Music: "...or was it your heart bursting?"

By one of the odd coincidences a capital city sometimes serves up, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra has long been scheduled to play a complete program of Polish music tomorrow night, Monday. The Polish embassy was already taking an active interest in the concert. I’ll be out of town but was already regretting the prospect of missing it. Now, given the tragic news from Smolensk, I thought I’d pass word of it on to you.

The program includes two of the most prominent Polish compositions of the 20th century — Gorecki’s Third Symphony, which has enjoyed a surprising but welcome pop notoriety since Peter Weir used it in the score for the Jeff Bridges movie Fearless; and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, as dramatic and imaginative as any piece I know. The third piece, which will open the concert, makes the coincidence of timing deeper, richer and eerie.

It’s the Elegia by Peter Paul Koprowski, a Polish-Canadian composer who’s been retained as one of the NAC’s composers-in-residence for the next couple of years. It’s a setting, for solo soprano voice, of the poem Elegy on a Polish Boy by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski. He wrote it in March of 1944 and, I discovered this morning, it goes like this:

They kept you, little son, from dreams like trembling butterflies,
they wove you, little son, in dark red blood two mournful eyes,
they painted landscapes with the yellow stitch of conflagrations,
they decorated all with hangmen’s trees the flowing oceans.

They taught you, little son, to know by heart your land of birth
as you were carving out with tears of iron its many paths.
They reared you in the darkness and fed you on terror’s bread;
you traveled gropingly that shamefulest of human roads.

And then you left, my lovely son, with your black gun at midnight,
and felt the evil prickling in the sound of each new minute.
Before you fell, over the land you raised your hand in blessing.
Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?

Four and a half months after he wrote those lines, Baczynski was shot to death in the first days of the Warsaw Uprising.

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