Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (Polish: Tren ofiarom Hiroszimy) is a musical composition for 52 string instruments, composed in 1960 by Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933). It took third prize at the Grzegorz Fitelberg Composers’ Competition in Katowice in 1960, and the piece swiftly attracted interest around the world and made its young composer famous.
The piece—originally called 8’37” (at times also 8’26”), perhaps as a nod to John Cage—applies the sonoristic technique and rigors of specific counterpoint to an ensemble of strings treated to unconventional scoring. Penderecki later said, “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way.” When he heard an actual performance, “I was struck by the emotional charge of the work…I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims”. The piece tends to leave an impression both solemn and catastrophic, earning its classification as a threnody. On 12 October 1964, Penderecki wrote, “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”
The piece’s unorthodox, largely symbol-based score sometimes directs the musicians to play at various unspecific points in their range or to concentrate on certain textural effects; they are directed to play on the opposite side of the bridge or to slap the body of the instrument. Penderecki sought to heighten the effects of traditional chromaticism by using microtonality—composing in quarter tones—which sometimes makes dissonance more prominent than it would be in traditional tonality. The piece includes an “invisible canon”, in 36 voices, an overall musical texture that is more important than the individual notes, making it a leading example of sound mass composition. As a whole, Threnody constitutes one of the most extensive elaborations on the tone cluster.
The piece is approximately ten minutes long.
In film, excerpts from Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima are used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining and the 2006 dystopian film Children of Men.