History of labyrinth
Congratulations! You have found your way in Krzysztof Penderecki’s virtual labyrinth. In the real-world maze, in Lusławice garden, this might prove a bit harder – what with the 3,500 metres of winding paths between thick and tall European hornbeam hedges! While designing that labyrinth, the composer followed his unconcealed fascination with a reproduction he found in a book on garden mazes, which depicts a (supposedly never actually used) design to be cut in the stone floor of a small church in France. The tradition of forming labyrinths out of hedges goes back to the Renaissance, when the fashion came for geometrically composed gardens. The idea itself, however, looks further back to Greek mythology, medieval monasteries, and Arab culture. The walls of the maze were usually formed of evergreen herbs, boxwood or yew trees. The oldest such a labyrinth preserved to our day, at Hampton Court (England), is 350 years old and trapezoidal in shape. The one in Versailles, which no longer exists, had several dozen sculptures hidden inside, similarly as the Maestro’s music has been magically concealed in the virtual space of Penderecki’s Garden.
The composer’s fascination with labyrinths originated in his mature period, possibly as a reflection of his own complicated path which led him through various styles, both those derived from contemporary trends and those rooted in the past. Penderecki was frequently accused, now of ostensibly damaging instruments (an attack on centuries-old tradition), now of ‘betraying the avant-garde’ (when he rejected the cult of novelty). Having composed a monumental choral work, he proved he was also able to write a light operatic satire, and in between dense symphonic textures he indulged himself writing a caprice for a solo instrument. Avant-garde sonorism coexists in his oeuvre with post-Romantic elements, and postmodernist imagination – with classical order. All this may seem inconsistent when observed from a distance – even bordering on opportunism and catering for current fashions or commissions. At a closer look, however, the solutions he applied prove to cohere, and the apparently so different compositions – to be interconnected by one thread of thought.
This meandering between styles, a path that led him forwards and then back again, in defiance of modernist dictates, may bring to mind associations with wandering in the garden labyrinths we described above. In one of the texts published in his book Labyrinth of Time. Five Addresses for the End of the Millennium, Krzysztof Penderecki wrote:
How can the artistic aim be achieved in this welter of roads, in this chaos in which we are living? It may be some consolation that the labyrinth – a metaphor of our existence – is always a blend of irrational elements, of the unpredictable, with the predictable, which we can control. Only error and the roundabout way lead to fulfillment (page 23).
Once again, the composer draws here on the Antiquity. In ancient Greece, the labyrinth was considered as a space of spiritual awakening, of finding the way amid the multitude of options and choices.
It was the same, ancient civilisation, however, that also developed the diametrically different image of the labyrinth as a prison or a trap, possibly the abode of a monster, as in the myth of the Minotaur. Stephen King explored that latter archetype in his gothic horror novel The Shining, which became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie. In its final scene, a dramatic pursuit, with life as its prize, takes place during a blizzard in a labyrinth. The accompanying soundtrack consists of an unusual medley of excerpts from Penderecki’s works: the Canon, Utrenya, and De Natura Sonoris No. 2 (also used in our little game), all seamlessly bound into one whole. When an editor expressed his doubts concerning this choice (what would the critics and musicologists say?), Kubrick is reported to have replied boldly that no one was likely to take notice. The association of Penderecki’s music with horror films (initiated by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist) nevertheless became part of pop culture; directors of such movies would later frequently illustrate them with the unsettling sounds borrowed from the Maestro’s sonoristic works.