Winter in Poland

Wrocław in Poland was Breslau in Germany until 1945.

Wrocław in Poland was Breslau in Germany until 1945. We’ve travelled here to record the orchestral parts of the music we’ve written for a ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, which opens at Sadler’s Wells in March. It takes me several days to work out how to pronounce the Polish name of the city. Some foreigners call it ‘Vratslav’ but apparently the correct pronunciation is ‘Vrotswaff’ (I think). Actually no one seems to mind.

We’re recording in the old Große Saal des Polnischen Rundfunks built in Breslau in the Nazi era as a concert hall for radio broadcasts. A team from Berlin has set up hard-drive recording equipment and the English conductor, Dominic Wheeler, is rehearsing the excellent orchestra of young Polish musicians in arrangements by a composer and musician from Dresden, Sven Helbig. It’s a tough schedule: we have over 80 minutes of music to be recorded in three days. The conductor and musicians wear headphones so they can hear a ‘click track’ which enables them to play in time with the electronic music we’ve already recorded. The copyist, who has transcribed all the separate parts for each musician to play, murmurs the occasional correction. Each first run-through of a section can sound arbitrarily atonal but takes shape in the second go. Sometimes a few parts are revised. After three or four takes the orchestra and the electronics merge in a rich blend but the conductor and musicians think it can still be improved with a further take. Their dedication and concentration is very impressive. One might expect ‘classical’ musicians to be sniffy about working with pop stars but, in my experience, this is rarely the case and this bunch is friendly and keen. We finish on the third day just a little ahead of schedule; tomorrow they’ll start on a film score.

We’ve written some music and lyrics for the children’s Christmas play at the Young Vic, My Dad’s a Birdman, by David Almond. It’s about a human bird competition and includes a comic song about ‘lovely dumplings’ which is performed by Aunty Doreen and her niece while they get busy with suet and flour on stage.

I don’t want to sound

like I’m starting to get cocky

but Chinese call them wonton

and Italians gnocchi.

Here in Poland they call them pierogi and they’re everywhere, stuffed with salmon and zucchini, or with meat seasoned with bacon, or with cabbage and mushrooms in a chanterelle sauce, or Russian-style with cheese-potato stuffing. In the play, the dumplings symbolise a solid, down-to-earth approach to life which is preferable to crazy notions of flying. Once you’ve eaten a plateful of Polish pierogi you won’t feel like crashing anywhere but into bed.

The Most Incredible Thing is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen which isn’t very well known. The King decrees that whoever invents ‘the most incredible thing’ will be given the hand of his daughter the princess in marriage, and half of the kingdom. The kingdom is thrown into a frenzy of invention and finally in a competition the most incredible thing is declared to be a magnificent clock which, hour by hour, reveals all of creation. Then a thug destroys the clock and this act of destruction is acclaimed as the most incredible thing. Just as the unfortunate princess is about to marry this fascist vandal, the various ideas represented by the hours of the clock rise up and kill him; art defeats destruction, and the marriage of the princess and the inventor symbolises love as the most incredible thing. Andersen, however, has a typically twisted ending: ‘There was not one person who was jealous — yes, that was the most incredible thing of all!’ Apparently in the second world war the resistance in occupied Denmark circulated the story with anti-Nazi illustrations.

At the end of the war, when the Soviet Union kept the Polish territory it had grabbed in the secret 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, Poland was compensated by its borders moving west into Germany, and Breslau became Wrocław. The German population of these lands were expelled and often replaced with Polish refugees fleeing from formerly Polish lands taken by the Soviet Union. It has always surprised me that, since 1989, there has not been more controversy in Germany about these shifted borders; but communism froze them for over 40 years and, when the Cold War ended, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe emerged with their borders set in stone and beyond much dispute. As a symbol of the ebb and flow of history in this part of Europe, Wrocław — a medieval Polish city, conquered and made magnificent by Germans, destroyed by the Red Army and rebuilt by Poles — fascinates me. I wonder what the German tourists wandering around are thinking.

It’s cold, minus 10, and in the snow the market square has a pale and ghostly beauty. However, the non-stop seasonal pop blaring from a Tannoy system in the Christmas market drags it back down to earth. The past is a foreign country; the present is Mariah Carey singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’.

Taken from:
Interviewer: Neil Tennant