Review Summary: Krzysztof Penderecki's most famous work easily stakes its place as one of the most frightening pieces of music ever written.
Nowadays, there are a reasonable number of artists that specialise in unsettling the listener through a myriad of different methods. Across the vast musical spectrum in the last 25 years or so we have seen declarations of evil, samples of serial killers, horrifyingly nauseating vocals and industrial, grinding noises that sound like they're straight out of a sci-fi horror film. However, the most convincingly terrifying piece of music is not from this era. It does not feature vocals, nor utilise samples, nor have a sordid, granular feel to it. Instead, it is over 50 years old and was abstractly composed by one man as an experimental string piece - Krzysztof Penderecki's 'Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima'.
From start to finish, the piece is comprised of dissonant stabs and swells, seemingly unstructured percussive sections (which are made by slapping the sides of their instrument) and quieter plucked sections, akin to rats running amok among an orchestral suite. By instructing some members to bow behind the bridge, a piercing abrasive quality takes on much of the threnody, and setting the instruments' tunings to being ever-so-slightly yet very deliberately different from one another shatters the usual system of tones and semitones which we have become so used to. An additional curiosity is the Pole's method of writing down and portraying the music to the orchestra - bars for some instruments start halfway through others, and additional sets of instructions were created for each musician to play their piece as he intended (possibly needed when taking into account the layout of the sheet music).
It's certainly possible to look at this in great technical detail, taking into account all the various bowing techniques, the unorthodox composing style and the usage of microtonality in the layers created by the 52 musicians and their instruments. However, the effect that this has upon the listener whilst playing means that, at least across its length, consideration behind its makeup is a practically pointless task. The harsh stabs of the loudest parts punctuate like a blade within a torso, twisting and turning to inflict as much pain as possible. When these stop, the effect is not respite, but suspense - an agonising wait playing with the mind, further creating the feeling of a malevolent presence emanating from the music itself. The whole composition is like a perfect horror film, providing both immediate shock and terror, whilst sticking in the mind long after the final scene.
When associated with the horrifying effects of the Hiroshima bombing back in August 1945, Penderecki's work takes on a haunting, yet somehow sadder quality to the horrific, almost torturous description given above. Although it can be viewed from different perspectives for different situations, the ability of 'Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima' to evoke feelings of dread, terror and sorrow simultaneously is practically unrivalled by any piece of music, from any era, from any genre.