30 Mar 2020

Penderecki: a giant of contemporary music

From Upbeat, 1:18 pm on 30 March 2020

Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki has died at the age of 86 after a long illness.

Penderecki was a major figure in contemporary music whose work reached millions particularly through film scores like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist

Though he didn’t specifically compose much for movies, directors relied on Penderecki’s music to create atmosphere and magnify feelings of dread and horror, in films like The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick thriller that included Penderecki's The Awakening of Jacob and Polymorphia.

Hamish McKeich, Principal Conductor in Residence for the NZSO conducted 'Polymorphia' in the NZSO Shed Series last year, where it was a great hit.

“Many people hadn’t heard it before, or even heard of it! Adding the wonderful companion piece people were already exposed to '48 responses to Polymorphia' by Jonny Greenwood, seemed to introduce a whole load of people to how amazing Penderecki’s music really is and seldom performed. Not least as it sounds like suspense/horror movie music, which of course people have already been exposed to, without knowing it."

As a young composer in the 1960s Penderecki’s aim was to “liberate sound beyond all tradition”. His avant-garde experimental 1960 work 'Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima' made his name internationally when he was just 26 and he was given a UNESCO award. The work is dedicated to the residents of Hiroshima who were killed and injured by the first-ever wartime usage of an atomic weapon.

McKeich says he first heard Penderecki at Burnside High School, when 'Threnody…' was part of the school curriculum and although he didn’t understand it at the time, he says it helped him develop his contemporary music listening ears.

Penderecki’s music has influenced a generation of experimental rock musicians - artists like Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood who wrote on Twitter: "Penderecki was the greatest - a fiercely creative composer, and a gentle, warm-hearted man. My condolences to his family, and to Poland on this huge loss to the musical world."

Conductor Kristjan Järvi shared a tribute on his Instagram: "RIP Krystof Penderecki, an inspiration to all of us in the world of beauty, discovery and invention. May your spirit live forever."

Penderecki initially wasn't writing for an audience, but later he changed his mind, feeling that experimentation had reached an impasse, because “we discovered everything!" 

“Music in the ’50s isolated itself from popular music and then slowly, step by step, I think it might have begun in films, it started coming back,” he said.

Penderecki's change of style towards romanticism can be heard in his second violin concerto 'Metamorphosen' which was written for German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter who he worked with over many years; she lamented his death on Facebook:

"The loss of Krzysztof Penderecki leaves a huge void in my heart as well as an enormous one for all musicians and music lovers around the globe," she wrote. "The première of his 'Recordare' in September 1984 in Stuttgart was a life changing experience for me. His violin concerto 'Metamorphosis' became my life line during the terminal illness and death of my husband in 1995."

In 2018 Mutter joined Penderecki on a major tour of China to mark the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence and to celebrate the composer’s 85th birthday.

Along with his wife of more than five decades, Elzbieta, Krzysztof Penderecki is survived by a son and two daughters.