Biography

Krzysztof Penderecki

“I am a hybrid: My family comes from the Eastern frontier, my maternal grandmother was Armenian, and my grandfather – German”, explained Krzysztof Penderecki in his speech on receiving one of his honorary doctorates. This cultural “hybridicity” had decisive impact on how the future composer’s personality was formed, and on how he defined his religious, philosophical and artistic identity.


photograph: Jan Morek/FORUM

By the time of his birth on 23 November 1933 in Dębica in southern Poland, Western European music had experienced the first wave of revolutionary changes that overthrew traditions and conventions of structuring and organising musical material. At first, nothing suggested that this boy growing up under the watchful eye of his parents and his beloved maternal grandfather, Roman Berger, would contribute substantially to the second wave of the avant-garde that arose almost 30 years later. Even though the young Penderecki had regular contact with music thanks to his father, a violin amateur, he also demonstrated many other talents, especially a penchant for drawing. The choice of a career was also far from obvious. His grandfather introduced him to the fascinating world of nature, telling him about trees, of literature (a book of Homer’s verse was part of the home library), formed his attitude to religion by attending early-morning Rorate masses with his grandson, and gave him a fine example of social-patriotic activity.

The intense development of Penderecki’s musical interests came after the Second World War, when he began to take violin lessons. The piano, due to the wrong choice of teacher, did not become his “friend”. He began, however, to compose his first pieces, and after his secondary-school graduation exams in 1950, he left for Kraków in the autumn to continue his violin education under Stanisław Tawroszewicz.

Fascinated by architecture and the history of art, as well as the philosophy and literature of the Mediterranean world, Penderecki became aware of his true vocation only when he met Franciszek Skołyszewski. That excellent teacher discovered a composer in the young man from Dębica. Penderecki’s counterpoint studies with Skołyszewski continued when the young musician entered the State Higher School of Music in Kraków, joining Artur Malawski’s composition class. The talented student did not share his teacher’s aesthetic views. In this area, his interests developed independently, and the amazing effects of this development became known soon after he completed his studies and joined the circles of young composers who defined the character of Polish new music.

Penderecki made his debut at the Warsaw Autumn festival the year after Górecki – whose Epitafium was acclaimed there in 1958 – with Strophes for speaker and 10 instruments, one of three compositions that swept top honors at the Competition for Young Composers organised by the Polish Composers’ Union. He had sent Strophes, Emanations and Psalms of David to the competition in separate parcels marked by different emblems, with one score an autograph and the other two copied by friends. The jury granted the first and joint second prizes to the young, still largely unknown artist. In this way, Penderecki entered the world of new music in a grand style, demonstrating the freshness and inventiveness of both his musical material and his constructions.


photograph: PAP/Archiwum

His works from the early 1960s, such as Anaklasis, the Threnody, the Canon, Polymorphia, Fluorescences and String Quartet No. 1 embodied the characteristic features of the phenomenon that musicologist Józef Michał Chomiński termed “sonoristics”. It was the composer’s response to the burning needs of musical modernity, characterised by his emblematic clusters and dynamic sound masses rolling across sharp textural caesurae, which became Pendereckis early trademarks.

Soon recognised by musical institutions outside  of Poland, he began to receive regular commissions from the West that on one hand gave him financial comfort, and on the other set in motion a self-propelling mechanism that brought him more and more fame and recognition throughout the world. In the period that concluded his avant-garde explorations, he composed the St. Luke Passion – a creative synthesis of modernity and tradition that became a tremendous artistic success – but also contributed to accusations of betraying the avant-garde. From that time on, Penderecki would venture into the sphere of the sacrum with such works as  Dies irae (1967), called his “Auschwitz oratorio”, followed by Utrenya (1971) and A Polish Requiem (final version 2005), then Credo (1998) and Missa brevis (2012).

By the late 1960s, Penderecki’s musical style had entered a phase of transition. He gradually abandoned radical sonoristic forms of expression in favour of a much gentler sound and more traditional, classical approach to elements such as melody, harmony and musical form. Symphony No. 1 (1973) was for him a symbolic farewell to the avant-garde, and The Dream of Jacob (1974) proved to be a new beginning, a presentation of the rudiments of the musical language the composer would use until the early 1990s, and which yielded compositions including Violin Concerto No. 1 (1976), Paradise Lost (1978), Symphony No. 2 (1980), Cello Concerto No. 2 (1982) and his Viola Concerto (1983). In this period, Penderecki was one of the pioneers of New Romanticism, a musical trend that drew on the late Romantic idiom and on the experience of the avant-garde. Though he pointed to Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich as his sources of inspiration, he did not copy conventions, but used them to create his own original qualities. For instance, he combined the monumental, exalted type of expression typical to 19th-century melodic gestures and dramatic constructions, with a style that was more expressively concise, based on sharper textural contrasts, more refined harmonies and richer instrumentation than those known from Romantic music.


photograph: Witold Rozmysłowicz/PAP

In the late 1980s Penderecki’s music revealed an increasingly pronounced tendency to combine Romantic inspirations and experiences with other very different sources of inspiration. This aesthetic option agreed with the composer’s temperament: He saw himself as an heir to the Mediterranean culture that came to being – as he said in the speech quoted above – “as a result of an invigorating fusion of greatly varied elements and influences”. As Penderecki stressed in a succinct commentary on the scope of his artistic interests, “I am tempted both by the sacred and the profane, by God and the devil, by sublimity and going beyond the sublime”...

Beginning with his Ubu Rex (1991), this idea of a “great synthesis” had a profound influence on the language of his music and on its ideological context, resulting from the “unifying experience” and in being strongly anchored in universal humanist values. This is evident in his chamber music, for example the Clarinet Quartet, the String Trio and the Sextet, in concertante pieces such as the Flute Concerto, the Violin Concerto No. 2, Concerto grosso and the Double Concerto, and in the great vocal-instrumental forms that include Credo, Symphony No. 8Lieder der Vergänglichkeit”, “A sea of dreams did breathe on me…” - Songs of Reflection and Nostalgia, which the composer created at the end of the 20th and in the first decade of the 21st century.

Penderecki is a highly versatile composer who worked in nearly all genres. His individual style, recognisable both by ear and in an analytic study of the scores, makes use of specific, recurring combinations of intervals, motives, types of texture, configurations of instruments. In the process of working all those elements into a whole, refined techniques of counterpoint such as the canon, the fugue and his favourite passacaglia play major roles. He has managed to achieve unity in the sphere of expressive qualities by means of a peculiar interplay of opposites, of emotional “characters” marked in the score with labels ranging from grave and largo to allegro and vivace, from cantabile to agitato, from notturno to scherzo. Penderecki’s way of shaping his form is also characteristic. His distinctive architectural constructions make use of techniques of anticipation, retrospection and digression, which together make up a narrative whole marked by dramatic culminations.


photograph: PAP/Archiwum

Penderecki’s artistic activity continues, as he celebrates his 80th birthday in 2013 – and it commands the greatest respect. The composer is working on new artistic projects, planning to write his fifth opera – Phaedra – and complete his Symphony No. 6. His works are presented internationally by world-famous musicians. The Copenhagen production of an extended version of his first opera Devils of Loudun in February 2013 proved to be another great success. His music is alive and enjoys popularity not only among contemporary music connoisseurs. One proof of this was the spectacular “discovery” of Penderecki’s early sonoristic works by popular musicians including Jonny Greenwood of the innovative band Radiohead from the world of rock music, and by young audiences at the Open’er Festival in Gdynia, Poland, in 2012, and in subsequent presentations. At the same time, his compositions are highly valued in classical musical circles, which is borne out by the long list of prestigious awards including the UNESCO Prize, Honegger and Sibelius Awards, the Grawemeyer Music Award and MIDEM Classical Award, as well as his titles and distinctions from the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres to the Polish Order of the White Eagle, and the honorary doctorates accorded to the composer.

While listening to Penderecki’s music, we should remember that this artist has also actively contributed to other areas of contemporary musical life. For some time, he worked as an academic and lecturer in the State Higher School of Music (now the Academy of Music) in Kraków, the Hochschule für Musik in Essen and at Yale University. In 1972–87, he was vice chancellor of Kraków’s Academy. He also held the posts of artistic director of Kraków Philharmonic and music director of the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra. As a conductor, he made his debut in the early 1970s, leading a jazz ensemble in his Actions at the Donaueschingen Festival in Germany.


photograph: Marek Suchecki

The composer settled in 1980 with his family in the restored country manor in Lusławice, a village east of Kraków. He turned the estate into his home, his paradise on earth, and into a venue for chamber-music festivals (1980, 1983, 1984), to which he and his wife Elżbieta invited eminent musicians, and for which he commissioned new works from other composers. Three decades later, the European Krzysztof Penderecki Centre for Music was built in the neighbourhood of the manor as a meeting place for talented young musicians and eminent specialists in performance, composition and the humanities. The Centre’s opening ceremonies took place in May 2013.

Iwona  Lindstedt