The Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, who has died aged 86, was an outstanding representative of musical modernism’s success in the 1960s. From the early 70s he became equally emblematic of the subsequent failure of so many of that modernism’s principal pioneers to sustain a lifelong career without abandoning their original principles.
In Penderecki’s case, that appeared to mean the substitution of his early trademark emphasis on sound itself, the innovative textures of his choral and orchestral music replacing themes and tonality as the basis for musical construction, with a more lyrical and Romantic style that seemed more like a continuation of 19th-century compositional concerns than a radical reappraisal of received materials.
The composer’s earlier manner reached its apogee in the St Luke Passion for two vocal soloists, reciter, three mixed choruses, children’s choir and orchestra; its world premiere took place in March 1966 in Münster Cathedral.
As the German critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt put it: “A large ecclesiastical choral work, composed by a representative of the new music in socialist Poland, performed for the first time in a centre of West German Catholicism, in the former bishop’s seat of the daring anti-Nazi Graf von Galen [a prominent critic of the Third Reich when bishop of Münster during the 40s]: this gives occasion to a variety of thoughts.” Many performances worldwide of the Passion took place over the next few years.
Penderecki’s later approach is perhaps best exemplified by the First Violin Concerto, written in 1977 for Isaac Stern; by the Polish Requiem for four soloists, chorus and orchestra (1984, revised in 1993), many sections of which are dedicated to individuals or mass martyrs from Polish history; or by the Credo for five vocal soloists, chorus, children’s choir and orchestra (1998), in which Bach and Polish sources are encountered in a broadly 19th-century harmonic idiom.
Penderecki was born in Dębica, in south-eastern Poland, the youngest of three children of Zofia (nee Wittgenstein) and Tadeusz Penderecki. His father was a lawyer, and an amateur violinist and pianist. Armenian ancestry came from a grandmother, who took the young Penderecki to an Armenian church in Krakow; this aspect of the composer’s heritage was highlighted in 2015 with the premiere of a new choral work, Psalm No 3, commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915, at Carnegie Hall, New York.
Composition studies with Artur Malawski and Stanislaw Wiechowicz at the State Higher School of Music (now known as the Academy) in Kraków (1954-58) led to his being appointed a teacher of composition there himself. This was only five years after the death of Stalin; and, despite the advent of the Warsaw autumn international festival of contemporary music in 1956, communist rule in Poland discouraged modernist tendencies.
Penderecki himself was then still writing music essentially neoclassical in style, and in 1958 it must have looked as though the young composer was set for a safe but dull career of merely local significance.
In the following year, however, came a rise both to sudden maturity and to fame surely as swift as that experienced by any composer at any period. Penderecki had, anonymously, as its terms required, submitted three works to a competition organised by the Union of Polish Composers.
When his name turned out to be on the scores winning all the top three prizes, the works involved – Strophes, Emanations and Psalms of David – all immediately became well-known in European avant-garde circles, and commissioners of new works quickly beat a path to his door.
The reasons for Penderecki’s increasing popularity during this time clearly lay in the fact that his reliance on sound itself, rather than on melody or harmony as such – an approach that came to be called “sonorism” – was allied to a highly expressive manner that quickly resonated with listeners beyond the avant garde, promising to create a new public for contemporary music.
The works that Penderecki now began to write – deploying sound masses including unusual instrumental and vocal techniques, and combining conventional and more graphic methods of notation – extended this coupling of experimental sound-world and immediacy of expression to develop a texture-based language of assertive individuality.
In the St Luke Passion, the use of chant, recitative and chorales, not to mention the BACH motif (using German note-names, B flat-A-C-B natural) and occasional major triads, helped to make it famous as an instinctively dramatic reworking of a genre familiar from the baroque period. The work was also very timely since, despite emerging from communist Poland, it expressed a spirit of post-second world war reconciliation. Penderecki’s Passion became regarded as a kind of avant-garde counterpart to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, premiered only four years before it.
An expressive approach to new materials and means such as Penderecki’s found contemporary parallels in the outputs not only of other Polish composers such as Henryk Górecki and, to some extent, Witold Lutosławski, but also in those of Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti. Part of the broader agenda here was a concern to find a way forward that addressed the problems of musical structure and comprehensibility raised by the so-called total serialism of such composers as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and that yet retained a radical attitude to musical materials.
West Germany, in particular, opened its doors to Penderecki in the 60s: the publisher Hermann Moeck and Heinrich Strobel – a radio producer who also ran the Donaueschingen Music Days – were soon prominent champions. It was not long before Penderecki was showered with awards, both in that country and elsewhere.
One of the first of these, a Unesco prize, went to his most famous early composition before the St Luke Passion, his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). Written for 52 strings and originally known as 8’37” (the work’s length), Threnody is classic early Penderecki: its vividly unconventional writing for massed strings, including quarter-tones, tremolos and multiple glissandi, allied – after the composer changed the title – to highly emotive and political subject matter.
This combination would serve him well both at this period and later. Indeed, just as the highly expressive, sometimes programmatically charged, approach of other early works such as Polymorphia for 48 strings (1961), with its thunderously concluding C-major chord, or the Dies Irae for three vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra (1967), which commemorates the dead of Auschwitz, was subsequently carried over into the more conventional sound-world of Penderecki’s output from the 70s onwards, so the potentially incompatible range of musical materials to be found in some of his 60s compositions can sometimes be detected in his output too.
The Polish Requiem and Credo offer two contrasting approaches here: the former incorporating 60s sonoristic effects, the latter more consistently conventional in idiom.
More rigorously modernist commentators soon criticised Penderecki’s scores of the 60s for cheap eclecticism, producing “effects-without-causes” music.
Subsequently, his move into what was often called “neo-Romanticism” supplied them with fresh ammunition, as the view of Penderecki as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing” appeared vindicated. Now that most of the more obviously avant-garde surface aspects of his music had largely disappeared, thematic and tonal underpinning could show through, unencumbered by any remaining equivocations about expressing musical and extra-musical ideas as approachably as possible to a public for whom most contemporary music remains anathema.
Yet those early works, which at the time struck so many as so arresting in their dramatic challenge to convention, now seem – for some listeners at least – shallow, simplistic, or even opportunistic. Penderecki’s subsequent manner, meanwhile, retained the endless chromatic melodic sequences and tritones of the earlier manner in the context of a thematic tonality that could now prove simply banal.
A notable example is the Second Symphony, subtitled the Christmas Symphony (1980), with its quotation of the carol Silent Night: this seems inadequate to the task of handling the religious and political meanings with which it is often charged. Some would argue that the composer had long since proved to be a spent force.
Penderecki’s later, as well as his earlier music, retained some champions, however; both before and after the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981, the composer’s works were adopted as a representation of the struggle between church and state. This did not stop Penderecki from maintaining links with the Polish political establishment in the years immediately after 1981, something that his compatriots Lutosławski and Górecki – the latter also directly linked, like Penderecki, with the Solidarity movement – refused to do.
Works such as the Te Deum for four vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra (1980) – dedicated to Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków, who became Pope John Paul II in October 1978 – and the Polish Requiem – both of which quote old Polish hymns – should be understood in this light.
Other signs of Penderecki’s acceptance included the number of leading international soloists who premiered works by the composer, among them Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom the Second Cello Concerto (1982) was written, and Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom both the Second Violin Concerto, subtitled Metamorphosen (1995), and the capriccio for solo violin solo, entitled La Follia, premiered in 2013, were composed.
Four operas – beginning with a suitably lurid Devils of Loudun (1969), based on a book by Aldous Huxley – received prominent performances, if not very many productions in the UK. Parts of this work, as well as his String Quartet and Kanon For Orchestra and Tape, were used on the soundtrack to the film The Exorcist (1973); and Penderecki’s music featured in films including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010).
The most recent of the composer’s eight symphonies – subtitled Lieder der Verganglichkeit (Songs of Transience), for three vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, a 50-minute choral symphony in 12 movements setting 19th- and early 20th-century German poets – was completed in 2005 and revised in 2008.
Penderecki also worked frequently, and internationally, as a conductor – including, notably, of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich as well as his own. He was rector of the Krakow Academy (1972-87), and taught at Yale University (1973-78).
He is survived by his second wife, Elżbieta Solecka, whom he married in 1965, and by their son and daughter; and by a daughter from his first marriage.
• Krzysztof Penderecki, composer and conductor, born 23 November 1933; died 29 March 2020