Krzysztof Penderecki


Krzysztof Penderecki’s father was a lawyer and a keen violinist, who ensured that his son received both piano and violin lessons from an early age. When he was eighteen Krzysztof entered the Krakow Conservatory to continue his musical studies, while at the same time studying philosophy, art history and literary history at the University in Krakow. Composition was studied privately, initially with Franciszek Skolyszewski, then from 1955 with Artur Malewski, and after his death in 1957 with Stanislas Wiechowicz. Having graduated in 1958, Penderecki was immediately appointed to the staff of the Krakow Conservatory, teaching composition. The following year three of his works, Strophes, Emanations, and Psalms of David won first, second and third prizes in the Young Polish Composers’ Competition, and the first was performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Hans Rosbaud conducted his Anaklasis at the Donaueschingen Festival to considerable acclaim in 1960, and the following year his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was a prizewinner at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. These works placed the composer at the forefront of the Western avant-garde; they combined a highly experimental and expressionistic use of sound with a radical humanistic message. Penderecki’s international reputation was confirmed with his St Luke Passion, first performed in Munster Cathedral in 1966, and the Dies Irae of 1967, dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz. Between 1966 and 1968 he taught at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen and wrote his first opera, The Devils of Loudon. First performed at the Hamburg State Opera in 1969 this work proved to be a further international success: the English National Opera mounted a fine production of it in 1972.

Penderecki was appointed Rector of the Krakow Conservatory in 1972, a post which he held until 1979; in addition he taught at Yale University between 1973 and 1978. During the 1970s he developed a parallel career as a conductor, primarily of his own works. As a composer he began to turn his style gradually toward simpler structures and a more traditional tonal language, moving toward a contemporary form of neo-Romanticism. Notable works from this period include his Violin Concerto No. 1 (1976–1977), composed for Isaac Stern, and his Te Deum (1980), dedicated to Pope John Paul II. Penderecki underwent a further stylistic shift in the 1980s, when he began to connect the rebarbative sounds of his first period with the Romantic gestures of the second, his aim being to ‘…unify all that has been’ in order ‘…to create a synthetic and universal language’. Two products of this development were the Polish Requiem (1984), a memorial to the oppression of the composer’s country and a declaration of solidarity with its struggle for freedom, and his third opera, Die schwarze Maske, which was a success at its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 1986. ‘What I have been doing,’ Penderecki said in an interview of 1997, ‘has been to collect and to transform the experience of the entire century.’ This last synthesis is typified by condensed expression and a limited array of technical means. ‘Today, having gone through the post-Romantic lesson, and having exhausted the potential of postmodern thinking, I see my artistic ideal in claritas.’ Compositions drawing on this new musical aesthetic have included his Symphonies Nos 3 (1988–1995), 4 (1989) and 5 (1992), the Violin Concerto No. 2 (1995), and the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996) and Credo (1998). He has continued to conduct, building up a significant international presence and appearing with major orchestras in Germany, France, England, Italy, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, as well as throughout his home country of Poland. In America he has directed the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestras, amongst others. He has also held two permanent posts: as principal guest conductor of the North German Radio Orchestra in Hamburg and as music director of the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico. Penderecki has been the recipient of numerous awards including, amongst many others, the UNESCO Award, the Great Art Award of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Italia Prize (in both 1967 and 1968), the Honegger Prize, the Sibelius Prize, the Lorenzo Magnifico Prize, the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and a Grammy Award. Nine universities have conferred honorary doctorates upon him.

Penderecki’s recordings as a conductor, which are quite numerous, also present a direct picture of his development as a composer. During 1973 he recorded his orchestral works Anaklasis and the Symphony No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra for EMI. Later recordings have included his Polish Requiem, Magnificat, Psalms of David, St Luke Passion, Te Deum, The Dream of Jacob, and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, as well as his Symphony No. 2 ‘Christmas’ and the Adagio from the Symphony No. 4, Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 2, Viola Concerto, and Cello Concertos Nos 1 and 2. In addition he has recorded works by other Polish composers, including Szymanowski and Marek Stachowski, as well as by twentieth-century figures such as Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Carl Orff, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).