Krzysztof Penderecki

The era of Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933–2020) – a composer, conductor, pedagogue, and humanist. A major figure in the field of high musical culture in the second half of the 20th and first decades of the 21st century. His music – ranging from sonoristic works, in which he proposed new types of sound and innovative ways of notation – operas and musical dramas, instrumental concertos and monumental symphonies – right through to chamber works, in which he fashioned the idea of claritas – changed the face of world music and entered the canon of the arts for good. He was the winner of 146 awards and distinctions, the recipient of honorary doctorates from 39 universities, a professor and rector of the Academy of Music in Kraków (from 1972 until 1987), the founder of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music and the creator of a unique arboretum in Lusławice. Since January 2022, the Academy of Music in Kraków has born the name of this artist, who, during the years of the Iron Curtain, provided the institution with a protective political and ethical “umbrella”.

●       Compositional strategy: surprising

“[…] Penderecki surprises. He inspires delight in some, and consternation in others. At the same time, he is a master of finding alibis for his actions,”* so writes Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, one of the exegetes of the music of the composer of Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Tomaszewski included these words in the introduction to the seven-volume series Twórczość Krzysztofa Pendereckiego. Od genezy do rezonansu (Krzysztof Penderecki’s Oeuvre. From Genesis to Resonance), which features the contributions of various authors on the phenomenon of this composer – his ideas and music (Academy of Music in Kraków, 2008–2013). The composer of Polymorphia (1961) adopted a path that led from rebellion against the established canon of the art of sound towards a reinterpretation of tradition itself; from being at the helm of the avant-garde to reinterpreting anew the legacy of Romanticism. At a gathering held in the Academy of Music in Kraków in 2018 (organised as part of the “Masters and Students” series), shortly before his 85th birthday, Professor Penderecki confessed: “Actually, I have been a rebel all my life.” And he recalled his well-known declaration: “A true accomplishment is to be and remain oneself.” It is worth recalling that during the communist era, the composer took up “unwelcome” subjects, especially those related to the sphere of the sacred. In the monumental Te Deum (1980), the chorus’ quotation of the hymn Boże, coś Polskę (God Thou Hast Poland), including the phrase Ojczyznę wolną, racz nam wrócić, Panie (Free homeland, may you return to us, O Lord), was perceived as a manifesto of freedom. As early as in the 1960s and 1970s, the composer of St Luke Passion (1966) was perceived in Western Europe as the most prominent composer of “freedom” living behind the Iron Curtain. Critics emphasised the fact that Krzysztof Penderecki was – the first since the times of Fryderyk Chopin – the nation’s most “political” composer, conveying the notion of a free Poland through the sounds he created.

●       From the idea of dialogue

Penderecki’s aesthetic stance was based on the idea of dialogue – an encounter between different values. The monumental diptych Utrenja (1970–71), originated from the idea of ecumenism and cultural dialogic: a representative of the “West” reaching out towards the people of the “East” in a gesture of reconciliation. The idea of dialogue also gave rise to, among other things, Song of the Cherubim (1986) and Kaddish (2009) – the latter work born in the painful memory of the Holocaust and a warning to future generations to “remember”. The composer of, inter alia, Sextet (2000) and Concerto grosso for three cellos and symphony orchestra (2001) used to say of himself that he was a “hybrid”: his family came from the borderlands. His grandmother on his father’s side was of Armenian descent, while his grandfather was a Polonized German. “My home lies in Mediterranean culture, created from the fusion of different worlds,” so confessed the composer of Paradise Lost (1976–78) and Credo (1997–98). This may explain the dialogue between tradition and modernity, or between Western rationality (thinking in terms of a preconceived form) and Eastern emotionality (where intense expression occupies the foreground) present in his music. For the composer of Paradise Lost, the art of sound was a message intended for the listener. It was not supposed to leave them indifferent to the subjects it addressed, or to the emotional temperature of these topics; rather it should stimulate the imagination and provoke thought – all this in order to participate in the consciously induced affect and effect.  

●       Nature and Culture 

Krzysztof Penderecki liked to use the metaphors of the labyrinth and the tree. “Every creative endeavour is a quest, and constant wandering becomes more important than finding the way,” he claimed. He wanted his compositions to be such “questing” works, rooted, like a tree, both in the earth and in heaven. Regina Chłopicka gave a telling title to her book: Krzysztof Penderecki między sacrum a profanum (Krzysztof Penderecki Between the Sacred and the Profane) (2000). “Both are tempting for me,” the composer explained perversely. He manifested this attitude, among other things, in his operas: we need only juxtapose the dramatic Black Mask (1984–86), which is a vision of the all-engulfing danse macabre, with the “clownish-pataphysical” Ubu Rex (1991), in which the composer, without quoting in crudo, parodies styles well-established in the history of musical theatre.

●       In the circle of significant subjects. Being committed here and now  

In his musical culture, Penderecki tackled significant subjects which concerned the entire human being, and thus involved himself, in a truly committed way, in the affairs of the human condition and the world. He was faithful to the principle that an artist could not be indifferent to what was happening around him. In Polish Requiem (1980–2005) he created sounds that portrayed the difficult history of his nation, and thus proved that one could still weave a great narrative even in modern times. Penderecki’s creative path was not devoid of turning points, which some people found surprising. When he wrote his St Luke Passion (1966), in which he measured himself against the Bachian genre, they said that he had betrayed the avant-garde which he had previously helped create. Later on, Penderecki – at home with the extensive symphonic form – became a sensitive lyricist, finding inspiration in textures as transparent as unbroken water, as in his moving Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio (1993), which epitomises his spiritually domesticating music.

●       A master of drama

The composer of Symphony No. 8 “Lieder der Vergänglichkeit” (2007), a symphony dedicated to his beloved trees, believed that designing a composition was like composing a garden space. It suffices to look at the composer’s colourful sketches – constructs of his first compositional ideas, which reveal the logic of a work’s preconceived plan. Penderecki thought of his works in terms of a whole, a process of tension and relaxation, a consistent pursuit of powerful, expressive climaxes. For his cycle A Sea of Dreams Did Breathe on Me. Songs of Reverie and Nostalgia (2010), he made a conscious selection of texts taken from more than several hundred works by Polish poets, which he had previously studied in detail, even though he believed that his native language was not as melodious as, for example, German. At the heart of this cycle, he placed a famous passus from a poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid: “I was with you in those penultimate days…”, a work deeply rooted in the Polish collective emotional memory.        

●       The spiritual dimension of music

In our “overstimulating” reality, Krzysztof Penderecki appealed to us to listen attentively to our inner worlds. It is impossible to ignore the spiritual dimension of his work. Well-known are his words which revealed the foundations of his creative outlook and artist’s ethos, namely that his music stemmed from deeply Christian roots and sought to rebuild the metaphysical space that had been shattered by the cataclysms of the 20th-century. He also emphasised the fact that from the very beginning, he wrote his own music, thereby creating a language with which – like a rhetor – he could communicate with his audience by appealing to the latter’s emotional cultural memory. He spoke of a need for synthesis as a cure for the nagging feeling that the world was falling apart. With his death on 29 March 2020 an era died too. It was, to a significant extent, the era of Krzysztof Penderecki, who saved the idea of thinking about music in terms of values.  

Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz

* M. Tomaszewski, Penderecki in: Twórczość Krzysztofa Pendereckiego. Od genezy do rezonansu. Interpretations edited by Mieczysław Tomaszewski, volume I – Początki i mocne wejście, Academy of Music in Kraków, Kraków 2008, p. 11.

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