March 29, 2020


Enigmatic, devotional, restless ... a guide to Krzysztof Penderecki's music (Philip Clark,  29 Mar 2020, The Guardian)

Penderecki, whose death at the age of 86 was announced today, was born in Dębica, in south-east Poland in 1933. He emerged as a force in Polish modern composition alongside such figures as Witold Lutosławski, Tadeusz Baird, Andrzej Dobrowolski and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki who, during the late 1950s, were all constructing pieces using clusters of notes jam-packed together, often requiring players to explore terrain that pushed beyond the conventions of their instrument.

In 1960, the young composer wrote a piece for 52 string instruments that he called 8'37" (a nod towards John Cage's 4'33") in which sounds collided like swarms of bees; instruments were slapped and hit, and bows were employed to make violins et al squeak and squeal rather than sing. The piece made an immediate impression and when Penderecki, struck by the emotional turmoil of the apocalyptic sounds he had unleashed, retitled it Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, he found himself with an unexpected hit.

His First Symphony, which was completed in 1973, drew this period of sonic exploration to a close. By the time Penderecki started his Second Symphony in 1979, subtitled "Christmas", he had re-engaged with a Romanticism that recalled Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Schumann, and obviously relished doing so; the symphony took its title from references to Silent Night that he had woven through the texture. Traditionally perspectives on Penderecki divide sharply at this point: admirers of the Threnody and First Symphony pour scorn on the Christmas Symphony and everything that followed in its wake, while those who like the Romantic version of Penderecki thank their lucky stars that he had moved on from the avant garde.

In reality, though, neither point of view really gets Penderecki right. Threnody - and similar works such as Fluorescences and De natura sonoris I - were undoubtedly impressive, but perhaps lacked the careful ear of Ligeti's works using the orchestra as a sound mass, written during the same period. And if the project of latter-day Penderecki was about creating a sequence of symphonies, concertos and sacred works that could tap into that apparently unquenchable enthusiasm that audiences have for big Romantic statements like those made by the likes of Mahler and Shostakovich, those mass audiences never quite came.

Posted by at March 29, 2020 2:51 PM