A Composer Who Matters

Krzysztof Penderecki in 2014 (Jakub Ociepa / Agencja Gazeta via Reuters)
On Krzysztof Penderecki (1933–2020)

Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.

Over the years, I have interviewed many musicians, most of them performers, with a few composers sprinkled in. (On rare occasions, the interviewee is both: both performer and composer. “He rolls his own,” I often say of such a person.) One of my usual questions is, “Are there living composers you admire?” Lowering the bar, I might say, “Are there composers today you consider worth hearing?”

A composer friend of mine hates it when I ask this question, understandably. I wince at the thought that he will read the words I am now writing. But a great many people ignore contemporary music, leaving it undiscussed. At least I’m not guilty of that.

I also think of something that George Rochberg once said. (Rochberg was an American composer who lived from 1918 to 2005.) He said it to a young composer, another friend of mine: “A composer has to have an iron stomach.” So does a writer, and not a few others.

Anyway, to my question or questions about living composers — “Whom do you admire?” “Whom do you consider worth hearing?” — I have received various answers. Some people say, “Oh, my goodness, I could list them all day, are you kidding?” Others — most — offer a short, select list.

On one memorable occasion, I was doing a podcast with a famous pianist. When I asked him about living composers, he looked at me with panic in his eyes, mouthing something like, “I have no idea.” Quickly, I moved on.

For all these years, musicians have tended to name one composer, above all — one composer who stands tall and stands out: Krzysztof Penderecki, of Poland. Indeed, when I asked the late conductor Lorin Maazel about composers — and he was one himself — he said, immediately, “Penderecki.” Then he paused a long while before adding a few more names.

Penderecki died earlier this year — March 29 — at age 86. Was he, is he, great? William F. Buckley Jr. liked to quote Stravinsky to the effect that you can’t tell about a composer until 50 years after his death. This is a commendable idea, but not necessarily true. Simply to pluck a name from the 20th century, it was obvious, virtually from the beginning, that Shostakovich was great.

And how about the composer of The Firebird, etc. (Stravinsky)?

Shostakovich died in 1975 (Stravinsky in ’71). Is he the last great composer? Not the last great composer who will ever live, but our most recent great composer? Is Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976? Whether or not Krzysztof Penderecki is great, he is formidable, without doubt.

Penderecki was born on November 23, 1933. He grew up in Debica, a town in southeastern Poland. His father, Tadeusz, was a lawyer who also played the violin and the piano. Tadeusz was descended from German Protestants; one of Krzysztof’s grandmothers was Armenian. “I’m quite a mix,” he once said.

Debica was approximately half Jewish. The Pendereckis — who were not Jewish — lived on the border of the ghetto. Krzysztof learned to speak a little Yiddish. Those neighbors would soon disappear.

Krzysztof was five when the war came — when the Nazis invaded on September 1, 1939 (and the Soviets 16 days later). Some of his family members died in the war, including an uncle who was killed in the Katyn Massacre.

The influence of the war — intensity, horror, darkness — can be heard in the music that Penderecki wrote for 70 or so years. He once quipped — though it was more than a quip — that if he had been born in New Zealand, his music would have turned out differently.

Originally, he wanted to be a violinist. I chatted with him about this once, after the premiere of La Follia (2013), a piece that Penderecki wrote for solo violin, which is to say, unaccompanied violin. That piece will be played by virtuosos for generations to come, I wager. In any case, Penderecki, as a young man, turned wholeheartedly to composition.

He had a thorough schooling in counterpoint and other old forms. Bach was a lodestar, and would ever hover in the background of Penderecki’s life. I think of Christian Gottlob Neefe, the music master in Bonn — who gave young Beethoven the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier and said, essentially, “This is it.”

In March 1953, when Penderecki was just 19, something wonderful happened: Stalin died. The dictator’s passing widened artistic possibilities in the Soviet Union and its bloc.

Later in the ’50s, Penderecki heard electronic music, which fascinated and excited him. Going radical, he wanted new sounds, a new music. “All I’m interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition,” he said. The young man was at the forefront of the avant-garde.

In 1960, he wrote a piece for string orchestra — 52 strings, to be precise. He had the instruments do things they had never been asked to do before. He turned them into percussion instruments. He also invented a new system of notation for this piece. So, 8’37” was born. That was the title of the piece, indicating eight minutes and 37 seconds. Penderecki said that his piece should take that amount of time (a very precise duration).

It is an alarming, screaming, shocking piece. When the composer heard it for the first time — not in his head but played by an actual orchestra — he was “struck by the emotional charge of the work,” as he said. “I searched for associations.” He renamed his piece “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.”

The Threnody remains the most famous piece he ever wrote, probably, even though it dates from the beginning of his long career.

His choice of title — second title — is somewhat surprising. In 2019, an interviewer, Mark Grigorian, asked Penderecki, “When you write music, does some plot or story develop in your head, one that you would like to convey through the music?” The composer answered, “No. For me, music is pure abstraction.”

Of course, the “Hiroshima” title was after the fact.

A lot of people found, and find, the Threnody political, which is understandable. The title steers a listener. Incidentally, what about the victims of the Nagasaki bombing? Or of countless other bombings, of countless other places by countless other forces? Anyway, “I don’t write political music,” said Penderecki in the late 1990s. “Political music is immediately obsolete.” The Threnody endures, he said, “because it is abstract music,” no matter what the title.

The Threnody has been used in movies and TV shows, such as Children of Men and Twin Peaks. A great deal of music by Penderecki has been used in movies and TV shows — in The Exorcist, for example, and The Shining.

From 1963 to 1966, Penderecki wrote his St. Luke Passion, which was a curious combination, as it remains: oratorio meets avant-garde. He would never cease to write sacred music, including hymns, Masses — even a Kaddish.

One of Penderecki’s better-known works is the Polish Requiem. (This designation may make you think of Brahms: A German Requiem.) The work began life as a Lacrimosa, written in 1980. The Lacrimosa was commissioned by the Solidarity union to mark the tenth anniversary of the killings at the Gdansk shipyards. It is dedicated to Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who would become the first president of a free Poland.

To the Lacrimosa, Penderecki added pieces, over the years: an Agnus Dei here, a Dies Irae there. All of these elements were written for particular purposes, particular occasions, all relating to Poland. Finally there was a chaconne in 2005, written to honor Pope John Paul II. The various pieces, brought together, constitute the Polish Requiem.

I have said that Penderecki wrote sacred music all his life — but he did not do so in the same style. Far from it. Like Picasso — or the aforementioned Stravinsky, for that matter — Penderecki went through a variety of artistic periods. He often said that he wanted to be like Picasso rather than Chagall. The latter was a great artist, Penderecki averred, but “was painting almost the same way for 50 years.”

Fairly early, Penderecki turned his back on the avant-garde. It was spent, he said. It had become “more destructive than constructive.” He often explained, “I did not want to be my own epigone”: a weak imitator of himself, writing the Threnody over and over. Instead, he recaptured tradition, emphasizing form. “Respect your form,” he advised.

Through the decades, he wrote for himself, primarily. Then for his fellow musicians, who would perform his music. Then for an audience (receptive, appreciative). And people wanted his music, turning to him for the big commission, the big event.

You already know about Solidarity. But there were so many more. Penderecki was asked to write a piece for the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. And the bicentennial of the United States. And the 3,000th — 3,000th! — anniversary of Jerusalem. Etc.

By the time he was finished, Penderecki had a great corpus of works, comprising four operas, eight symphonies, a dozen or so concertos, chamber music — the gamut. He also taught and lectured. He wrote essays. And he conducted (his own music). Bespectacled and bearded, Penderecki looked like an academic, and sometimes a prophet.

Generally speaking, his music has both brains and emotion. It is intense, anxious, ominous — sometimes horrifying. I myself am sometimes puzzled by Penderecki’s taste for the dark side.

Consider The Dream of Jacob, an orchestral piece from 1974 (commissioned by Prince Rainier of Monaco for his silver jubilee). It could be the score to a horror movie. Indeed, Stanley Kubrick borrowed it for The Shining. From Penderecki’s pen, Jacob’s marvelous dream — “in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” — sounds like a nightmare.

Whatever you or I may think, Penderecki had his own vision, all life through, and he was faithful to it, whatever it was at any given time. “I did not want to be my own epigone,” he said. But he has them: imitators. They write with Pendereckian anxiety and darkness, but they do not do so as well as he.

Disciplined and restless, Penderecki never stopped writing. He wrote every day, “trying to find something inside me,” as he said. He would sometimes stare at the empty piece of paper, thinking he could never fill it, that he had sung all his songs. Yet he managed.

He had at least one other interest, namely trees — “my second profession,” he called it. At his country house in Poland (60 miles from Krakow), he had what he reckoned to be the largest arboretum in Eastern Europe: 1,700 species. “My grandfather taught me trees and the Latin names of trees when I was five or six. His father was a forester, so he knew them all.”

Back in 2002, I interviewed Ned Rorem, the American composer born in 1923. When I arrived at his apartment, he asked what the weather was like outside. I said it was gloomy. “Good,” he said, “I like it that way.”

He would go on to remark, “We are living in the only period in history in which music of the past is stressed at the expense of music of the present.” Intellectuals know about visual art, past and present, Rorem said. They know about literature, past and present. But if they know any music at all, it’s pop music. “I and my brothers and sisters are not part of their ken.”

And the general public? The public “has no notion of what it is we composers do.” Performers are more important than composers, in the eyes of the world, by miles and miles. “We’re a despised minority,” said Rorem. “Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.”

That is gloomy for sure, though not necessarily wrong. We can take up the general subject another time. In any event, Krzysztof Penderecki has managed to break through, to a degree. One thing that may hinder his reputation, I think, is his name — and the inability of people outside Poland to pronounce it. Forget that first name, that “Christopher,” that daunting collection of consonants. How about the last one? It’s a little tricky: “Pender-ET-ski.”

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