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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That's the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, who turns 80 today. You may think that you've never heard this Polish composer's music, but I'm guessing you have, because I'm guessing you've seen "The Shining."

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RATH: A lot of you out there are having a hard time right now not picturing Jack Nicholson brandishing an axe. Kubrick's movie terrified me as a kid. I assumed the scary music had been composed specifically for the film. As a teenager, I was shocked to learn that this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

RATH: ...was Polish religious music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE NATURA SONORIS NO. 1")

RATH: It pretty far out from what I understood church music to be. This is not an issue of radically different music cultures. I'm pretty sure this music sounds spooky to a Polish audience. Even as this music terrifies, it draws you in. Why? Because Penderecki, like every modern European composer, worked in the shadow of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Around 60 million human beings died in World War II. About three-quarters of those were non-combatants. This is, no doubt, why so much modern classical music - from Europeans, especially - is so difficult to listen to for a lot of people. How on Earth can you write pretty music after you see what humans do at their worst? Baroque and classical composers wrote music that imitated thunder or birdsong. You can pick out different species of birds in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" if you listen carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORAL SYMPHONY")

RATH: There's a cuckoo and then a nightingale. Post-World War II composers, like Benjamin Britten or Penderecki, are more likely to imitate the sound of air raid sirens.

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RATH: Penderecki is not Jewish. He's not a survivor. But he is Polish. Auschwitz is basically in his backyard. Penderecki, a devout Christian writing authentically liturgical music, seems to be wrestling directly with the question of how you can make peace with God after such horrors.

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RATH: Maybe why this is why you're more likely to hear Penderecki or Gyorgy Ligeti or George Crumb in horror movies than in concert halls, where you're more likely to hear the comforting strains of Haydn and Mozart. But the truth is, hearing this music in horror movies actually makes it less scary. Maybe to do justice to this kind of music, we need to peel it away from the movies and pay respect to the real horrors real humans have had to endure.

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RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

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RATH: Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: On tomorrow's show, when gambling is your bread and butter, a recession can be devastating. How Las Vegas is attracting new tourists and new industries to Sin City. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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