Krysztof Penderecki dies at 86 – indefatigably he testified to the issues of our times

After a long and serious illness the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki died on Sunday 29 March 2020 in his home in Kraków. He was one of the most important composers of Poland, who was internationally renowned.

In 1961 Penderecki, born in the village of Dębica in 1933, was catapulted into fame with his work Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. This avant-garde, expressionist piece for string orchestra scourges the ears with heavily dissonant harmonies full of microtones. With this relentless orgy of sound, the Pole voiced the spiritual and physical inferno caused by the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city in 1945.

Unlike fellow innovators such as Stockhausen and Boulez, he knew how to connect with the general public from the start. In 2016 Penderecki was composer in residence in the ninth edition of the Storioni Festival, that was kicked off on 21 January in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ but is based in Eindhoven. During the festival a lot of Penderecki’s chamber music was performed, alongside his arrangement for string orchestra of his compelling choral work Agnus Dei. In the same period the Dutch Radio Choir sang his Stabat Mater in AVROTROSVRijdagconcert, and I interviewed him for the live broadcast.

Penderecki has been a testimony composer all his life. He grew up in the southeast of Poland, where he was surrounded by Jews as a native. In his youth he even spoke Yiddish and during the Second World War he saw many of his friends murdered or deported to Treblinka and Auschwitz. He expressed their fate in great choral works, such as the St. Luke Passion (on Auschwitz, 1966), the ‘Dies Irae’ from his Polish Requiem (on the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1981) and Kaddish (on Hebrew texts, dedicated to the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, 2009).

But also the Russian domination and the Polish resistance against communism found their way to his music. In 1980, for instance, he dedicated his Te Deum for soloists, choir and orchestra to Karol Wojtila, who had just been anointed Pope, and in the same year he honoured the rebellious trade union Solidarnosc in the choral work Lacrimosa. His works are often religiously inspired, mostly borrowed from the Catholic rite, such as the Stabat Mater. However, he also composed a Mass on Russian Orthodox texts.

Although his music harboured a great deal of dissonance to the end, it gradually became more consonant. Penderecki started incorporating references to classical music – Flemish polyphony, Bach, Mahler – as a result of which he was at times vilified as a ‘neo-Romantic’. This didn’t bother him, he simply kept on writing the music that his feeling and intuition triggered and in doing so he succeeded in reaching a large audience.

In recent years Penderecki had been concentrating more and more on chamber music. When I interviewed him in 2016 for Radio 4 on occasion of a performance of his Stabat Mater by the Dutch Radio Choir, he told me chamber music ranked supreme for him at the time: ‘Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and don’t feel like writing big pieces with lots of staffs anymore. I find it especially attractive because in chamber music it’s all about the truth, you can’t hide. In an orchestral work you can hide from time to time if you can’t figure it out, in a piece for a solo instrument every note counts.’

Penderecki indefatigably testified to the issues of our times. His music was used in groundbreaking films such as The Exorcist and The Shining and he won innumerable awards. In 1979 a bronze bust was made by Marian Konieczny for The Gallery of Composers’ Portraits at the Pomeranian Philharmonic in Bydgoszcz. A copy is located on the Celebrity Alley in Kielce. In 1991 an asteroid was named in his honour: 21059 Penderecki.

On Sunday 5 April 12.00 am – 13.00 uur pm I will play ‘Threnody’ in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender. You can listen back through this link

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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