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Stanley Kubrick's The Shining strikes its terrifying tone with help from the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music underscores several of its tensest scenes. (Getty Images)

A Sound Of Fear, Forged In The Shadow Of War

Nov 23, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki turned 80 on Saturday. You may think you've never heard Penderecki's music, but I'm guessing you have — because I'm guessing you've seen The Shining.

Listen closely to parts of Utrenja or Polymorphia and you'll have a hard time not picturing Jack Nicholson's menacing figure.

Kubrick's movie terrified me as a kid. I assumed the scary music had been composed specifically for the film — so, as a teenager, I was shocked to learn that it was, in fact, Polish religious music. It was pretty far out from what I understood church music to be.

This is not an issue of radically different musical cultures; I'm pretty sure this music sounds spooky to a Polish audience. Even as it terrifies, it draws you in. Why?

Because Penderecki — like every modern European composer — worked in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust.

Sixty-six million human beings died in World War II; about three-quarters of those were noncombatants. This is no doubt why so much modern classical music, from Europeans especially, is so difficult to listen to for a lot of people. How on Earth can you write pretty music after you see what humans do at their worst?

Baroque and classical composers wrote music that imitated thunder, or birdsong. You can pick out different species in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony if you listen carefully; I'm pretty sure I hear a cuckoo and a nightingale in the second movement. Post-war composers like Benjamin Britten or Penderecki, though, are more likely to imitate the sound of air raid sirens.

Penderecki is not Jewish — he's not a survivor — but he is Polish. Auschwitz is basically in his backyard. A devout Christian writing authentically liturgical music, Penderecki seems to be wrestling directly with the question of how you can make peace with God after such horrors.

Maybe this is why you're more likely to hear Penderecki or Gyorgi Ligeti or George Crumb in horror movies than in concert halls, where you're more likely to hear the more familiar and comforting strains of Haydn and Mozart.

But the truth is, hearing this music in horror movies actually makes it less scary. Maybe to do justice to this kind of music we need to peel it away from the movies, and pay respect to the real horrors that real humans have had to endure.

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