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Notes on Penderecki

Filip Lech
Krzysztof Penderecki, Wrocław, 2008, fot. Wojtek Wilczyński / FORUM
Krzysztof Penderecki, Wrocław, 2008, fot. Wojtek Wilczyński / FORUM 

Krzysztof Penderecki is now celebrating his 80th birthday. Where is the composer from, what does he have in common with Tadeusz Kantor, what links him do Salvador Dali? Why do Jewish motifs recurr in his music? Who does he plant his… mazes for, and, is he into jazz? We have all those answers for you


Krzysztof Penderecki was born in 1933 in the town of Dębica, Dembitz in Yiddish. It was a small, provincial town with the majority of its inhabitants Hasidic Jews. Life rolled on unhurriedly in Dębica, and its dwellers  remembered the times of emperor Frans Josef and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy with a tinge of nostalgia. Hence all the Jewish echoes that resonante throughout Penderecki’s oeuvre. In a talk with the Polish Radio, the composer commented:

It is strange that after all these years, the music that I had in my ears, comes back. For exemple, in two of my compositions klezmer music reiterated intentionally – in the Sextet (2000) and even in the Concerto grosso (2001), I most likely heard the motives there as a child.

Synagoga w Dębicy, ul. Krakowska 3, 1961, fot. Jerzy Żurawski / źródło: www.
A synagogue in Dębica in 1961, 3 Krakowska street, photo: Jerzy Żurawski / source: www.

Family (1)

Penderecki comes from a family of Armenian, German and Polish roots. His grandfather was a German protestant, but he converted to Catholicism for his wife, and became a neophyte. The composer’s grandmother, an Armenian, came from Stanisławowo, nowadays Ivano-Frankivsk. She travelled from Dębica to pray in an Armenian church in Kraków. Penderecki is also related to Tadeusz Kantor. More precisely speaking, Kantor was a younger cousin of Penderecki’s mother, 20 years senior of the composer.


Krzysztof Penderecki, fotografia z książki Ludwika Erhardta "Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim"Unlike a great many composers, Krzysztof Penderecki did not come from a musical family. His parents sent him and his siblings to piano lessons, assuming that a well educated man should also have some orientation in the fine arts. These lessons were a nightmare for the future musical rebel, and the teacher quickly gave up on her refractory student. Some time later, Penderecki’s father received a violin, and this present incited unusual curiosity in his young son. Anyone is capable of producing a clear sound on the piano – it is enough to simply strike a key. The violin is a much more complex instrument, and the young Krzysztof decided to become a virtuoso. He practiced from the early morning, before going off to school,  and it was the first thing he took to after coming home. A girl friend gave a voluminous collection of Bach’s sonatas, which Penderecki became enchanted with.
In junior high school, he founded a band, and, in the words of Lisicki, became somewhat an animator and manager of the musical scene in Dębica. Nowadays we would call his a city activist. After he passed his baccalaureate exam, his parents sent to Kraków for one year, so that he could decide for himself what direction he wanted to take. Apart from music, Penderecki was also fascinated by literature (he thought of studying classical philology) and was also attracted by the visual arts.


As we know very well, Penderecki chose music and quickly claimed his first merits. It could be said that he set a record right away, winning three major awards in 1959, coming first place and twice second in the Young Composers’ Competition organised by the Polish Composers’ Union. The compositions were submitted anonymously, and when the jury checked winners’ identity they were rather troubled to see one composer garner the three awards. They were quick to modify the rules of the contest – and since that edition, every composer is allowed to submit only one work for competition.  In other words, Penderecki’s record is thus unbeatable. The awarded pieces are Strofy (Stanzas) for soprano, a reciting voice, and 10 instruments, David’s Psalms – based on the texts of Kochanowski, and Emanations for the orchestra.

Krzysztof Penderecki, fot. Bruno Fidrych


Krzysztof Penderecki, photo: Bruno Fidrych 


Strofy, based on Greek, Persian and Hebrew texts, have entered the programme of the Warszawska Jesień (Warsaw Autumn) festival. In his article for the Ruch muzyczny magazine, Bohdan Pociej underscored  that
Penderecki’s reading of antiquity is thoroughly innovative and contemporary. But the legendary critic, Stefan Kisielewski attacked the composer’s pathos and solemnity, questioning the value of the avant-garde:

Is there no more humor, nor energy, nor play, nor variety and surprise, and no adventure in the world of music?


"I often spend more than a dozen hours a day on a score, regardless of where I am, in Poland or overseas.", claims Penderecki, the composer who is said to be able to concentrate in any place at all. His first wife studied the piano, and he was distracted by the sound of the instrument, so he would leave the house… to work in a crowded café. It was the Jama Michalikowa, where he took always the same table, and, as legend has if, he wrote on paper napkins. Nowadays, he is not even distracted by his grandchildren, who scribble on his sheets as he is composing. He says that his favourite place to write is probably the seaside, and the Baltic landscape has actually accompanied him as he created both the noisy Polymorphy, and later became an inspiration for Stabat Mater.


Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (or 8’37”)

Penderecki composes a piece which is meant to rebel against the dominating trends of the 1950s’ avantgarde and he sings the score 8’37”, as this is how long the interpretation of the piece should be. But after listening to it, he changes the title to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and sends a letter with the score to the mayor of Hiroshima:

May this threnody express my deep belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost, and Hiroshima will become a symbol of brotherhood between people of good will

Others suggest that Pendercki changed the title in order to avoid accusations of overt formalism and to diminish a potentially scandalous character of the piece’s performance.

The young critic Jan Topolski described Penderecki’s Threnody in the following words:

The nearly nine-minute threnody begisn with a cluster of all kinds of intruments, in the highest register and after about minute and a pause it gives way to aleatoric figures (…). In the fifth minute rare structures of an even more violent character emerge – the knocking on the box, playing on the bridge become clearer. Finally the last two minutes of the Threnody are once again a cluster in its full form, with a play on turning the volume up and down, and an added tremolo and change of registers.

Krzysztof Penderecki, "Ofiarom Hiroszimy - Tren"
Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

Conductors and instrumentalists who saw the Threnody’s score looked at the composer as if he was a madman, and refused to perform his piece. The first interpretations of it required numerous negotiations, and explanations of his ideas as well as instructions of how the play the score. The planned performances in Rome and Koln were delayed. Interestingly, the passion and engagement of every ensemble to have performed the Threnody grew each time that they tackled the challenge.

The Dangerous Score

A package containing the original score of the Threnody was lost on its way to the German publisher, and Penderecki had to reconstruct it from memory. Later it turned out that it was kept by the customs service, who suspected it contained some secret plots of building an atomic bomb, or, at least some army secrets of the Warsaw Pact. A deep analysis by the services prooved that it was only notes, and in the end, the package finally made it to its adresee. What is fascinating in this story is that when Penderecki compared the two scores – the original and the one that he reconstructed from memory – they turned out to be identical.

The Polish Radio’s Electronic Studio in Warsaw

Penderecki is associated with traditional instruments, but between 1958 and 1962 he also explored electronic music. Thanks to Józef Patkowski, he was granted access to the arsenal of the Polish Radio’s Experimental Studio in Warsaw. There, he held symposiums with the participation of international composers, presenting various pieces of electronic music, previously unknown in Poland.  

Krzysztof Penderecki z Eugeniuszem Rudnikiem w Studio Eksperymentalnym Polskiego Radia, kwiecień 1972, fotografia z książki Ludwika Erhardta "Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim"
Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik at the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, April, 1972. A photograph from Ludwik Erhardt's Meetings with Krzysztof Penderecki

The Holocaust

Memories of Jews in a pre-war Poland keep surfacing not only in the klezmer motifs of Penderecki’s compositions, but also is a constant reliving of the Holocaust. In 1963, Penderecki organised a naturalistic radio show, Brygada śmierci (Death’s Brigade), based on the text by Leon Weliczker, a member of the Sonderkommando nazi section that erased traces of genocide. Weliczker was one of the Jewish prisoners incorporated into the unit by force, and after his lucky escape, he preserved his diary from the time.

The premiere performance of Brygada Śmierci was staged a year later in Warsaw, with the legendary Tadeusz Łomnicki reading the text. Two lights were placed on the stage, one a dead-blue colour, the other  a screaming red (according to Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s records.) Weliczker’s text is one of the most shocking testimonies of the Holocaust, completely emotionless and terryfyingly detailed. Penderecki decided to use it without any modifications, only adding sound effects that were realised by Radio’s Experimental Studio with Patkowski.

I am surprised that an artist of Penderecki’s format decided to mix in this way a realistic documentation with an attempt at an acoustic soundtrack - which immediately makes one think of an art piece. Art ends where true realism begins

Such was the commentary by Zygmunt Mycielski, and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz added

This thing, demonstrated in front of a concert audience, seated in a warm auditorium on comfortable chairs seemed to addres the worst of human instincts

Krzysztof Penderecki w Dębicy, 1969, fot. Wojciech Plewiński / Forum
Krzysztof Penderecki in Dębica, 1969, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum

Another significant and less controversial representation of the Holocaust is the piece Kadisz, with the dedication “To the Abrahms of Łódź who wanted to live. The the Poles that saved Jews.”

When writing music for the kadish, I evoked the prayers Eastern Georgia, Ukraine and Romania. I was advised by my late friend, Boris Carmeli. Before dying, in mid July, he passed on his remarks, he corrected the accents. He would sing me various melodies that he was sung by his grandfather, thus they had to be at least as old as mid 19th century.


New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra

Frak Krzysztofa Pendereckiego z Zakładu Krawieckiego Józefa Turbasy, for. Łukasz Trzciński / Forum
Krzysztof Penderecki's suit from Józef Turbasa's Tailoring Studio , photo: Łukasz Trzciński / Forum

In 1971, the Donaueschinger Musiktage festival brought together an exceptional orchestra, whose cast included the biggest stars of free jazz from Europe and America: Peter Brotzmann, Willem Breuker, Paul Rutherford, Han Bennink, Terje Rypdal, Kenny Wheeler, with Poland represented by Tomasz Stańko. The ensemble was conducted by Don Cherry and maestro Penderecki. They performed three compositions. Two of them were written by Cherry - Humus - The Life Exploring Force and the Sima Rama Encores, based on hindu music), and one was authored by Penderecki, the Actions For Free Jazz Orchestra.

Film music

Krzysztof Penderecki never focused on composing film soundtracks, but we are nonetheless able to hear his work in many films, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, Friedkin’s The Exorcist and the Quay Brother’s Mask. In each case it was the directors who were fascinated with the plasticity of his music and asked to employ it in their pictures.

He composed music to ''The Saragossa Manuscript'' by Wojciech Jerzy Has in Polish Radio Experimental Studio - disturbing electroacoustic sounds are interspersed here with fragments of stylized early music.

Family (2)

Krzysztof Penderecki z żoną, fotografia z książki Ludwika Erhardta "Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim"
Krzysztof Penderecki with his wife, a photograph from Ludwik Erhardt’s book "Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim" (Meetings with Krzysztof Penderecki)

The person responsible for maestro Penderecki’s current life is his wife, Elżbieta. He first met her when she was 10 years old, she was the daughter of cello player Leon Solecki, a friend of the young Penderecki in the beginnings of his career as a composer. Elżbieta took piano classes with Penderecki’s first wife. Maestro has almost no memory of Elżbieta from this time, and she remebers that he was not nice to her at all then. But everything changed during a summer vacation in Jurata.

In an interview with Liliana Śnieg-Czaplewska, Penderecki said

When a man falls in love loosing his head, he practically pays no attention to anything and doesn’t analyse. Since I fell in love with Elżbieta, other women ceased to exist for me. Of course, before, like any young man, I was a bit of a ladies’ man.

Krzysztof Penderecki z żoną Elżbietą, fot. Wojciech Druszcz / East News
Krzysztof Penderecki z żoną Elżbietą, fot. Wojciech Druszcz / East News

Today it is very difficult to imagine what Penderecki’s oeuvre would look like without the presence of Elżbieta Penderecka. The spouse handles all formalities for him - she reads and answers his correspondence, is responsible for planning concerts, and for his 80th birthday, she organised a festival  in his honour.


"Zmartwychwstanie" (Resurrection)

In 2002, Penderecki once again shocked the audience, or more precisely, he divided it. The performance of his piano concerto entitled Resurrection - written by the composer in response to the 9/11 attacks - was booed, with many people leaving the auditorium.

In his Love me Pender text, Jan Topolski was asking

Is the true meaning of postmodernism, in which we apparently live, equal with the notion that it suffices to sit down in a library over a music score, and cut out Rachmaninov’s strings, Mahler’s pathos (and his title!), Chopin’s figurations and passages, Ravel’s instrumentations, and harps and bells of film music and simply put them together? That’s it? It’s ready?

Maestro Pendercki himself explained the genesis of his composition in the following words:

I began working in June [2001], and after a few months I was about halfway, a kind of capriccio was formed. But after September 11th, the concept underwent a radical change. I decided to write a darker and more serious piece. I withdrew a part of the material, and went back to certain place in the structure and introduced a choral


Dendrology and labyrinths

Penderecki’s domain is not only compostition. One of his biggest passions is dendrology, the study of trees. He also specialises in planting mazes. He has created two of them so far. One huge maze boasts an area of 4 thousand square metres and when it grows it will be very difficult to make one’s way out.

Krzysztof Penderecki przy pracy nad jednym ze swoich labiryntów, fot. Krzysztof Wójcik / Forum
Krzysztof Penderecki working on one of his mazes, photo: Krzysztof Wójcik / Forum

Penderecki reveals:

In the old times, these mazes had a tower next to them, with a guard that would guide the lost ones to the exit. I also want to raise a tower like that. I would love to sent the critics that wrote badly of me to this maze, but they would be the ones who would have to find their way out with no guide. As a punishment. A sort of purgatory

The Conductor

Penderecki’s other passion is conducting the compositions he wrote (as well as those by other composers). His adventure with conducting began by chance - when Actions For Free Jazz Orchestra palyed under his baton, although the piece was originally meant to be left to the instrumentalists, with no part written for a conductor. When he arrived in Donauschinger for the rehearsals, Penderecki realised that the musicians cannot tackle the material he wrote. First he gave ot tips and instructions, and the day before the premiere performance he decided that he will conduct the musicians.

When I conduct my own pieces I can afford to take certain elements of the composition to the ideal image of the workd that I have shaped in my imagination (...) only I know how the course of the my piece should unfold with time




       a fragment of the "Penderecki Reloaded" programme,  produced by NInA; the entire piece available on

Penderecki and Dali

During the opening of a display entitled Salvador Dali Meets Mr. and Mrs. Pendercki, a humorous take on an real life encounter between the artists, Penderecki said:

Dali was supposed to write the text - it arrived only in the form of a telegram - as well as prepare the stage design, and I was meant to compose music. I was really intrigued by the prospect, especially since I was always interested in painting, and Picasso and Dali were my favourite artists. Unfortunately, Salvador’s death interrupted our plans.

Dali u Pendereckich, fot. Marian Eile / archiwum MOCAK-u
Salvador Dali Meets Mr. and Mrs. Pendercki, fot. Marian Eile / MOCAK archive


Penderecki constantly returns to his old compositions - making changes and perfecting the compositions. Young artists also reach for his works, such as Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, who wrote 48 Responses to Polymorphia, inspired by the maestro’s early classic composition. Pianohooligan (whose real name is Piotr Orzechowski) recorded an album with Penderecki’s repertoire rewritten for a prepared piano. Maciej Fortuna and An On Blast remixed the works by Penderecki that were employed as film soundtracks. Penderecki is an interested audience of these interpretations. Perhaps they will influence his future compositions?



                            a fragment of the "Wszystko o kulturze" programme; full version available at

Source: K. Lisicki, ''Szkice o Krzysztofie Penderecki'' (1973); A. Lewandowska-Kąkol, ''Dźwięki, szepty, zgrzyty. Wywiady z kompozytorami'' (2012); M. Tomaszewski ''Penderecki. Bunt i wyzwolenie. Rozpętanie żywiołów'' (2008), Jędrzej Słodkowski, ''Kadisz Pendereckieg'' (2008) and  others.

Author: Filip Lech, November 2013, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser


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