Krzysztof Penderecki

1933 2020

Krzysztof Penderecki

Composer • Conductor


Krzysztof Penderecki is considered one of the most successful composers of the late 20th Century. He has been labelled as Poland's greatest living composer by the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Born in the midst of the horror of WWII he has, in his own words,'lived through very difficult times', which is putting it mildly. His stylistic journey has been well documented and has undergone many changes. He has enjoyed success both as a composer and a conductor all over the world. His music, especially his early, mature works, is arguably the most re-contextualised music in the history of 20th Century music – re-contextualised by others and even by himself. His many film scores are an indication of this. His works have already achieved a lasting and powerful legacy which has no sign of waning. He even has an asteroid named after him. 

Krzysztof Penderecki was born in Dębica, Poland to Tadeusz Penderecki and Zofia Penderecki (née Wittgeinstein). His father was a lawyer, his grandfather was the director of the local bank and also a well-known painter, Robert Berger. Penderecki's grandmother was Armenian and the young Krzysztof attended the Armenian Apolostic Church – one of the oldest Christian communities – with her in Kraków.  He had two older siblings, Barbara, married to a mining engineer and and older sister, Janusz who studied medicine and law. Penderecki's father, Tadeusz was also a violinist and pianist.

The outbreak of WWII caused his family to be uprooted, forcing them to leave their home, but not to flee from Poland. "When the Second World War started, I was only five but I still remember...'he has said in interviews. “Being a witness... I wanted people to remember what happened in our country and elsewhere”. These experiences as a young man were to be crucial in shaping his artistic voice.  

After the war he was able to begin Grammar school in 1946. He also began to study violin. After school he continued his studies on violin and eventually also music theory in Kraków, in 1951, at the Jagiellonian University. After this, in 1954, he began his studies at the Academy of Music in Kraków and began to focus solely on composition. His first teacher was Artur Malawski who passed away in 1957 and Penderecki took further instruction from Stanislaw Wiechowicz. 1956 was the downfall of Stalinism in the country and therefore a new creative freedom for Poland. This shift in social politics coincided with Penderecki's own creative awakening in public.

Upon graduating in 1958 he began teaching at the academy. He enjoyed early success with the works 'Strofy' (Strophes), 'Emanacje' (Emanations) and 'Psalmy Dawida'(Psalms of David). These were awarded top prizes in Poland by the Union of Polish composers. This led to recognition in the professional world, making contacts among publishers and festival directors: contacts who would be instrumental in bringing his music abroad. This was a great period of personal innovation in terms of extended instrumental technique and novel sound worlds, unconventional perceptions of time and duration and innovative notation experiments. His seminal work 'Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima' (1961) (originally titled 8'37'' was awarded by UNESCO, in 1966 and 1967 he was awarded the Westphalia and Italia Prizes respectively for his work 'St Luke Passion'.In 1967 he was also honoured with the Sibelius Gold Medal and in 1968 the Polish State Prize. Other awards achieved at a later stage were the Herder, Honegger and Grawemeyer awards.

From 1966 onwards Penderecki often worked abroad accepting many commissions and residencies. These include at the Volkwäng Hochschule für Musik, Essen (1966–68), the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (1968-70) and at Yale University (1973-78). In 1972 he became rector of the Kraków Academy for 15 years. In 1972 he began his international conducting career when he recorded 7 of his works for the EMI label. He became arguably equally as famous as a conductor from this time onwards, often conducting his own works but also developing a keen skill and reputation for his interpretation of other repertoire. He has received many honorary doctorates from universities and institutes in Europe and America.

Penderecki's early style as he matured was heavily influenced by the pillars Stravinsky and Webern. New compositions following these works such as 'Strofy', have elements of influence from Pierre Boulez. Penderecki, however, never fully embraced the serial technique of his peers, the idea of permutation and process became quite important in his work. They led directly towards a an approach to 'textural' processes.

An early work in this vein was 'Anaklasis' scored for two string orchestras tuned a semitone apart and percussion, in total 42 string instruments. The title means 'refracting of light' but also a metrical term in Greek poetry. The piece explores different timbres which continually shift. The rhythmical gestures are informed by the corresponding metrical association in Greek poetry. The premiere at the  Donaueschingen festival in 1960 was a massive success and an encore was demanded.

Following this success was his most renowned work and possibly the most famous and influential works of the 21st Century. Originally titled 8'37'' (1959), only receiving at the very last minute the title, 'Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima', this work is a masterpiece of so-called 'sonorism'; 'objective' processes of sound, 'textural composition'. The work is scored for string orchestra and uses microtonal chromaticism. He used expanding 'wedges' of orchestration to illustrate dissonant clusters of quartertone steps, thus enhancing conventional equal-tempered chromatic dissonance. He uses many extended techniques including tapping the instruments and bowing behind the bridge of the stringed instruments to achieve further complexity in the sonic environment. Adding to this, the innovative notation especially with regards to time and the durational, as opposed to metrical, aspect of the score created a work of much significance with a firm place in the avant-garde movement of the time.

It is very interesting to note the title especially in the context of a work which directly follows this one. 'Fluroscenes' for orchestra follows the stylistic trajectory of theThrenody and as a direct descendant is a masterful answer to the former. Premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1962 it continues Penderecki's attempts to contextualise 'non-musical' sounds and noise. The percussion section especially includes many unusual additions such as air-sirens. The graphic notation is expanded and puts Penderecki in line with an approach to time in line with that of John Cage.

A very interesting quote from this time is 'All I am interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition'. The shift towards a more expressive, tonal language can be traced in hindsight from his own reaction to 8'37''. It is rumoured that the well-known title,Threnody, was suggested to him and he readily accepted it. Whatever the genesis of the new title it is interesting to note his own emotional reaction to the sound-world he created which had, very clearly, no emotional or expressive origins in the music, which had more in line with the work of Iannis Xenakis for example. It could be said to be a re-contextualisation of his own art and many would argue a sincere, human reaction to the Modernist aesthetic born from two world wars in the first half of the 20th Century. It hints possibly at the human hope for catharsis which can be seen in his later works with strong connections to religion and a return to tonal language and forms.

'Polymorphia' is a work which marks the turning point in his approach to style. It very literally ends in a massive sonorous burst with a C-Major chord. This almost tongue in cheek ending was hailed as a masterful end to the modernist work and the composer himself described it as 'just another sound the instruments are capable of making', which is of course 100% true. He did not, however, follow the thread of this quote and this actually marked a very clear turning point back towards an incorporation of a tonal style, an abstract emotional language made of sound.  

His next significant work was his 'St. Lukes Passion', (1963-1966) a masterpiece of his career and considered hismagnum opus. It seems to speak of the hope for catharsis of the post WWII era. It is very much in an eclectic style which alienated him from his purist modernist fans and peers but marked his skill as a dramatist. The skill of recognising the emotional material contained in the sounds themselves. It was composed in communist Poland (the state being of course hostile to religion) and premiered in the Münster Cathedral in the Federal German an Republic. He incorporates chant, recitative and chorales in a form based on the Baroque genre. He uses 12-tone serialism techniques contrasted against traditional tonality and his own adventurous textures, especially in the vocal writing. It marked the start of a religious-inspired period consisting of themes surrounding the human condition.

During the 1970's his style shifted again towards a more lyrical one. A notable work form this period is the 'First Violin Concerto'. The work obsessively and masterfully focussed on the intervals of a semitone and tritone, a method which becomes very prominent in his work which follows. His later work is his own brand of a Neo-Romantic language with much influence of Bruckner evident, yet the influence of Bach is always strongly felt.  

He has written 8 symphonies from this period and they often are structured with conventional symphonic, tonal forms such as the sonata.  

The power of Krzysztof Eugeniusz Penderecki's music and perhaps it's reflection of Western European culture in the 20th Century might go some way to describe why it has been used as material in so many film scores. 'The Shining' and 'The Exorcist' featured his work as did David Lynch in 'Wild at Heart'  and 'Inland Empire'. More recently, the Threnody has been featured in the film 'C hildren of Men'. The analysis of these films and the corresponding emotional affect sought by the directors in these scenes may hint to the upheavals and disturbances experienced by Penderecki in his early formative years.

Header image by P. Andersen