If you were watching episode 8 of Twin Peaks on Sunday night, you might still be recovering from an overdose of uncut, pure David Lynch. We’re not here to summarize the episode but instead to point to the musical accompaniment to one of the most startling sequences in all of the director’s filmography: The slow tracking aerial shot into the heart of the first nuclear test mushroom cloud, right into the middle of hell itself (see below).
Although Angelo Badalamenti is back on board as the show’s composer, Lynch chose to use for this scene the modern classical work by Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, one of the most harrowing works of the 20th century.
The eight-and-a-half minute composition—-which you can listen to while following the composer’s abstract score in the video above—-was written by the Polish composer for 52 strings, nothing else. This accounts for the shrill, all treble nature of the piece. The title and dedication came later, only after Penderecki had listened to it being performed.
“I was struck by the emotional charge of the work,” Penderecki said, “I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.”
The work went on to take third place at the Grzegorz Fitelberg Composers’ Competition in Katowice in 1960 and won the Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs UNESCO prize in 1961, two major awards that began Penderecki’s journey to become one of Poland’s most respected composers, second only to Henryk Górecki.
This isn’t Lynch’s first use of Penderecki, having put an excerpt of 1970’s Kosmogonia in Wild at Heart’s “lipstick freakout” scene, and six pieces in Inland Empire.
And it isn’t the first time Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, has been used in film. It was chosen by Alfonso Cuarón for Children of Men, and by Wes Craven for The People Under the Stairs, which coincidentally starred two actors from Twin Peaks.
Interestingly, Penderecki had scored films in the ‘60s, but they were work for hire jobs: a pleasant folk filled score for Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript and choral pastiche in a Renaissance style for Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime, along with some television work. But he kept that music separate from his serious work as a concert composer, seeing soundtrack work as undignified—-this was long before Philip Glass was scoring films, when careers were more regimented.
Because he refused to score William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for that reason, the director chose instead to use five of Penderecki’s already existing works for some of the film’s scariest moments: the appearance of words on Regan’s body, Father Merrin’s vision of evil near the start of the film, and during the exorcism itself. People remember Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” for its futuristic sound of occult apprehension, but it’s Penderecki’s work that accompanied all the screaming from the audiences.
Six years later in 1979, Stanley Kubrick would use seven Penderecki works for The Shining, underlining the state of madness in that particularly jarring film.
By the mid-1970s, the composer was turning away from the discordant tonal clusters of these early works and towards a more traditional and often beautiful style. But for a certain generation of filmmakers, Penderecki will be synonymous with horror. Last Sunday showed the piece still holds a grim, devastating power.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
“The eight-and-a-half minute composition—-which you can listen to while following the composer’s abstract score in the video above—-was written by the Polish composer for 52 strings, nothing else. This accounts for the shrill, all treble nature of the piece.”
What? This ensemble contains 8 double basses and 10 cellos; what about that is “all treble”?