Roman Palester
Composer born December 28, 1907 in Sniatyn (Ukraine); died August 25, 1989, in Paris.

Palester began to study piano at the age of seven. He expanded on his studies at the Music Institute in Kraków (1919-21) and subsequently under the direction of Maria Sołtys at the Lviv Conservatory (1921-25). In 1925 he began studying art history in the Philosophy Department of Warsaw University. In 1928 he simultaneously began to study music under Kazimierz Sikorski at the Warsaw Conservatory. He graduated with degrees in music theory and composition in 1931. He came to think of the Warsaw performance of his "Muzyka Symfoniczna / Symphonic Music" (1930) that same year as his debut. The work proved to be a tremendous success later, during the International Contemporary Music Society Festival in London.

Roman Palester traveled extensively between 1931 and 1939 (primarily to Paris). He collected numerous awards for his works in both Poland and abroad. These included an award for "Psalm V" for baritone, choir and orchestra (1930-31) at the 1932 convention of the Federation of Singing Societies Competition in Poznań, first prize for his "Wariacje / Variations" for chamber orchestra (1935) at the Polish Music Publishing Society Competition in 1935, and a gold medal for his ballet titled "Piesń o ziemi / A Song about Earth" at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937. During the 1930s, he also composed rather extensively for film, theatre and radio. Palester collaborated with directors like Leon Schiller and Juliusz Osterwa. He was an active participant of music life during this time, being elected secretary of the Association of Polish Composers in 1936 and serving as the organization's vice president in 1938-39. In 1937 he also became vice president of the Polish Contemporary Music Society. In 1939 he played a part in organizing the 17th International Contemporary Music Society Festival in Warsaw and Krakow. In addition, he was a member of the Governing Council of the Union of Stage Authors and Composers and the music council of the Society for Propagating Polish Art among Foreigners.

Roman Palester, 1946    

Roman Palester spent the years of World War II in Warsaw. In 1940 he was imprisoned in Warsaw's infamous Pawiak Prison for approximately six weeks. Many of his music scores were lost or destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. Immediately after the war, the composer relocated to Krakow. Between 1945 and 1947 he was a professor of composition at the city's State Higher School of Music. He was also vice president of the school from May 1 to August 31 of 1945.

He was considered one of Poland's most outstanding composers at that time. This found confirmation in the many awards he received and in the frequency with which his works were performed, both in Poland and beyond. In 1946 he was the first individual ever to receive the music award of the city of Krakow. His "Koncert skrzypcowy / Violin Concerto" (1939-41) proved a tremendous success when performed at the International Contemporary Music Society Festival in 1946.

In 1947 Roman Palester left for Paris. He settled in that city and primarily devoted himself to composing. Two years later a Polish National Convention of Composers and Music Critics was held in the town of Lagow Lubuski. During the event, it was proclaimed that creativity in the musical field would also be subjected to the principles of Socialist Realism. As a result of this, Palester made the decision to emigrate from Poland. He remained in the French capital until 1951. From 1952 to 1972 he lived in Munich, where he headed the cultural department of the Polish section of Radio "Free Europe." He hosted a regular radio program titled "Muzyka obala granice" / "Music Breaks Down Borders," which consisted of presenting works that were banned in Poland at that time. Palester was also the presenter of a program titled "Okno na swiat" / "Window on the World," devoted to the most important cultural events occurring in the West. In 1972 he moved back to Paris.

Following his final departure from the country, Roman Palester's name was removed from all Polish publications and his scores were taken out of circulation. The Governing Board of the Association of Polish Composers also struck his name from the organization's list of members. Performance of his music was banned.

On the other hand, Palester created many of his most significant (and distinguished) works while an exile. In 1962 his "musical action" titled "Smierc Don Juana / Don Juan's Death" (1959-61) received the first prize at an international competition for operatic works organized by the Italian section of the International Contemporary Music Society. Two years later, in 1964, he was the first Polish musician to receive the Alfred Jurzykowski Prize, awarded to him for his creative achievements while in exile.

The silence around Roman Palester lasted in Poland until 1977. In 1981 the Association of Polish Composers annulled its previous decision and paid tribute to the composer by granting him the status of an honorary member. The Polish Contemporary Music Society and the Karol Szymanowski Music Society took similar steps. The composer visited Poland only once after this: in September of 1983 he was present in Krakow for the Polish premiere of his "Hymnus pro gratiarum actione" for children's choir, two mixed choirs and instrumental ensemble (1979).

Roman Palester was buried in the old Polish cemetery in Montmorency. His legacy was returned to Poland in accordance with his last wish.

The work of Roman Palester is practically absent from today's music culture in Poland. Given its artistic value, this absence is truly a cruel paradox of contemporary Polish history. His oeuvre is also nowhere in evidence in Polish music life of the last half century, which was shaped by concerts in philharmonics throughout the country, by recordings, by criticism of said recordings and concerts, as well as by music scholarship. This is ironic given that immediately after World War II Palester was the premiere representative of the Polish music community on the international arena. Considered the most outstanding of Poland's composers, he was even looked at as Szymanowski's successor. Thus, when he was leaving for Paris in 1947, he was certainly not doing so for professional reasons nor in search of popularity. His departure was entirely official. He was leaving with the permission of the government and with the intention of maintaining full contact with his home country. The longer he stayed abroad, however, the less this suited the Communist authorities, who began to persecute the composer in an effort to force him to return. In 1948 Palester refused to participate in the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace organized in Wroclaw. Though Pablo Picasso himself attended the event, the congress was in fact a vast piece of Communist propaganda. Palester nevertheless returned to Poland one year later for the National Convention of Composers and Music Critics, organized in the town of Lagow. A decree passed during the convention called for the imposition of a new, Socialist Realist style in art and for its application to the musical field as well. Palester was furthermore termed a formalist by the minister of culture, a fact that amounted to an official reprimand.

In spite of the fears these facts raised, the composer was nevertheless able to return to Paris. It was not until 1950, however, that he made the conscious decision to remain in exile. On August 25 of that year, the London-based "Dziennik Polski i Dziennik Żołnierza" / "Polish Soldiers' Daily" printed a brief story stating the following: "The well known Polish composer Roman Palester has been banned in Poland as a 'formalist' and as a musician who yields to Western influences. Called on by authorities to return to his home country, Palester refused to do so and chose to remain in Paris. Palester is the first outstanding representative of the art world from behind the Iron Curtain to choose 'freedom.' " The composer was stripped of his memberships in the Union of Stage Artists and Composers and the Association of Polish Composers, and censors imposed a ban on his name. Even the smallest mention of Palester was removed from all encyclopedias, dictionaries and lexicons, publication catalogues and other printed matter. Published scores were re-amassed and shredded. A ban was imposed on the performance of Palester's music in concert halls and on radio shows. Slowly, Palester was also forgotten by members of the music community.

The composer himself did not want to lose contact with Poland and found a singular way of maintaining it. In 1952 he and his wife began working at the newly created Polish section of Radio "Free Europe." For twenty years he headed the cultural department there. He would later write, "Munich gave us a one of a kind, irreplaceable feeling of maintaining close, everyday contact with Poland. It was a kind of contact with what happened every day - about simple, prosaic events, rather than lofty, indulgent 'cultural reminiscence.' We were very much aware of what was going on in Poland, so much so that at times we did not at all feel like we were in exile." On the air at Radio "Free Europe" Palester provided cultural news, read his opinion and editorial pieces and referred frequently to the situation in Poland. In one of his first shows from the "Muzyka obala granice" / "Music Tears Down Borders" series, Palester said, "The beautiful and honored term 'artist' brings a very high moral obligation, a certain requirement to maintain the appropriate ethical level in one's art. Put simply, it obliges one to be moral and artistically truthful to the highest degree. It is the duty of any artist-creator to maintain absolute and unwavering truth of expression, to reveal the untarnished truth. Only then can the work of art possess those pure spiritual and humanistic values the pursuit of which is the very purpose of the work's existence. Art that simultaneously eludes its link to the truth loses all its spiritual value and is reduced to being an inconsequential play of forms, words or colors. In order to be good and creative at its essence, art must be an accurate reflection of sincere inner morality and truth."

While working at Radio "Free Europe," not only did Palester not neglect composition, he succeeded during this time to compose his most outstanding works. However, his compositions were practically never performed in Poland before 1977, with the exception of a brief spell during the post-Stalinist thaw of 1956 when his music could in fact be heard. In 1977 the Association of Polish Composers caused the censorship ban on his music to be lifted and shortly thereafter audiences were offered opportunities to hear his works performed. The "Warsaw Autumn" Festival of 1979 included the premiere performance of his "Koncert na altowke i orkiestre / Concerto for Viola and Orchestra". Two years later the General Meeting of the Association of Polish Composers passed a resolution annulling the previous decision under which Palester had been from the organization and proceeded to grant him the status of an honorary member in 1983. However, the music of Palester did not experience a rapid renaissance in Polish music life. No one seemed to need it: for his peers it was a misty memory, while younger musicians simply did not know it. Palester seemed a respected representative of a past era.

This was very much the reception Krakow gave him in 1983. That the organizers succeeded in putting together the visit was practically a miracle, because in the eyes of many Palester remained "an enemy of the Polish People's Republic." The event nevertheless proved a success. It consisted of two concerts and the composer's meeting with the public. Palester also paid visits to the office of the Polish Music Publishers and to the Academy of Music. He was received warmly everywhere and seemed moved himself. Another occasion for a broader presentation of Palester's music to the Polish public came in 1987, in celebration of the composer's eightieth birthday. The composer could not come to Poland that year in light of his poor health. On year later, the "Warsaw Autumn" Festival included the world premiere of his "Fifth Symphony", however much attention was taken away from it by other festival events, including Krystian Zimerman's first performance in Poland of Lutosławski's "Piano Concerto" and the presentation of Penderecki's opera titled "Czarna maska / The Black Mask". The "Warsaw Autumn" went on in 1992 to present Palester's "stage action in one act" titled "Śmierć Don Juana / The Death of Don Juan", and the composer's "Adagio" one year later. There was a festival performance of the composer's "Missa Brevis" in 1994, but this concluded the presentations of Palester's creative achievements in Poland, at least for the time being.

Zofia Helman's book entitled "Roman Palester. Twórca i dzieło" / "Roman Palester - An Artist and His Work," published in 1999 by the Krakow-based Musica Iagellonica publishing house, signaled the beginning of new efforts to restore Roman Palester and his music to their rightful place in Polish music life and in the history of recent Polish music. Helman is a respected music scholar who is based at Warsaw University and specializes in Polish music of the 20th century.

   Roman Palester, 1985

In her opinion,

"...the works of Palester provide for a re-interpretation of stylistic transformations in Polish music. It is generally assumed that these did not appear until after 1956, while they occur much earlier in Palester's works, towards the end of the 1940s. His Fourth Symphony, 'Treny' / 'Threnodies,' and 'Sonety do Orfeusza' / 'Sonnets to Orpheus' are examples of new compositional thinking, different not only from the musical production of the early 1950s that was burdened by Socialist Realist ideology, but also from the autonomous Neoclassical current that remained dominant among Polish composers. Palester's earlier progress was determined not only by the contacts he enjoyed with European music that others lacked, but probably primarily by Palester's greater artistic maturity, something that caused him quickly to tire of existing stylistic norms and to search for new paths. He was one of the first Polish composers after the war to draw on the Viennese School and develop an interest for dodecaphonic music. The debate about who was first is unimportant (...); what is important is the originality embodied in Palester's works and his singular transformation of available models. (...) During the next years, when the act of searching and experimenting itself acquired aesthetic value, and musical works in and of themselves became almost disposable, Palester, without breaking with musical innovation, remained faithful to the concept of the work as a creative result and aesthetic fact that must defeat time. He was not alone in his stance. The music of the late 1950s and 1960s includes not only the extreme avant-garde and the generation of Neoclassicists, but also artists who sought a new synthesis and whose link with tradition remained visible, in spite of their incessant attempts at renewing the components of their musical language. The works of Lutosławski, Bacewiczówna, Baird, Serocki, Penderecki, Gorecki, Panufnik, along with those of Palester, constitute a certain continuum that, as time passes, seems to be more essential than various experimental currents like electronic music, musical graphics or happenings. Universally accepted avant-garde mottoes and the 'inventions' that inevitably followed them remain a background for the great personalities whose works were shaped independently of any such currents, and thus escape classification and anything resembling simple generalizations. Categories of perfection, quality of form, emotive strength and creative message lay at the base of Palester's 'Smierc Don Juana' / 'The Death of Don Juan' much as they do at the base of Lutosławski's 'Muzyka żałobna' / 'Musique funebre,' Penderecki's 'Pasja' / 'Passion' and 'Jutrznia' / 'Utrenya,' Baird's 'Jutro' / 'Tomorrow' or Górecki's 'Ad Matrem.' (...) The 1970s witnessed the creation of a series of corresponding grand concert forms: Lutosławski's 'Koncert wiolonczelowy' / 'Cello Concerto,' Penderecki's 'Koncert skrzypcowy' / 'Violin Concerto,' Baird's 'Concerto Lugubre,' and Palester's 'Koncert altówkowy' / 'Viola Concerto.' These were followed by a number of grand symphonic works: Palester's Fifth Symphony, Penderecki's Second Symphony, and Lutosławski's Third Symphony."

Without the work of Roman Palester, Polish music of the second half of the 20th century would be incomplete and Polish music life would certainly be poorer.
We can only hope that in time the injury of its rather significant absence, yet another worrying inheritance of the Communist period, will be overcome.


Source: Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, May 2002