Krzysztof Penderecki | Biography

Biography

In the 1960s Krzysztof Penderecki made his name as an avant-garde composer. The label, to some extent, has stuck. He is best known for exploring new sonorities and techniques in his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and in his St Luke Passion (Passio et mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam, 1963–65). But beyond the intensity of these creations, Penderecki’s work is remarkable for its change of style, and its evolution towards a more traditional, almost neo-Romantic tonal language.  Born in Dębica, a small town in Poland between Kraków and Lviv, Penderecki studied at the State Academy of Music in Kraków from the age of 18, at the same time pursuing courses in philosophy, art history and literary history at the city’s Jagiellonian University. He began to teach at the Academy after he graduated in 1958. His first mature work, Psalms of David, from the same year, shows him embracing 12-note composition and experimenting with a range of vocal techniques – such as reciting and whispering – that would become a feature of his later choral writing. His imaginative ‘voice’ was quickly recognised. He won all three prizes available in the Second Warsaw Competition for Young Composers, having entered each of the works under a different pseudonym. But it was his impassioned Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), scored for 52 string instruments, that secured repeat performances in concert halls all over the world and established him as a force to be reckoned with. Originally entitled 8′37″, a reference to the composer John Cage’s 4′33″, it combined serialism and improvisation, new notation methods, aggressive glissandi, tonal clusters and innovative vocal and instrumental techniques. But it was the sheer emotive power of the piece that caught the popular imagination and drove Penderecki to find an event to which the sound might refer. Hiroshima provided the horror. Penderecki continued to explore complex and disturbing soundworlds in his orchestral works, Polymorphia (1961) and Fluoresences (1961–62), his religious pieces, the St Luke Passion, the Dies Irae (subtitled ‘Auschwitz Oratorio’, 1967), and two-part oratorio Utrenja (1969–71), and his opera, The Devils of Loudon (1968–69, revised 1972 and 1975). Maybe it was only a matter of time before the foreboding atmospheres of Utrenja and Polymorphia found a home in the horror film genre. Director Stanley Kubrick was the first to unlock their cinematic potential, using Penderecki’s music extensively in his film, The Shining. If Penderecki’s style was destined for popularity, why did he change it? One reason was precisely because it was so recognisable. In danger of becoming trapped in his own sonic imagination, and disillusioned with the way in which the avant-garde valued novelty, he turned towards tonality and the past. The transition is plain in the Romantic lyricism of Penderecki’s Violin Concerto (1976–77, revised 1988) and in his approach to symphonic writing in his Symphony no.2, ‘Wigilijna’ (‘Christmas Symphony’, 1979–80), which seems to hark back to the symphonies of Bruckner. Over many years, Penderecki has amassed a sizeable body of large-scale works: four operas, eight symphonies and numerous concertos and orchestral pieces. All of them, in their own ways, acknowledge and transform the past, assuring their composer a secure place in the flow of musical history.