Penderecki’s Capriccio

This summer, tuba virtuoso Scott Devereaux will be playing Capriccio for solo tuba by the late Polish master Krzysztof Penderecki who passed away in 2020. He will also be playing some solo Bach on the tuba, “Winter” from the Four Seasons (Vivaldi), “Flight of the Bumble Bee” (Rimsky-Korsakoff), and a world premiere by composer-in-residence Eric Ewazen for tuba and string quartet. Here is an advance peek at the program notes he has written about the Penderecki.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Scott Devereaux, tuba

“Time got away from me…” began Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 - 2020), retelling the story of composing the Capriccio for Tuba Solo. During a masterclass in March of 2000 at Chicago Symphony Center, the late composer relayed to the audience that the composition of what would become a cornerstone of the modern tuba repertoire was written against a deadline—in a matter of hours.

It was 1980, and so it was understandable that Penderecki’s mind was perhaps occupied with other things. The other two works attributed to this year, besides the nearly forgotten Capriccio, are his Second Symphony and the Lacrimosa. The latter would be expanded into one of his largest works, the Polish Requiem.

In the midst of writing what became the centerpieces of his career, Penderecki carved out a few hours to scribble down what could look like a throwaway piece for unaccompanied tuba. As a repertoire hungry population though, the tuba community has lifted this work to be one of our most performed pieces. The chasm between the composer’s posture towards the piece and ours is telling and even a bit humorous.

More than anything, it raises the question: who is the authority on a work of art?” Or better yet, “Do we need an authority?"

Is the creator of a work automatically the arbiter of its value? Or are musicians, as interpreters and executors, the ones who infuse a work with life? Perhaps it is only the perceiver, the audience, who can truly judge a work. The answer to each of these questions is simultaneously yes and no. In a world that labors to categorize everything into binaries, art expands our consciousness precisely because it is a sea of grey.

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 - 2020)

Diving into such a grey void could be a stressor for performers and listeners alike, but it can also be a source of great excitement. Here we are presented with a unique artistic context. Penderecki has little to say to the performer—the markings in the score are sparse and often vague, sometimes even without specific notes to play. This affords the performer a position of great opportunity, allowing them to convey endless personality and their own voice, putting them outside the bounds of any strict markings or performance practice.

“Scherzo alla Polacca” (Polish Joke) is the first of only two tempo guidelines Penderecki leaves for us in the manuscript. Here Penderecki may be giving us everything we need to understand the work. If listeners scoff at the idea of art being a joke, I challenge them to imagine the Venn diagram of art and jokes. Certainly there is some overlap, and if there isn’t, whose opinion is dictating that art should be the circle we aspire to?

Later, a “Tempo di Valse” (Waltz tempo) section, before a return to the opening material, gives the work a loose A-B-A structure. Playful and bombastic passages abut one another throughout the work, giving the piece as a whole an appropriately capricious feel. Like a stone-faced mathematician dancing a folk jig, the whole joke is best experienced with tongue firmly in cheek.

From someone whose instrument is often dismissed as a joke: there is much art to be found in these 12 feet of tubing, as there is in these four scribbled pages. Where better to explore the intersection of this unlikely duo than onstage, with a tuba struggling to deliver the punch line of a Polish joke scribbled one afternoon by a 20th century master?

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