Krzysztof Penderecki completed Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam - St Luke's Passion, arguably his most famous piece of music, in 1965, after two years' work
Krzysztof Penderecki's Passion had been commissioned by the German radio Westdeutscher Rundfunk for the 700th anniversary of the Münster cathedral, and it was inside the cathedral that it had its premiere, under Henryk Czyż, on 30th March 1966. The inspiration was also provided by the 1000th anniversary of Poland adopting Christianity (in 966), yet it was not until 1999 that the Passion was performed in Poland, at the Kraków Philharmonic on 22nd April and at the Warsaw Autumn Festival on 24th September. The Polish performances featured the Choir and Orchestra of the Kraków Philharmonic under Henryk Czyż. In the spring of 2012 it was performed at Kraków's Alvernia studios, directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, the artistic director of Warsaw’s TR Warszawa.
The Passion revisits an old music form which is most strongly associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, though its roots go down to the medieval religious mysteries. Penderecki adapts it to modern times both in terms of the concept and the means. Says Penderecki:
It was my idea to move away from the static story-telling of the Gospel events. The Passion was intended as a dynamic, sometimes even a violent experience.
The music, dedicated to Penderecki's wife, Elżbieta, was written for boys' choir, three mixed choirs, three solo voices (soprano, baritone and bass), reciter and symphony orchestra, and uses the Latin text of the Gospel according to St Luke, with inserts from Lent hymns, psalms and lamentations. This eighty-minute-long work has twenty-four segments, the first of which, the hymn O Crux, ave, introduces the basic music material composed of two twelve-tone series which will continue to reappear in various arrangements. Despite the modernity of the language, Penderecki has created a work which is accessible to an average music-lover, with understandable contents, structure and emotions. This is how he puts it,
I do not care if the Passion is regarded as traditional or avant-garde. To me it is simply genuine. And that suffices.
The Passion has been tremendously successful ever since its Münster premiere (attended, nota bene, by over seventy European journalists, a papal nuncio, the bishop of Münster and the director of Westdeutscher Rundfunk). Some say that the event contributed significantly to the process of normalization of relations between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. Anyway, the Passion featured in the programme of the Contemporary Music Biennial in Venice later that year, and has since been performed a number of times in Europe, USA, South America and Japan. Available on numerous recordings, it remains one of the few works of contemporary music which are often performed at subscriber philharmonic concerts.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, November 2001.