Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) was the best known of a group of vigorous and adventuresome Polish composers who emerged in the 1950s.
Krzysztof Penderecki was born in Debica, Krakow district, a Polish provincial town, on November 23, 1933 and started his musical studies as a child. During the German occupation of Poland in World War II he experienced some of the Nazi atrocities against Poland's Jewish population. "The problem of that great apocalypse (Auschwitz), that great war crime, has undoubtedly been in my subconscious mind since the war, when as a child, I saw the destruction of the ghetto in my small native town of Debica, " he said.
Penderecki was educated in Krakow where he took courses at the Jagallonian University. He also attended the State Higher School of Music in Krakow from 1955 to 1958. The following year he gained prominence when three compositions he had submitted to a competition organized by the Polish Composer's Union won the first three prizes. These compositions—Strophen for orchestra, Emanations for two string groups, and Psalms of David for a cappella choir—show that he was familiar with the music of Anton Webern, Béla Bartók, and lgor Stravinsky.
Penderecki stayed on at the State Higher School of Music after graduation as a lecturer in composition from 1958 to 1966 and remained from 1972 to 1987, as rector, after it had become the Academy of Music. He was also a professor from 1972 at the Academy of Music.
Penderecki also took the position of visiting teacher at Yale University (from 1972) and at Essen Folkwang Hochschule fur Musik (1966 to 1968) as a professor of composition.
In 1965 he married Elzbieta Solecka and they would later have two children, a son and daughter.
In his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) Penderecki achieved a highly original style. Written for 52 strings, it sounds like electronic music. Most of the pages of the score consist of diagrams with symbols he invented to convey his wishes. The opening page, for instance, calls for the strings, divided into 10 groups, to play "the highest note possible." The entrances are staggered, played fortissimo, and held for 15 seconds. The whistling sound is shrill and frightening, like the approach of an airplane. In the course of the piece the players are directed to raise or lower written notes by a quarter or three-quarters of a tone, to play between the bridge and tailpiece, to tap the body of the instrument with fingers and bows, and to play with a wide variety of timbral effects. There are frequent huge clusters of massed half steps and glissandos of such clusters, producing a sound that resembles jet engines warming up. There is no meter. At the bottom of each page there is a wide line with a designation in seconds indicating how long the section should be played. The conductor indicates the beginnings of new time blocks, but there are no beats or subdivisions of them.
Other instrumental pieces by Penderecki that exploit new and expressive instrumental sounds are Anaklasis (1960), Polymorphia (1961), De Natura Sonoris (1966), and Capriccio for violin and orchestra (1968). He also made important contributions to choral literature in works that call for vocal sounds as novel as the sounds he drew from the orchestra. His major choral works are Stabat Mater (1963) for three a cappella choirs, St. Luke Passion (1966), Dies Irae (1967) dedicated to the memory of the victims of Auschwitz, Slavic Mass (1969), Kosmogonia (1970), Ecloga VIII (1972), Magnificat (1974), De Profundis (1977), Te Deum (1979), Lacrimosa (1980), Agnus Dei (1981), and Polnisches Requiem (1984). Other Penderecki works include Praeludium (1971), Partita (1971), Symphony No. 1 (1973), The Dream of Jacob (1974), Symphony No. 2 (1980), Viola Concerto No. 2 (1982), Passacaglia (1988), and the opera The Black Mask (1986).
The Passion follows the baroque pattern and has a narrator and a baritone personifying Christ. The chorus acts both as commentator and participant when it sings the part of the crowd. Penderecki makes great use of a twelve-tone row that consists largely of seconds and thirds, including the familiar B-A-C-H motive (B-flat, A, C, B). Both orchestra and choir use clusters and glissandos, and the choir hisses, shouts, laughs, whispers, and chants. The St. Luke Passion brings together a wide variety of styles; it is a successful amalgamation of tonal resources from the Gregorian chant to the latest experimental sound.
Unlike some of the so-called avant-garde composers, Penderecki did not believe that the fundamental nature of music had changed. He said: "The general principle at the root of a work's musical style, the logic or economy of development, and the integrity of a musical experience embodied in the notes the composer is setting down on paper never changes. The idea of good music means today exactly what it meant always. Music should speak for itself, going straight to the heart and mind of the listener."
Penderecki's works are continually performed throughout the world and he holds teaching or advisory positions at universities around Europe and the world. He is considered by many as one of the most original composers in the world and has been honored with memberships in the Royal Academy of Music in London (1975), the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm (1975), and the Akademie der Kunste in Germany (1975). He has been honored by nations around the world with the Herder Prize of Germany (1977), the Grand Medal of Paris (1982), the Sibelius Prize of Finland (1983), the Premio Lorenzo il Magnifico of Italy (1985), the Wolf Prize (1987), Academia de Bellas Artes, Granada (1989), and the Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz des Verdienstordens (1990).
In 1997 Penderecki joined many other composers and performers for a birthday concert in honor of Russian composer Mstislav "Slava" Rostopovich at the Theatres des Champs-Elysees in Paris. His work compared favorably to that of other modern composers—like Vladimir Spivakov, Van Cliburn, Semyon Bychkov, and Seiji Ozawa—and was a testament to the originality and power of his music.
Further Reading on Krzysztof Penderecki
There is an extensive biography and listing of Penderecki's works in Brian Morton and Pamela Collins Contemporary Composers (1992). More general information on Penderecki is contained in Stefan Jarocinski Polish Music (1965), Ludwik Erhardt Contemporary Music in Poland (trans. 1966), and Peter S. Hansen An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music (3d ed. 1971). Information on the Rostopovich birthday concert featuring Penderecki can be found in the New York Times (March 29, 1997).