- Counter-Currents - https://counter-currents.com -

Remembering Krzysztof Penderecki
(November 23, 1933 — March 29, 2020)

2,836 words

Krzysztof Penderecki, who died on March 29, 2020, was one of the most prolific and creative composers of the past century. His works include four operas, eight symphonies plus other orchestral works, about a dozen concertos, vocal and choral works, and chamber and solo instrumental works. Known for his foreboding, uncanny sound, Penderecki articulated the disquiet of modernity better than arguably any other 20th-century composer.

Penderecki was born on November 23, 1933 in Dębica, a city in southeastern Poland. He was of Polish, German, and Armenian descent. He studied violin and music theory at the Jagiellonian University and composition at the Academy of Music in Kraków, where he later became a teacher. He also taught at the Folkwang Universität der Kunst and the Yale School of Music. Penderecki had an impressive career as a conductor and frequently conducted his own works. A CD box set of Penderecki’s symphonies conducted by the composer was published by DUX in 2013.

Penderecki was a pioneer of sonorism, an avant-garde approach to composition emphasizing sonic experimentation that emerged in Poland in the 1950s. In the 1970s, he changed course and began to compose in a more traditional style that hearkened back to post-Romanticism. In the mid-1980s, Penderecki’s style further evolved to synthesize both the modern and the traditional.

The piece that established Penderecki’s international reputation was Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima [1] (1960). Scored for 52 string instruments, it makes use of extended techniques, such as striking the sound board with the fingertips and drawing the bow in unconventional places, and tone clusters featuring microtonal intervals. The texture of the piece alternates between frenzied screeching and dissonant clusters of sound that slide up and down, creating an eerie wail. The score lacks standard metrical indications and instead lists the precise duration of each section in seconds. The piece was originally titled 8’37”, the duration of the whole piece, but Penderecki was so struck by its haunting effects that he renamed it in honor of the victims of the bombing at Hiroshima.

You can buy Kerry Bolton’s Artists of the Right here [2].

To communicate his intentions, Penderecki invented his own system of graphic notation, which was inspired by electroencephalograms. Each extended technique has its own symbol. A black triangle, for instance, indicates that the performer should play the highest possible note on his instrument. Penderecki’s early works also occasionally include aleatoric passages, meaning that certain elements of the composition (such as the degree of vibrato or the speed of a glissando) are left to the performer.

Penderecki’s Polymorphia [3] (1961) and Fluorescences [4] (1962) expand upon the techniques in Threnody and are regarded as the culmination of Penderecki’s early avant-garde style. Polymorphia is scored for 48 string instruments and, like Threnody, alternates between eerie microtonal clusters and sharp, percussive sounds. It introduces additional extended techniques, such as striking the music stand with the bow and striking the strings with the palm of the hand. One of Penderecki’s most unnerving works, Polymorphia appears in The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror.

Fluorescences adds brass, winds, percussion, gongs, a musical saw, a siren, and even a typewriter to the mix. The use of extended techniques is taken even further: performers must hum while they play and rub pieces of glass and metal with a file, for example.

One of Penderecki’s greatest influences during this period was electronic music. He later recounted that his music was “very much based on the sound of electronic music, like a transcription of electronic sound for live instruments.” [1] [5] Penderecki experimented with analog synthesizers and was a regular at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw, which became the seventh electronic music studio in the world upon its founding in 1957. There he wrote Psalmus (1961), which was created through tape manipulation, and his eclectic soundtrack [6] for Wojciech Has’ cult film The Sargossa Manuscript (1965).

Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion [7] (1963-1966) is one of his greatest works. It is also one of his most ambitious: it is 80 minutes long and is scored for boys’ choir, three mixed choirs, three solo voices (soprano, baritone, and bass), a narrator, and a large orchestra. The text is all in Latin and is drawn from the Gospel of Luke as well as the Gospel of John, Psalms, and Lamentations. The piece was commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in honor of the 700th anniversary of the Münster Cathedral, where the premiere took place. (Penderecki’s Magnificat, composed eight years later, commemorated the 1200th anniversary of the Salzburg Cathedral.) It is a testament to Penderecki’s devout Catholicism and his willingness to rebel against communist rule, as the regime became increasingly anti-Catholic during the 1960s.

The Passion combines atonality and avant-garde techniques such as serialism and micropolyphony (a technique developed by György Ligeti whereby melodic lines move at different tempi/rhythms, creating vertical tone clusters) [2] [8] with more conventional harmonies and the influence of 16th-century polyphony. The B-A-C-H motif is a nod to Bach’s mastery of the oratorio. Although the piece is entirely atonal (apart from the last chord of the Stabat Mater section and the chord at the very end), it is strikingly beautiful and moving. Penderecki really brings out the raw emotion and violence of the Passion.

Penderecki’s first opera, The Devils of Loudun [9], premiered on June 20, 1969. The libretto was written by Penderecki himself and is derived from John Whiting’s dramatization of Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name, which describes the supposed demonic possession of nuns in Loudun in 1634. The nuns accused a local vicar, Urbain Grandier, of having made a pact with the devil and putting a spell on them. Grandier was tortured and burned at the stake.

The Christ-like Grandier, who is tied to a crucifix, remains calm and dignified during his trial and execution. Moments before the flames engulf him, he asks God to forgive his persecutors. It is the most moving scene in the opera.

The music is suitably dark and diabolical. Fittingly, parts of The Devils of Loudun feature in The Exorcist.

The opera serves as an allegory for the tribulations faced by dissidents in a society overtaken by mass hysteria. Many a white advocate who has been targeted by mentally ill harpies (and their enablers) will relate to Grandier’s plight. It is implied that the others’ hatred of Grandier, who is intelligent and good-looking, is partly rooted in envy. The homely, hunchbacked protagonist’s repressed attraction to Grandier is the source of her madness.

Frank Zappa, who cited Penderecki as one of his influences, named the Hamburg State Opera’s recording [10] of The Devils of Loudun as one of his ten favorite records. He especially liked Jeanne’s exorcism by enema in Act II. I would be remiss not to quote him on this:

The music he has going on for that scene is very ingenious, you know. You hear the bubbles and she is singing interesting little screams and grunts and stuff. I’d say: “That’s a step forward.” There’s not too many things in rock ‘n’ roll that can compare to that. I put it right up alongside of “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi,” one of those funk tunes. [3] [11]

Penderecki’s next major work was Utrenja [12] (1969). The first part of the work, entitled “The Entombment of Christ,” corresponds to Holy Saturday, and the second, “The Resurrection of Christ,” to Easter Sunday. The text is in Old Church Slavonic, and the influence of Slavic liturgical music is heard throughout the pieces. Utrenja is both solemn and terrifying — a welcome antidote to the tame, sanitized image of the divine popular among Christians today. Two movements from Utrenja feature in The Shining. The opening of the first movement of “The Resurrection” sounds when Wendy sees that Danny has scrawled “REDRUM” on the bathroom door.

Penderecki’s Kosmogonia [13] (1971), which features in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, is the musical embodiment of pure cosmic terror. Scored for three vocal soloists (soprano, tenor, and bass), mixed choir, and orchestra, the piece sets texts on the subject of the universe by figures such as Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giordano Bruno to music. It begins with an ominous rumble that builds up to a brassy climax followed by shimmery, metallic textures and thinly orchestrated recitatives and choral passages. The vocalists join the orchestra toward the end, leading to a chaotic climax. The conclusion of the piece is eerily quiet and empty, like the universe itself. The opening of John Williams’ score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind may have been influenced by Kosmogonia, in which a major triad suddenly follows a prolonged tone cluster about a third of the way through the piece.

The first inklings of Penderecki’s later style appear in De Natura Sonoris no. 2 [14] (1971). Like Fluorescences, the piece makes use of extramusical instruments such as a musical saw, a metal sheet, and an iron bar. It is thinner than its predecessor, De Natura Sonoris no. 1 [15], and relies more on narration than texture. It uses the avant-garde techniques of his earlier works, but the structure is more linear, and there is a clear coda.

Penderecki’s The Dream of Jacob [16] (1974) marks the beginning of his transition to neoromanticism. The piece begins with pulsating brass chords accompanied by a soft, tubular drone. Descending and ascending passages in the strings and winds occur throughout the piece in various forms and evoke the movement of angels up and down Jacob’s ladder. The piece ends in the same dream-like haze in which it began. The Dream of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris no. 1, and De Natura Sonoris no. 2 all appear in The Shining.

The main impetus for Penderecki’s shift was that he believed that the possibilities of the avant-garde had been fulfilled. Interesting, original artists had ceased to emerge from the avant-garde movement.

In his Violin Concerto no. 1 [17] (1974–1976), Penderecki makes a clearer break with his past. He abandons the tone clusters characteristic of his earlier output and introduces a theme of descending half-steps, which he would use in several other works, such as his opera Paradise Lost [18] (1978) and Symphony no. 2 [19] (1979–1980). Both of the aforementioned works exhibit the style typical of the works Penderecki composed in the late 1970s and occupy the dense, chromatic sound-world of Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner.

Penderecki’s Te Deum [20] (1980) was inspired by the anointing of Karol Wojtyła as John Paul II, the first Polish pope. The piece looks back to Gregorian chant, Slavic liturgical music, and Renaissance polyphony. Upon John Paul II’s death, Penderecki wrote a second piece in honor of him, a chaconne that was incorporated into his Polish Requiem.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [21]

Penderecki’s Polish Requiem [22] [4] [23], which premiered in 1984, is a tribute to his homeland and his Catholic faith. In 1980, Solidarity, the Polish trade union led by Lech Wałęsa whose efforts contributed to the collapse of communist rule in Poland, commissioned Penderecki to write a piece in honor of the unveiling of the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970. The monument commemorates the 42 or so workers who were killed in anti-government protests in 1970. Penderecki composed the Lacrimosa in their honor, dedicating it to Lech Wałęsa. This became the germ of the Requiem. All movements of the Requiem were written from 1980 to 1984 except the Sanctus, which Penderecki added in 1993, and the Ciaconne, which he added in 2005. In 1981, he wrote the Agnus Dei in memory of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, a friend of his. This was followed a year later by the Recordare pie Jesu, which was written in honor of the beatification of Maximilian Kolbe and incorporates an old Polish hymn (“Swięty Bože”). The Dies irae, written in 1984, commemorates those who perished in the Warsaw Uprising. (As a Pole, Penderecki can hardly be blamed for sympathizing with the Polish Resistance.) Libera me, Domine was written in memory of the victims of the Katyn massacre — a bold move given that the government sought to eliminate all references to the massacre and punished Poles who attempted to spread the truth about it. [5] [24]

The finale ties together themes from earlier sections and concludes with the words “Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam” (“Grant, O Lord, that they might pass from death into life”), an expression of hope for Poland’s future.

The Requiem is scored for four solo vocalists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass), mixed choir, and an expanded symphony orchestra. It premiered on September 28, 1984 under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich, who championed Penderecki’s works. Musically, the work encompasses the atonality, tone clusters, and glissando effects characteristic of his early style as well as the influences of the German symphonic tradition and Renaissance polyphony. It is emblematic of the compositional style Penderecki adopted later in life, which blends the avant-garde with the neoromantic. Along with the St. Luke Passion, the Requiem is one of the greatest large-scale choral works of the past century.

Penderecki’s Cello Concerto no. 2 [25] (1982), written for Rostropovich, also reflects his shift toward the style that would define his later works. The piece makes use of both graphic and traditional notation. It has sonoristic qualities and contains a repetitive figure that brings to mind Fluorescences.

Commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Munich Philharmonic, Penderecki’s Symphony no. 3 [26] (1988–1995) [6] [27] is his best symphony and one of the greatest works of his later period. Its dark chromaticism brings to mind Wagner, Mahler, and Shostakovich, but its percussive drive and ever-present unease are pure Penderecki. The instrumentation includes an enlarged percussion section, most active in the second movement, that includes (among other instruments) a bell tree, a wood block, and a güiro [28]. The half-step motifs for which Penderecki is known feature prominently in the second, third, and fifth movements; the first and fourth movements focus more on the tritone.

The first movement, by far the shortest, features an obsessive bass ostinato that serves as thematic material for the rest of the work (barring the adagio). The second movement, marked allegro con brio, opens with a violent exchange between the strings and drums followed by a series of cadenza-like solos. It concludes with a bass ostinato, recalling the first movement. The third movement is a lengthy adagio. Lyrical strings fade into a horn melody, which is followed by flute, piccolo, and clarinet solos. The melodies develop above an orchestral accompaniment whose texture changes throughout. The fourth movement, which features in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, is a martial passacaglia whose eighth-note ostinato underlies a gradual crescendo to a thunderous climax that subsides into plaintive trumpet and English horn solos. It ends with a bass ostinato and the sound of tolling bells. The fifth and final movement opens with an ominous, percussive dance that is interrupted first by a duet in the winds and then by ostinati in the strings. The emphatic coda includes an ostinato on F, the note that opened the symphony.

Penderecki’s most notable recent works include his Violin Concerto no. 2 [29] (1995) and Credo [30] (1998). The violin concerto was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Subtitled “Metamorphosen,” it is full of contrasting textures and winding melodic transformations. Credo is a large-scale choral work scored for soloists, mixed choir, and orchestra. It is slow and spacious, but never ponderous. Musically, it draws mostly from Romanticism and has a Slavic feel. In 2018, Penderecki conducted Credo at the 29th Kyiv Music Fest to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence.

Penderecki’s influence extends far beyond the world of classical music. The many musicians who count him as an influence include Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Aphex Twin. Greenwood and Penderecki collaborated on an album [31] that contains Penderecki’s own Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia and Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” and “48 Responses to Polymorphia,” which were inspired by Threnody and Polymorphia respectively and were incorporated into Greenwood’s soundtrack for There Will Be Blood. Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls” also has traces of Penderecki. Aphex Twin produced remixes of Threnody [32] and Polymorphia [33] in 2011.

The terrifying unease that pervades Penderecki’s compositions may have roots in his experience as a patriotic Pole who came of age when Poland was under German and Soviet occupation. Like H. P. Lovecraft, Penderecki was a master at capturing the terror of the unknown and possessed a vivid imagination. In each phase of his career, he combined his personal language with creativity and craftsmanship. All told, he was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.


[1] [34] Krzysztof Penderecki, interview with Andy Battaglia, Resident Advisor, “The passion of Krzysztof Penderecki,” August 11, 2010, https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/1234 [35]. This is an interesting interview. Penderecki is an amateur botanist and claims to have the largest arboretum in Eastern Europe.

[2] [36] Ligeti and Penderecki share the distinction of having multiple works that feature in Kubrick’s films. Ligeti’s Lux aeterna, Requiem, Atmosphères, and Aventures appear in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lontano appears in The Shining, and the second movement of Musica ricercata appears in Eyes Wide Shut.

[3] [37] Zappa Wiki Jawaka, http://wiki.killuglyradio.com/wiki/Krzysztof_Penderecki [38].

[4] [39] Here [40] is a performance of the Polish Requiem conducted by Penderecki himself. (It was recorded in 1988, so it does not include the Sanctus or Ciaconne.) Penderecki also conducted a performance of the Requiem for Chandos.

[5] [41] Several of Penderecki’s compositions are used in Andrzej Wajda’s film about the Katyn massacre. Penderecki’s uncle was among the 22,000 Poles who were killed by the Soviets.

[6] [42] The illustration that accompanies this recording is by Zdzisław Beksiński, a Polish painter whose darkly surrealistic art goes quite well with Penderecki’s music.