Penderecki was born on November 23, 1933, in Debica, Poland. There was a large Jewish population in this small industrial town, as there was throughout most of Poland, but the events of World War II changed that as well as the political direction of Eastern Europe in the era of Penderecki's youth. Jews in Debica, along with millions of Jews from across Europe, were sent to concentration camps after Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939. As a youth, Penderecki remembers the war years as difficult ones; from the window of his home he once saw hometown resistance fighters hanged by German authorities. After the war, Poland fell under the terms of an agreement that allowed the Soviet Union a degree of political control; a one-party "people's republic," based on the Soviet Communist model, was firmly in place by 1952. By that time, Penderecki was studying music at Krakow's Superior School of Music. In the early years of communist Poland, the situation was politically unstable at times, partly because many Poles possessed a centuries-long distrust of Russia. Such sentiments compelled the Soviet-directed government to enact even more repressive measures. "Western music was almost totally forbidden, which of course made us all especially interested in Western music," Penderecki recalled in an interview with John Borrell for Opera News.
After widespread riots in Poland against Soviet control in 1956, a more tolerant government came to power, which coincided with a general movement toward liberalization in the Soviet Bloc that same year. Like others of his generation, Penderecki felt that the authorities were a bit more receptive to artistic innovation by the time he graduated from the Krakow school in 1958. In Communist "people's republics," all workers are essentially employed by the government--even artists, whose work was subject to censorship from the arts ministries. But Penderecki observed that these circumstances were actually a blessing to careers like his own: "When I was a student, everyone knew he was going to get a job," he said in the interview with Borrell. "Now we turn out far more composers and instrumentalists than we need."
"Border between 'Music' and 'Noise'"
Submitting compositions under pseudonyms, Penderecki won the Polish Composers Association award three times in 1959. The honor meant that he was granted a travel visa to the West for the first time that year. "That was really exciting," he told Borrell. "You can't imagine what it was like to travel from Poland to Italy in those days. It was like going to another world." He soon gained a reputation for innovative compositions like Strophes and Anaklasis, the latter written for the Donaueschigen Festival of 1960. Penderecki filled his works with dissonant threads, atonal melodies, microtones (quarter tones and three-quarter tones), and the quarter-tone cluster, in which notes are grouped a quarter-step apart. He also juxtaposed highest and lowest possible notes and inserted moments of music with an indeterminate pitch. At times, the string section would emit eerie notes, produced by partial string vibrations, that are known as whistling harmonics. Sirens, silences, and snapping fingers were also part of these early works. They include De natura sonoris I and Capriccio for violin and orchestra, both dating from the mid-1960s. "For many listeners, these works called into question the location or existence of a border between 'music' and 'noise,'" noted Nicholas Reyland in Central Europe Review.
As the composer told Borrell, his chosen career allowed for relatively free artistic expression during this era in Communist Poland: "[In instrumental music,] there are no words, so the authorities could not feel threatened, as they might with a writer or even a painter." But Penderecki remained a devout Roman Catholic, despite the official atheism dictated by Communist rule, and began to write sacred music for artistic fulfillment. He completed his Passion According to St. Luke in 1965, which would become one of his most enduring works. It was re-released in the mid-1990s with Stabat Mater and several other works, which prompted Philip Greenfield, reviewing it for American Record Guide,to remark that these pieces "and other portions of the St. Luke Passionare full of references to Gregorian chant, tone clusters, 12-tone writing, yells, hisses, and indeterminate pitches as Penderecki fashions a spiritual realm that is very eerie and overwhelming." That recording--Psalms of David, with Penderecki conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic--also included "Song of the Cherubim," written in the 1980s in honor of Russian dissident cellist, pianist, and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, which Greenfield termed "an intensely dramatic nod in the direction of the Russian Orthodox church."
Penderecki's best-known work would be his Polish Requiem, written over a two-decade period. Part of it, "Dies Irae," was commissioned by Polish government and debuted at a 1967 ceremony honoring the victims of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow, where many Jews and Poles alike perished. Sacred-music works from this period of his career include Utrenja ("Morning Prayer"), dating from 1970, Magnificat finished in 1974, and Te Deum in 1979.
Work Appeared in Kubrick Films
Throughout much of his career, Penderecki taught at the Krakow Superior School, except for a stint in the 1970s when he became a lecturer at Yale University. His works were appreciated by Western listeners as well and even attracted the attention of film director Stanley Kubrick, who used some of Penderecki's compositions for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. A 1978 opera, Paradise Lost, was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Penderecki returned to Poland around 1980 just as renewed political unrest was coalescing around an independent trade union called Solidarity, which demanded greater worker control in Polish industry. Beginning that summer, a series of strikes virtually shut down the country at times. Much of the world watched, believing Poland was about to be the first Eastern European country to break free from Soviet communism. Instead, martial law was declared near the end of 1981, and Solidarity's leaders were arrested. To commemorate the slaying of demonstrators killed at the Gdansk shipyard birthplace of the union, Penderecki added the movement "Lacrimosa" to the Requiem.He also wrote "Agnus Dei" on the day in 1981 that he learned his friend, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, had died. Once imprisoned in the 1950s for his outspoken views, Wyszynski headed the Catholic Church in Poland, which under his guidance was able to enjoy a degree of unparalleled religious tolerance from Eastern Bloc authorities.
Worldwide Acclaim for Requiem
Polish Requiemwas first performed in the West in 1983 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Rostropovich conducted the National Symphony Orchestra that evening, but over the next decade Penderecki himself would conduct his Requiem more than 100 times. Time writer Michael Walsh called it "an agonized musical document. Its crunching, tortured melodies, sliding uneasily through microtonal intervals, are the aural equivalent of a painting in hell by Hieronymus Bosch," Walsh asserted. "Yet there is a tempting element at work too: the ethereal 'Agnus Dei' is a vision of radiant beauty." Though there were already eight movements, it was still unfinished. In its entirety, it premiered in Stuttgart in 1984, again led by Rostropovich. It contained "Recordare," which Penderecki wrote in homage to Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest incarcerated at Auschwitz who gave his life so that a man with a family might survive, as well as the 14-minute "Sanctus" and a confident, buoyant "Finale." Greenfield, writing in the American Record Guide about a version recorded with several notable Polish classical performers and the Stockholm Philharmonic, declared that "the Requiem reads like a tribute to the many diverse skills and styles that make this composer's voice such a haunting and expressive one."
Penderecki became rector of his alma mater in Krakow in 1982. As the composer matured, his works took on a more harmonic style--though his works written for the chorus still remained notoriously difficult. His later orchestral works include Symphony No. 2 in 1980, Cello Concerto No. 2 in 1983, and Credo, an extended work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra based upon the Roman Catholic liturgy that made its European debut in Krakow in 1998. Such works are far more accessible to the average listener, noted Reyland in Central Europe Review. "Melodies are stated and developed, recapitulations occur, harmonic momentum is sure-footed and rarely ambiguous, and the work's form is clearly derived from structural archetypes dating back to Bach."
A Leading Light in Krakow
Another important work from the 1990s was Seven Gates of Jerusalem, which had been commissioned for the 3,000-year anniversary celebration of the holy city in 1996 by the Israeli government. It made its American debut at Lincoln Center in 1998. Back in Poland--with ten years of free elections since 1989 and the rise of former Solidarity leaders to the presidency and premiership--Penderecki is active with his wife, Elzbieta, in shaping the historic medieval city into a new center of music for Eastern Europe. Krakow was the capital of Poland for six centuries and is considered a religious center as well; Pope John Paul II was once its archbishop. "The strong spiritual side of the city--reflected in so much of Penderecki's work--is evident in dozens of churches in different architectural styles ranging from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque," wrote Borrell about his visit to the city in Opera News.
Nearing 70, Penderecki is an active composer and conductor. His Missa premiered at the Eugene (Oregon) Bach Festival in the summer of 1998 during a stint there for him as composer-in-residence. He has also served as music director for Puerto Rico's Casals Festival since 1993 and is under contract with the Munich Philharmonic to write symphonies. His early works are still revered among those familiar with his music, though when his difficult Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, dating from 1960, was performed by the New York Philharmonic in late 1997 under Penderecki's baton, many audience members departed. Shirley Fleming, who reviewed the performance for American Record Guide, praised the program's Symphony No. 5, which received its American premier that night. "Much of the music is engagingly transparent.... The most arresting event is a chattery, far-reaching fugue spearheaded at length by the violas, and the composer's affinity for the ancient art of polyphony is unusually clear in this symphony."
In addition to a home in Switzerland, the Pendereckis reside in a Krakow home that features an arboretum with more than 1,000 varieties of trees; the composer has also built a maze for relaxation purposes. The couple launched the city's Beethoven Festival in the mid-1990s, for which Elzbieta serves as artistic director. There are also plans for concerts beginning in 2000 with the New York Philharmonic from Krakow's historic Wawel Castle. "No art can survive without its roots," he told Borrell, "and this city has fed and nurtured my inspiration."
by Carol Brennan