On this day, seventy-three years ago, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second bomb destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, written in 1960 by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), was not originally inspired by the devastation of the atomic bomb. The piece was first called 8’37”- a reference to its estimated duration, with a nod to John Cage. It was dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima later when it was performed in the Japanese city on December 1, 1964. But the shrieking, metallic tone clusters of Penderecki’s Threnody (or lament), scored for a string orchestra of 52 players, are sounds which could only be imagined in the modern age.
…What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.
I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn…
…Among the traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland- a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago.
Today, should total war ever break out again- no matter how- our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the Cold War, which brings burdens and dangers to so many countries, including this Nation’s closest allies- our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease…
…So, let us not be blind to our differences- but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal…
– excerpts from President John F. Kennedy’s Commencement Speech at American University, June 10, 1963
- Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Krzysztof Penderecki Amazon