An Interview With Composer Pawel Lukaszewski About His Inspirations

Deepening the listener's experience
July 1, 2018 Updated: July 1, 2018    

The Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski is 50 this year, and, in celebration, the Tenebrae choir and its director Nigel Short released a disc of Lukaszewski’s sacred choral music, “Daylight Declines,” on the Signum Classics label.

Composer Pawel Lukaszewski. (Courtesy of Pawel Lukaszewski)

While Lukaszewski’s output includes music in a wide variety of genres, including four symphonies, it is for his choral music that he is best known in the UK. I called Warsaw, where he is based, to find out more about his inspirations.

When I mentioned to Pawel that his choral music is known in the UK, he commented that choral music, notably sacred music, was the goal of his life. He virtually always writes Latin settings and is aware of following the fantastic composers of the past.

Lukaszewski has been writing sacred music for 30 years, and clearly differentiates between sacred music (which is how he refers to a lot of his repertoire) and liturgical music.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa with a  crown, whom composer Pawel Lukaszewski refers to as the Queen of Poland. Lukaszewski’s Roman Catholic faith inspires his compositions. (Robert Drozd/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lukaszewski’s own religion is important to him. He’s a Roman Catholic born in Czestochowa, which is notable for its famous Jasna Gora Monastery with its image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. He refers to her as the Queen of Poland, and as a religious image of the Virgin as famous in Poland as those of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. Lukaszewski was born just a mile from the monastery and lived there until he left for Warsaw in 1987 to pursue his studies.

Lukaszewski has had a strong relationship with the church and was a member of the choir at the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw, a choir that gave a number of first performances, including Henryk Gorecki’s motet “Totus Tuus,” written for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland and which the choir (including Lukaszewski) premiered at the airport for the pope’s arrival. In complete contrast as far as style, Lukaszewski notes that there is a fantastic recording of the motet by The King’s Singers.

Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, whose music, Lukaszewski says, is closer to minimalism than his own, whereas Lukaszewski uses a far more varied harmonic language. (Public Domain)

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (1933–2010) is one of Lukaszewski ‘s notable predecessors, yet Gorecki did not write a lot of sacred Latin music, though there are some titles such as “Beatus Vir” and “Miserere.” But it isn’t just this variety in output that reflects the difference between the two composers. Lukaszewski feels that he composes with a bigger, more varied difference in harmony and melody to Gorecki, who is more of a minimalist.

Lukaszewski adds that he takes inspiration from a lot of sources, not just the music of his great predecessors. Gothic architecture is one notable inspiration, particularly cathedrals such as the one in Rouen, France.

But in writing sacred choral music, Lukaszewski is aware of his relationship with the music of great masters of the past.

He explains that the avant-garde approach to composing is not his way and not the goal of his compositional activity. As professor of composition at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, he feels that avant-garde music is interesting for his students, with such examples as the Warsaw Autumn Festival (the largest international Polish festival of contemporary music). For his own compositions, he wants his music to deepen people’s experience, to help with prayer, and to lead listeners to be better people.

While Lukaszewski started studying composition at the age of 17, he had first studied cello, and initially, he finished his cello studies in Warsaw before developing his composing. Lukaszewski’s father was also a composer, Wojciech Lukaszewski (1936–1978), who had studied with Nadia Boulanger. Wojciech Lukaszewski died at the age of 42 when Pawel was 10, and the younger Lukaszewski thinks that the idea to compose came to him as possibly the last will of his father.

The Tenebrae Recording

Tenebrae’s new disc includes Lukaszewski’s settings of the “Tenebrae Responsories” [originally composed for Holy Week observances by Tomás Luis de Victoria as a set of 18 motets for four a cappella voices] and “Lamentations,” which are both very popular Latin texts with a significant musical history behind them, but also “The Beatitudes,” which are rarely set.

The text is very important to Lukaszewski, as the selection of the text can contribute strongly to the formal structure of the resulting piece. In fact, the text can give rise to the idea for the music. Having chosen a text, he looks at the important words and will assign special intervals to particular words. And he finishes this part of our discussion by saying that it might be better to say that he did not start with the whole text, but that he began with individual words.

For sacred music, he always sets the Latin text, frequently taken from “Liber Usualis.” It contains the complete Latin settings of Gregorian chant for every Roman Catholic Mass of the year.

The 2011 King’s Singers, an acclaimed a cappella sextet. David Hurley is second from the right. (Singers.com)

The “Tenebrae Responsories” on the disc were, in fact, commissioned for The King’s Singers in 2010. Lukaszewski describes the moment when he was in the car and heard on the phone: “Hi, I’m David from The King’s Singers,” something that Lukaszewski calls a miracle. In 1972, The King’s Singers had commissioned Krzysztof  Penderecki’s “Ecloga,” which Lukaszewski describes as very different and a very difficult piece.

As a Conductor

Lukaszewski is also a conductor of the Musica Sacra choir at St Florian’s Cathedral in the Praga district of Warsaw, and he has conducted the group for 15 years. The choir is part of a bigger project, including an international composition competition, which has conductor Stephen Layton on the jury, and it also publishes CDs and music.

St Florian’s Cathedral in Warsaw, where Pawel Lukaszewski conducts the Musica Sacra choir. (Michael Dzurak/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

With the choir, he conducts both his own and other music, including a number of British composers: John Taverner, John Rutter, James MacMillan, and Paul Mealor.

For Lukaszewski, conducting and composing feed into each other. He is always thinking about conducting when composing. When writing something, he is thinking whether it is good for performance, and when he is conducting, he looks at the score with a composer’s eye, seeing what is good and what is bad.

He feels that some composers are theoretical rather than practical. For Lukaszewski, it is important to have had the experience of being a member of a choir and a conductor, important for his composing activity.

When I ask about his composer heroes, the first name mentioned is something of a surprise: Francis Poulenc, whose music Lukaszewski likes. But he also names Mahler, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. From the last 100 years, he names Gorecki, Arvo Part, and John Taverner, composers whose sacred music is on his wavelength.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.