Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)

Over the last 100 years, as Western society has become increasingly secular, this trend has, to a large extent, been reflected in classical music. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi, and countless others produced many masterpieces of music inspired by sacred music. While examples of 20th and 21st Century sacred classical music certainly exist, they seem to have become more the exception than the norm. I have long found it fascinating the freedoms in the West have made us more secular, whereas the oppressive and atheistic philosophy of communist era Soviet-bloc countries led to two of the finest sacred music composers of our time: Arvo Pärt in Estonia and Krzysztof Penderecki in Poland.

Penderecki became famous in his twenties for his 1960 composition for 52 strings, the “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”. This piece utilized very experimental techniques in playing string instruments and used a symbolic graphical notation in the score. (Listen to it here.) Portions of this work have been used in several movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” the 2006 film “Children of Men” and the recent war movie “The Hurt Locker”. (Other films that feature music by Penderecki include “The Exorcist”, David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart”, and the recent Martin Scorsese movie “Shutter Island”.

Penderecki’s next acclaimed masterwork was the “St. Luke Passion” in 1968. Inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the piece uses avant-garde techniques and is mostly atonal, but ends on a simple major chord. This foreshadowed the move away from the experimental style of the 1960’s to a more conservative musical style from the mid 1970’s on.

Penderecki has composed 8 symphonies, 4 operas, and several orchestra, choral, and instrumental pieces. Sacred music has been and increasingly large part of his output. Notable examples are the “Polish Requiem” (written for the Solidarity movement in Poland and expanded after the death of Pope John Paul II), Utrenja” (Entombment), originally recorded by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, “The Dream of Jacob”, “Canticum Canticorum Salomonis” (The Song of Solomon), and the Grammy Award-Winning “Credo” in 1998.

Penderecki has won several awards, both as a composer and conductor, including 3 Grammy Awards. He also taught at Yale University in the 1970’s. Despite the experimental nature of some of his compositions, they all have demonstrated a deeply held faith and continue to make an emotional impact on the listener. Of his early masterwork, Penderecki stated:

“Let the ‘Threnody’ express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”

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