In the midst of the Gdansk shipyards in Poland stands the monument that commemorates the lives of the shipyard workers crushed by Communist leader Gomulka in 1970.  The late 60s and early 70s were a tumultuous time for the Polish economy, and rising inflation saw both workers and intellectuals bond together to demand free trade unions and resist the authorities through a series of strikes.

The introduction and fall of Communism in Poland were nothing short of hard-won efforts.  After Russia failed to aid Poland during the Warsaw Uprising, Polish-Russian relationships soured all the more; however, since Poland was always of strategic interest to Russia, Russia supported the growth of communism in Poland from its tiny seedling origins until it grew into an all-encompassing force.  Two things, however, set Poland as a unique Communist country — agriculture, for one, was not collectivized, and Catholicism was not outlawed.

When Pope Paul John II became the first non-Italian Pope in over four and a half centuries, the fact that he was a Pole caused the Polish people to rejoice and a surge of nationalism to sweep the country.  When he visited his homeland in 1979, he instilled within the Poles a hope that political change was soon in coming.  After Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech where he publicly, for the first time in history, denounced Stalin’s criminality and brutality, even the Polish Communist party started to question the system and release old political prisoners.  The demographics of Poland was changing, and the mass unity of the people rallying against the Communist regime set it apart from other uprisings.

Gomulka’s successor, Gierek, further mired the country in economic turmoil as more strikes accrued.  Workers at the Gdansk shipyards downed their tools, demanding wage increases and the release of worker Lech Walesa, future leader of the Solidarity movement.  In an attempt to appease Lech Walesa and his group, the Gdansk shipyard memorial was constructed on the tenth anniversity of the 1970 strike.   The gesture, however, was not enough to settle anything by itself, and martial law was imposed upon the members of Solidarity in the early 80s.  In less than a decade’s time, however, with the aid of Gorbachev breaking the bonds of communism, the Solidarity party was again legalized and won most of the government seats in the free elections, with Walesa elected President in 1991.

The Pope, although cautious about supporting the Solidarity movement, did so nonetheless.  The faith of the Polish greatly aided their fight and instilled within them a belief that God was on their side.  The monument of the shipmasts tied together their struggles, the symbol of the ships, and the shadow of Golgotha with the three crucifixes.  The religious undertones lurk everywhere in the fight of the Polish people, in a nation that truly believes that God liberates them from their struggles.


From onstage, I can count the number of standing ovations after the final strains of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) have faded into the ether. About half of the audience in Auer Hall are on their feet, applauding and smiling. I want them to sit back down.

Today’s concert consisted of two orchestra-chorus numbers, Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. The Jacobs Music School at Indiana University, despite having a smattering of contemporary ensembles, usually does not extend many opportunities to perform works such as these, especially to students unable to enroll in contemporary music groups. We started rehearsing the two pieces on Monday, and because of the rarity of rehearsing such works, the events of Saturday were an especial shock. There we were, rehearsing the work of one of Poland’s most prominent composers who, despite all credentials, does not get performed very often in the States. It seemed like such horrible, ironic timing, the coinciding of the crash and our performance.

I wrote an email to the Conductor’s Orchestra organizing the event, and told them to please consider dedicating today’s performance to the victims of the Polish airplane crash and their families, as the opportunity to use Szymanowski to express our condolences was very fitting. I received an enthusiastic response back from one of the conductors who unfortunately was not conducting anything in the program. He told me he would ask the main conductor and push him to do this.

Shortly before showtime, I met the main conductor in the elevator and asked him if he did decide to dedicate our performance to the tragedy. His response, surprisingly, was very apathetic and whimsical. The other conductor who answered my email told me that he was completely behind me, and that he would ask once more.

Unfortunately, the main conductor bestowed upon the audience two wonderful works without any acknowledgement of the situation in Poland. He had intentionally missed a golden opportunity to address and alleviate grief and confusion through our art — one of the most important aspects, I personally feel, of what we do. As it was, our performance simply became a job. Instead of feeling like what I was performing had meaning, I felt the emptiness, and the potential for the event to be so much more than what it was. I felt disappointment in the conductor’s attitude, who gave the impression of thinking that the tragedy is a Polish tragedy instead of a universal tragedy. I felt disappointment that the performance existed in its own medium, instead of being used to show our respects to the Polish amid their time of difficulty.

From grasping snippets of conversation from some singers and audience members, they too felt the same. Some even found it very odd that the crises in Poland was not addressed, especially since we were performing Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and the Schoenberg also leaned towards that atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.

In many aspects today’s music exists in a state removed from the politics/events/culture of the present (unlike, say, the 19th century) and when given the opportunity to use it to address the uncertainties or situations of our world, it is a complete shame when it is turned down. There was so much potential for the event to actually mean something, but unfortunately, that opportunity is now forever lost.