Neffru when the jury voted[7]. The success of Bacewicz’s composition[8], which was undoubtedly due to the work’s appeal to a wider audience, resulted in the opera’s television version. It did not, however, gain as much recognition from audiences and reviewers as its radio original. The idea to perform the composition on stage met with opposition as well[9]. Audiences were reminded of Bacewicz’s only radio opera on her 100th birthday. A CD was then released with a recording of the opera’s re-performance, which took place on October 13-14, 2009 at the Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of the Polish Radio[10].

The greatest heyday of radio opera in Poland was in the 1960s. At that time, more than half of the works by Polish composers, that are known today, were written. All of them, and there were 15 of them[11], were commissioned by Polish Radio SA. From 1961 to 1969, new music came out every year, often several pieces per year. Analyzing the operas composed up to 1970, Danuta Jasińska suggests that the presence of a narrator’s part, usually in the form of recited text, is characteristic of all of them. There were, however, exceptions, such as assigning a vocal part to the narrator (Witold Rudzinski’s Odprawa posłów greckich [The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys] and Zbigniew Turski’s Rozmówki [Chit Chats]), taking over the narrator’s part by dramatic actors and the choir (Tadeusz Szeligowski Odysseus płaczący [Odysseus Weeping]), or limiting the dramatic aspect to narration in the form of a monologue (Krzysztof Penderecki’s Brygada śmierci [Death Brigade] and Bogusław Schäffer’s Monodrama [Monodrama]). Furthermore, depending on the particular work, the narrator fulfills various functions, including purely informative, personifying, or structural (vital to the formal flow). In the radio operas of the aforesaid period, composers used speech much more often than singing in vocal parts. They also used melodeclamation of verbal text, which is very characteristic of radio opera. In the discussed works, it has the function of judgment, presentation of events and depiction of the emotions lived by the characters[12]. Jasińska, in her research covering radio operas from 1945 to 1970 (or more precisely: 1958 to 1970)[13], identifies four prevailing types of melodeclamation and these are: syllabic recitation on a single note (of a specific pitch) in a specific meter and rhythm; syllabic recitation on several notes (of a specific pitch) in a specific meter and rhythm; declamation on an unspecified pitch in a specific rhythm and meter; free rhythmic declamation on an unspecified pitch, in specific time segments. Jasińska also points out that in Penderecki’s Brigade of Death and Schäffer’s Monodrama, the sound quality of the spoken text was further employed, thanks to radio technologies. The two works mentioned above are the only ones of all the radio operas examined by Jasińska that do not follow the historical patterns of traditional opera in terms of form. In fact, Polish composers working in the period in question were eager to use arias, ariosos, recitatives, ensembles and choruses characteristic of stage opera in their radio operas. It should be noted, however, that they frequently diverged from their historical prototypes, often achieving a deliberate parodistic effect. Polish artists also alluded to historical models in their formal choices. In the works concerned, the most common is the division into scenes (e.g. Ligeja and Usziko/Ushiko[14]by Tadeusz Paciorkiewicz). Until 1970, the authors of Polish radio operas also shaped the form in a different way, using the division of the composition into: numbers, acts or parts. It is worth emphasizing that all Polish radio operas from the years between 1958 and 1970 have an instrumental introduction, which is usually a type of “expressive preface” – responsible for creating the right mood for the correct reception of the story. Autonomous instrumental sections in the subsequent course of the work, however, are a rare phenomenon in the Polish radio operas discussed by Jasińska, limited only to several-bar interludes. When summarizing her research, Jasińska classifies the analyzed works by a number of criteria. As a result, she proves that they are based on one of two literary forms: epic or drama. Among them, she also distinguishes comic works and much more frequent compositions of a serious nature[15]. She also points out that the classification of the radio operas in terms of subject matter is complicated, outlining only a division into: compositions with historical themes, contemporary and moral themes, and fairy-tale and fantasy themes. The author also emphasizes that Polish composers in their creative efforts in 1958-1970, referred not only to opera, but also oratorio and musical poem. There were also radio operas genetically strongly associated with radio plays using music, as well as monodrama. What is more, these works are characterized by stylistic diversity, resulting from the individual compositional language of each composer. Thus, one can discern here, among other things, neo-romantic and neoclassical tendencies, a striving for archaization of sound, as well as contemporary influences (sonorism, aleatorism, electronic music, etc.)[16].

Polish composers of radio operas seized the potential of the radio specifics. Among the compositions from before 1970, Romuald Twardowski’s Upadek Ojca Suryna [The Fall of Father Suryn] (1968) is an excellent example of this type of creative activity, besides the aforementioned works by Penderecki and Schäffer. The work contains elements indicating the use of the potential of popular radio technology, and among other things, radio drama. Krukowski comments that Twardowski chose to use radio as an artistic means – hence the score indicates the overlapping of dynamic plans, recorded with a reverberating camera[17]. Technology also takes on a semantic value here – the part of Satan appearing in the drama was performed by the narrator whose voice was transformed in post-production. In Krukowski’s interpretation, “the narrator’s appropriately modified voice, here, is a symbol implying that Satan lives within each of us.”[18] This technique is extremely important for the entire work, which is an adaptation of Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz’s well-known short story Matka Joanna od Aniołów [Mother Joanna of the Angels] [19].

Another example of the use of radio means is, for example, Zbigniew Penherski’s Sąd nad Samsonem [Judgment on Samson] (1969), based on Józef Penherski’s play Samson and Dalila. The characteristics of this composition were identified in Ruch Muzyczny by Krukowski:

Both the compositional technique, the score notation and the recording of the work on tape are completely different from that of traditional opera. The work, split into sections lasting from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, was recorded in separate tracks, which were then overlaid at an editing table[20].

In the case of the above-mentioned composition, calling it a “radio opera” was also justified by its dramatic content. In fact, the plot of the work takes place in three dimensions: biblical, contemporary and future. In order to represent these sets, the composer used means characteristic of the two genres that are the roots of radio opera – traditional opera (biblical scenes) and radio drama (contemporary scenes). It is worth mentioning that in the moments inspired by traditional opera, however, the composer omitted arias. It is interesting to note that Krukowski believes that the division of the piece into radio drama and opera parts is a a major shortcoming “weakening the structural coherence and innovative character of Sąd nad Samsonem.”[21]

The 1960s were undoubtedly a very special time for radio opera in Poland, especially since this music was written by composers who were highly valued at the time. Although none of these Polish compositions won a prize at the Prix Italia competition, one piece was awarded an honorable mention at the Rev. Rainer III competition in Monaco in 1963 – it was Witold Rudzinski’s Odprawa posłów greckich[22].

The last three decades of the previous century were a time of slow decline in the Polish composers’ interest in radio operas. In 1970s, five works were composed for Polish Radio SA: Humanae voces (1970-71) and Apocalypsis (1976-77) by Bernadetta Matuszczak, Tak jakby [As If ] by Zbigniew Wiszniewski (1971), Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza [The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor] by Tomasz Sikorski (1971-72), and Vir Sapiens Dominabitur Astris by Jan Fotek (1973). In addition, Zbigniew Wiszniewski composed a radio opera commissioned by German radio, Pater noster (1973) and the by now lost Ad If (1973)[23]. Both of the compositions by Matuszczak were honored with the Prix Italia – Humanae voces in 1971, and Apocalypsis in 1979. Ad if by Wiszniewski, Jan Fotek’s Vir Sapiens Dominabitur Astris and Sikorski’s Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza were most likely also submitted for the Prix Italia[24]. It is worth noting that Polish radio operas were usually enjoyed by listeners and critics (many new compositions had reviews in the press). Some works were presented at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music, and these were: Bloch’s Alejet (stage premiere, 1968), Wiszniewski’s Neffru (replayed from tape, 1960), Bacewicz’s Przygoda Króla Artura (replayed from tape, 1960) and Penderecki’s Brygada Śmierci (sound director: B. Okoń-Makowska, 2011), T. Sikorski’s Przygody Żeglarza Sindbada (replayed from tape with visuals, 2011)[25].

The immensely fertile time for Polish radio operas ended in the 1980s – not a single work was composed then[26]. The following decade in Poland is also characterized by the lack of composers’ interest in radio music-drama. Audiences were briefly reminded of radio opera in 1999, when Maciej Małecki’s Balladyna premiered. The composer’s inspiration by the forgotten form of artistic expression was warmly received by critics at the time[27]. The composition was commissioned by the Bis Polish Radio. However, its première differed a lot from this of a typical radio opera – it was held on stage, at the Lutoslawski Concert Studio, and broadcast live. Due to the presence of the audience during the premiere, the piece can be described as a certain kind of radio-stage form, with its origin in radio opera[28]. Malecki’s Balladyna therefore seals the history of Polish radio opera of the 20th century.

The beginning of the present century brought more Polish music, alluding to radio opera. There were Małecki’s compositions created for Polish Radio, such as Nie-boska symfonia [Undivine Symphony] (2002), Pchła Szachrajka [Adventures of a Cheating Flea] (2002), a radio musical fairy tale, Operetka [Operetta] (2004). These works are stylistically close to a radio drama with an increased role of music but like radio operas, they were prepared in the form of a score. The case of Bal w Operze [Ball at the Opera] (2003) and the radio oratorio for children Koziołek Matołek [Matołek the Billy-Goat] (2004) by Marcin Blażewicz[29]. Lis Witalis [Vitalis the Fox], a symphonic fairy tale to text by Jan Brzechwa with music by Adam Slawinski (2003), are also excellent examples. These works also feature characteristic traits of radio opera, such as the commentating role of the choir, the development of singing vocal parts, or the overture and instrumental intermezzos. However, in terms of style, they are different from the radio operas created earlier. Musically, they are conventional, with no modern compositional means, and are dominated by tertian harmony and frequent references to the major-minor system. They are also characterized by traditional notation, including key marks, bars, meter, etc. None of the works use radio technology as an artistic means of expression[30].

The most recent Polish work, which fits into the vast collection of radio-music literature, is Don Generał [Don General], Dada somnambulistic radio opera (2011)[31]. This piece brings to mind explicit associations with radio drama enriched with soundtrack. This is due to the prominence of spoken dialogues with no musical background or accompanied by concrete sounds (e.g., birdsong and the rustle of trees), as well as music or electronic sound effects acting as musical background. Don General also features the sound processing technologies characteristic of spoken parts in radio works (reverb, voice timbre and pitch modulation). There are plenty of vocal (including ensembles) and instrumental episodes relating to pop music (including electronic music). Parts performed by popular singer Maria Peszek and jazz artist Hanna Banaszak played an important role in the structure and dramatic effect of Somnambulic opera.

Don General is certainly a composition that grows out of more than 90 years of rich and varied Polish radio drama tradition[32]. In line with its subtitle – Dada somnambulic radio opera – it is also evocative of radio opera.

The output of Polish composers within the genre of radio opera currently comprises 27 works[33]. The last one was broadcast by Polish Radio in 2011. Today’s conditions are undoubtedly conducive to having more radio-related works. What is particularly important is the continuous development of recording and sound processing technologies, as well as the revived interest in the opera genre among Polish composers. It seems that the only opponent of radio opera may be the visual culture, which is very dominant these days.

[1] The provided information comes from sources which do not agree on the date of the premiere. Contrary to A. Iwanicka-Nijakowska, Marianne Martinozzi Tansman mentions March 11, 1954 as the stage performance, while she dates the radio performance to March 1954. See A. Iwanicka-Nijakowska, Le Serment [online], (DOA May 30, 2017). Cf. with: M. Martinozzi Tansman, Aleksander Tansman, “Pomiędzy dwoma ojczyznami”, conference materials of the International Scientific Conference entitled In Tribute to Aleksander Tansman (1897-1986) [unpublished paper], March 13-14, 2017, Akademia Muzyczna we Wrocławiu, pp. 10-11.

[2] A. Iwanicka-Nijakowska, Le serment [online], (DOA: 30.05.2021).

[3] Ibidem

[4] M. Kosińska, Ludomir Michał Rogowski [online], (DOA: 30.05.2021).

[5] It is interesting that Ewa Derewecka omits this opera, writing about Przygoda Króla Artura [The Adventure of KIng Arthur] and Neffru. Opowieść niemalże o końcu świata [Almost the End of the World] is quoted by D. Jasińska. See E. Derewecka, “Opery radiowe”, Ruch Muzyczny 1960 no. 21, p. 12. Cf. D. Jasińska, , Muzyka 1973, “Geneza i rys historyczny opery radiowej”, no. 1, p. 75.

[6] For a list of all Polish radio operas that are known today, see the appendix.

[7] Zbigniew Wiszniewski [online], (DOA: May 30, 2021).

[8] The work was also broadcast on radio in Brussels in 1959, and was awarded the Polish Radio Prize in 1960. See M. Gąsiorowska, Bacewicz, Cracow 1999, p. 313.

[9]</9> E. Derewiecka, op. cit.

[10] G. Bacewicz, Przygoda króla Artura. Komiczna opera radiowa oparta na motywach celtyckich (według Sigrid Undset), libretto: E Fiszer [CD], Polskie Radio SA 2009.

[11] As long as we classify Alejet, córka Jeftego [Alejet, Daughter of Jephte] by Augustyn Bloch as an original radio opera, which, even though commissioned by the music editorial board of Polish Radio, most likely had its premiere at the “Warsaw Autumn” International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1968. However, in many sources it is listed as a radio opera, plus the duration of the work is 30 minutes, which brings it closer to a radio opera. The composer himself calls the work “an opera-mystery play in one act.” See J. Olkuśnik, Polish Radio Operas, “Polish Music,” 1971, no. 2, pp. 15-21; PWM: Augustyn Bloch. Alejet, córka Jeftego. Opera-mysterium w 1 akcie [online],,augustyn-bloch,13534,wypozyczenia.htm (DOA: May 30, 2017). Cf. with: J. Schiller-Rydzewska, Augustyn Bloch: twórca, dzieło, osobowość artystyczna, Warszawa 2016, s. 380; 59. Międzynarodowy Festiwal Muzyki Współczesnej Warszawska Jesień 2016 [program book], Warszawa 2016, p. 315.

[12] D. Jasińska, Polskie opery radiowe, „Muzyka” 1974 nr 2, s. 34.

[13] In her research she omits the opera-mystery Alejet, córka Jeftego by A. Bloch. He also leaves out radio operas by Tansman and Rogowski. Therefore, she actually worked on Polish radio operas from the years 1958 to 1970.

[14] In literature, both versions of the composition’s title are encountered.

[15] To complement Jasińska’s deliberations and take into account Alejet, córka Jeftego by A. Bloch, it should be noted that of the 18 works created in the years 1958 to 1970, as many as 12 are serious in character. This feature is also manifested by A. Tansman’s Le Serment. It is difficult to determine the character of the composition by L. Rogowski, due to gaps in the literature on the subject and lack of access to source materials.

[16] D. Jasińska, Polskie opery …, pp. 32-43.

[17]</17> S. Krukowski, “Opery radiowe”, Ruch Muzyczny 1969 no. 22, pp. 14-15.

[18] Ibid, p. 15.

[19] The composition’s themes link it to The Devils of Loudun by Penderecki. This is not the only fact bringing the two works together. In fact, Penherski planned to write an opera intended for the stage. However, he abandoned this idea and decided on a radio opera when it turned out that Penderecki had undertaken a similar project. See S. Krukowski, op. cit. p. 14.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] D. Jasińska, “Music in a Changing Society. The Influence of the Technical Media,” published by Jack Bornoff, Belgium 1968: [review], Muzyka 1970 No. 3, p. 121.

[23] Ewa Kowalska-Zając states that the composition Pater noster was made for German radio, and Ad if for Polskie Radio SA. A copy of the manuscript of Pater noster kept at the Warsaw Music Society is in German, which confirms the information provided by Kowalska-Zając. Polish Radio is not in possession of a recording of Ad if, and the score is not in the collections of either Polish Radio or the Warsaw Music Society. Different dates of composition are indicated for both works – for Pater noster 1971-74 or 1972, for Ad If 1970 or 1973. See E. Kowalska-Zając, Wiszniewski Zbigniew, in: Encyklopedia muzyczna PWM. Biographical Part, vol. 12, ed. Z. Lissa, E. Dziębowska, Kraków 2012, pp. 215-216. cf. Zbigniew Wiszniewski, in Polish Music Information Center [online], (DOA: 30.05.2017).

[24] This is most likely because of the bound copies of the scores, kept in the Archives of Polskie Radio SA, supplemented by an Italian translation. Unfortunately, Polskie Radio SA is not in possession of documentation of the works submitted for the Prix Italia competition in the 1970s.

[25] 59. Międzynarodowy Festiwal…, pp. 313, 315, 344, 351, 360.

[26] Already in early 1980s, K. Baculewski commented that the scarce popularity of radio opera in Poland was due to its low artistic level. He made similar claims about television opera. See ibid

[27] M. Komorowska, Radio opera rediviva, or “Balladyna” by Maciej Małecki, Ruch Muzyczny 2000 no. 2, pp. 27-28.

[28] It was also released on CD – M. Małecki, Balladyna. Radio opera, directed by A. Seniuk [CD], Polskie Radio SA 2000.

[29] The premiere of Błażewicz’s works also took place in mixed radio and stage form.

[30] Described based on copies of manuscripts stored in the Archives of PR SA.

[31] Piece composed to a libretto by Waldemar “Major” Frydrych with music by Marcin Krzyzanowski. Don General. Somnambulic radio opera Dada, [online],,Don-General-Somnambuliczna-opera-radiowa-Dada, (DOA May 30, 2017).

[32] The first Polish original radio play is Witold Hulewicz’s Pogrzeb Kiejstuta, broadcast by a radio station in Vilnius in 1928.

[33] Along with three works composed for foreign broadcasters and the lost Ad if by Z. Wiszniewski, as well as Małecki’s Balladyna and Don General by Frydrych and Krzyżanowski.



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