Mazes, Notes & Dali: The Extraordinary Life of Krzysztof Penderecki
default, penderecki krzysztof portret forum_6982573_0_0.jpg, Krzysztof Penderecki, photo: Bogdan Krężel/Przekrój/Visavis.pl/Forum
As Krzysztof Penderecki celebrates his 85th birthday, we take a closer look at life and work. Where is the composer from, what does he have in common with Tadeusz Kantor, what links him do Salvador Dali? Why do Jewish motifs recur in his music? Who does he plant… mazes for, and, is he into jazz? We have the answers for you.
Krzysztof Penderecki was born in 1933 in the town of Dębica, Dembitz in Yiddish. It was a small, provincial town and the majority of its inhabitants were 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 resonate throughout Penderecki’s oeuvre. In an interview with Polish Radio, the composer commented:
Concerto Grosso - Krzysztof Penderecki
It is strange that after all these years, the music that I had in my ears, comes back. For example, in two of my compositions klezmer music is reiterated intentionally – in the 'Sextet' (2000) and even in the 'Concerto Grosso' (2001), I most likely heard the motifs as a child.
Roots & family ties
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, known today as 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.
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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. Sometime 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 practised from the early morning, before going off to school, and it was the first thing he did after coming home. A girlfriend gave him 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 Krzystof Lisicki, 'became something of an animator and manager of the musical scene in Dębica'. Nowadays, we would call him a city activist. After he passed his baccalaureate exam, his parents sent him to Kraków for a 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 to the visual arts.
As we know, 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: receiving first and two second place prizes in the Young Composers’ Competition organised by the Polish Composers’ Union. The compositions were submitted anonymously and when the jury checked the winners' identities they were rather troubled to see one composer win all 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 the competition. And so, Penderecki’s record is unbeatable.
The awarded pieces were Strofy (Stanzas) for soprano, a reciting voice and 10 instruments, David’s Psalms – based on the texts of Jan Kochanowski, and Emanations for an orchestra.
Strofy, based on Greek, Persian and Hebrew texts, became part of the programme of the Warszawska Jesień (Warsaw Autumn) festival. In his article for Ruch Muzyczny magazine, Bohdan Pociej emphasised 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:
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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.
The composer 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 called the Jama Michalikowa and he always chose the same table and, as legend has it, he wrote everything on paper napkins.
These days, 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. The Baltic landscape accompanied him as he created the noisy Polymorphy and later became an inspiration for Stabat Mater.
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Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (or 8’37”)
Penderecki composed a piece which was meant to rebel against the dominating trends of the 1950s avant-garde and wrote '8’37”' on the score, as this is how long the interpretation of the piece should be. But after listening to it, he changed 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 Penderecki 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 begins with a cluster of all kinds of instruments, 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.
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 it should be played. The planned performances in Rome and Koln were delayed. Interestingly, the passion and engagement of every ensemble that has performed the Threnody grew each time they tackled the challenge.
The 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 proved that it was only notes and, in the end, the package finally made it to its addressee. 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.
Polish Radio Experimental Studio
Penderecki is usually 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 Experimental Studio in Warsaw.
In the ‘black room’ (as its headquarters were popularly called) on Malczewski Street, he met a young sound engineer, his contemporary Eugeniusz Rudnik, with whom he quickly made friends. Rudnik turned out to be an irreplaceable buddy, but also the de facto musical realiser of Penderecki’s ideas. The latter – though aware of the possibilities for experimentation afforded by the studio – at first kept his distance from it. But he came to create numerous soundtracks for film and theatre, a radio opera and more there/
Having suffered an electric shock in his youth, Penderecki had a fear of electricity, so he stayed far away from tape recorders. It was Rudnik who was his guide in the world of electronics. The sessions with Rudnik were of colossal significance to his scores from the 1960s. He transferred his experiences – with multitracks, oscilloscopes, rough montage, electronic voice transformations, and sound processing of acoustic instruments – to his writing of works such as Threnody, Polymorphia, De Natura Sonoris and Passion.
Memories of Jews in a pre-war Poland keep surfacing not only in the klezmer motifs of Penderecki’s compositions but also in 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 Nazi Sonderkommando 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. Weliczker’s text is a truly shocking testimony of the Holocaust – completely emotionless and terrifyingly detailed. Penderecki decided to use it without any modifications, only adding sound effects that were created at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio with Patkowski.
I am surprised that an artist of Penderecki’s format decided to mix, in this way, 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, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz added:
This thing, performed in front of a concert audience, seated in a warm auditorium on comfortable chairs seemed to addres the worst of human instincts
Another significant and less controversial representation of the Holocaust in Penderecki's work is the piece Kaddish, with the dedication 'To the Abrahms of Łódź who wanted to live. To the Poles who saved Jews.'
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When writing music for the Kaddish, I evoked the prayers that were sung in Eastern Galicia, 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 were sung by his grandfather, thus they had to be at least as old as the mid-19th century.
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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 also composed the music to The Saragossa Manuscript, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio – disturbing electroacoustic sounds are interspersed here with fragments of stylised early music.
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The person responsible for the life maestro Penderecki leads today is his second 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 by the Polish seaside in Jurata.
In an interview with Liliana Śnieg-Czaplewska, Penderecki said:
When a man falls in love, he loses his head, he pays practically 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.
Today, it is very difficult to imagine what Penderecki’s oeuvre would look like without the presence of Elżbieta Penderecka. She handles all the formalities related to being such a prominent musician: she answers his correspondence, is responsible for planning concerts and, for his 80th birthday, she organised an entire festival in his honour.
In 2002, Penderecki once again shocked audiences, or more precisely, he divided them. 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 article Love me, Pender, Jan Topolski asked:
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 Penderecki himself explained the genesis of his composition in the following words:
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I began working in June , 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 & labyrinths
Penderecki’s domain is not only music. 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 takes up an area of 4000 square metres and when it grows it will be very difficult to make one’s way out.
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In the olden 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 into 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.
Penderecki’s other passion is conducting – both compositions he wrote as well as ones by other composers. His adventure with conducting began by chance. The piece Actions For Free Jazz Orchestra was originally meant to be left to the instrumentalists, with no part written for a conductor. But when he arrived in Donauschingen for the rehearsals, Penderecki realised that the musicians couldn't tackle the material he wrote on their own. First he gave them tips and instructions, but the day before the premiere performance he decided that he would conduct them.
When I conduct my own pieces I am allowed to make elements of the composition become the ideal image that I had imagined (...) only I know how the course of the my piece should unfold with time.
Penderecki & Dali
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Salvador and I were talking about doing a project together. Dali was supposed to write the text – it arrived 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 painters. Unfortunately, Salvador's death thwarted our plans.
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Polish Radio Experimental Studio
Penderecki constantly returns to his old compositions – making changes and perfecting them. 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 (Polish pianist Piotr Orzechowski) recorded an album with Penderecki’s repertoire rewritten for a prepared piano. Maciej Fortuna and An On Blast remixed Penderecki's soundtracks. Penderecki is interested in all of these interpretations of his work. Perhaps they will influence his future compositions?
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 Pendereckiego' (2008).
Originally written in Polish, Nov 2013, translated with edits by PS, updated by NR, Nov 2018