Krzysztof Penderecki

From Unearthing The Music

Krzysztof Penderecki is a composer and conductor. Born on 23rd of November, 1933, in Dębica. In the history of 20th century music, his career stands out for his fast rise to the top.

Krzysztof Penderecki, photo: Bogdan Krężel / Przekrój / / Forum


Krzysztof Penderecki was born in Dębica (in yiddish – Dembitz), a town in south-eastern Poland, in 1933. Before World War II the town was mostly inhabited by Hassidic Jews. He comes from a multi-cultural family with Armenian-German-Polish roots. His grandfather was a German evangelical; his grandmother came from Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine) and was Armenian. The composer told the Polish Radio:

"It’s a strange thing that this music, which I had in my ears then, now returns. In two of my pieces klezmer music came back in a way in which I was aware of it – the Sextet (2000), and even the Concerto grosso (2001). I most likely heard motifs like these as a child."

He started his musical adventure with private piano lessons but quickly grew tired of them. His affection for music was born when he saw his father’s violin. He was taken by the mystery of the violin, by the difficulty of playing even one clear note. Penderecki desired to become a virtuoso and practised Bach’s sonatas after school. In junior high school, he founded a band and started bringing Dębica’s musical scene to life. He soon went to Kraków to study composition.

Composition Studies and First Success

Krzysztof Penderecki studied composition privately with Franciszek Skołyszewski, and then, from 1955-58, with Artur Malawski and Stanisław Wiechowicz at the Academy of Music in Kraków. In 1958, he began lecturing in composition at his alma mater, and, in 1972, he became a professor there, also serving as rector until 1987. He lectured, too, as an assistant professor in Essen at the Folkwang-Hochschule (1966-68) and at Yale University (1973-78).

When the results of the second Competition of Young Composers of the Polish Composers' Union were decided in 1959, it turned out that Penderecki's compositions (submitted under different pseudonyms) had won the first, second and third prizes for his Strophes (Strofy) for soprano, voice (reciting) and ten instruments (1959), Emanations (Emanacje) for two string orchestras (1958-59) and for his Psalms of David (Psalmy Dawida) for mixed choir, string instruments and percussion (1958). At that time, Penderecki was an unknown 28-year-old assistant professor in the Composition Department of the State Musical Academy in Kraków. The German publisher, Herman Moeck, took the score after Strofy was performed at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music that same year. The piece was soon being performed all over Europe, and Penderecki received a commission from the famous festival in Donaueschingen.

In 1960, he composed a piece for 52 strings entitled 8'37" (the duration of the composition), for which he received a prize the following year from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. The work is now known as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy), and is played all over the world. Krzysztof Penderecki thus became a leading representative of avant-garde music. At the time he said:

"All I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition."

Worldwide Recognition

His work Fluorescences (Fluorescencje), first performed in 1962 in Donaueschingen, confirms this. In addition to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, Penderecki introduced a large and experimental percussion section including a sheet of metal to imitate thunder, pieces of glass and metal scratched with a file, rattles, an electric bell, a saw, a typewriter and a siren. The traditional instruments also sound strange, because they are played in unconventional ways. In 1966, in Münster, the premiere performance of Passion According to St. Luke (Pasja według św. Łukasza) took place. With this work, Penderecki balanced the radicalism of the avant-garde with more conventional harmonics. Penderecki once said:

"It is not important to me how the Passion is described, whether as a traditional or as an avant-garde work. For me it is simply one that is genuine. And that is enough."

Krzysztof Penderecki in Dębica, 1969, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum

Symphonies and Polish Requiem

He wrote his first symphony in 1973. The preview took place in Peterborough under the composer's own baton and was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

My 1st Symphony – said Penderecki in 1995 – was written in 1973 when I was 40... I attempted to summarize my 20 years of experience – a time of avant-garde, radical searching. And yet, this symphony was a sum of what I, as an avant-garde artist, could have said by that time. Four symmetric parts: Arche I, Dynamis I, Dynamis II, Arche 11 – reflected my will to reconstruct the world from the scratch. Great destruction – according to avant-garde logic – expressed a big need for a new cosmogony (K.Penderecki – Labirynt czasu, Warsaw 1997).

In his subsequent symphonies Penderecki distanced himself from the avant-garde language and ceased to experiment with sonorism. In Symphony no. 2 (subtitled Christmas Symphony, and containing a short quote from the Silent night carol); Symphony no. 3 was often compared to Antoniv Dvořák’s works; Symphony no. 4, called Adagio, is a great commentary on the idiom of a symphony. It seems that such a synopsis of his symphonies shows the direction of his later works.

In 1980 Penderecki started to compose Polish Requiem (Polskie Reqiuem) a piece devoted to the victims of Polish 1970 protests (Lacrimosa), Cardinal Wyszyński (Agnus Dei), the Warsaw Uprising and St. Maksymilian Kolbe (Dies Irae) and victims of the Katyń Massacre.

If it hadn’t been for a specific political situation, for Solidarność, I wouldn’t have composed Requiem even though this topic was very interesting to me for a long time. By composing Requiem I wanted to express my opinion, make a certain statement, and show where I belonged – said the composer.

Film Music

Krzysztof Penderecki wrote music for one full-length feature film - The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Wojciech Jerzy Has. This soundtrack was created in Polish Radio's Experimental Studio. Early music-like melodies are interweaved with the unsettling sounds of synthesizers and machines of the Experimental Studio. His music can be also found in Kubrick’s The Shining, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, The Mask by the Quay brothers and Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese.

Still Active…

"The activity of the composer never wavers and is worth admiring" – wrote Iwona Lindstedt on the website – The composer is constantly realizing new projects (he plans a new opera and Symphony no. 6 ) and continues to present his works in cooperation with the world's most celebrated musicians and orchestras. For example, in February 2013 he had a great success with his Devils of Loudun in Copenhagen.

…and Inspiring

He has inspired a number of contemporary musicians across genres, such as Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who composed his 48 Responses to Polymorphia on the basis of Penderecki's own Polymorphia. In March 2012 the US-based recording label Nonesuch released Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood - a critically-acclaimed collaboration between the two composers. In August 2012 he received the Glocal Hero Award at the Transatlantyk Film and Music Festival, together with his wife Elżbieta Penderecka.

Pianohooligan (pseudonym of Piotra Orzechowski) released an album with his interpretation of Penderecki’s works from his avant-garde period, transposed to prepared piano and Fender Rhodes.

Maciej Fortuna and An On Blast create remixes of Penderecki’s pieces which have been used in feature films.

Penderecki-Greenwood Concert, Barbican Hall, London, March 22nd 2012, photo: Bogdan Frymorgen (

The Educator

Krzysztof Penderecki worked as a professor at the Folkwang-Hochschule für Musik in Essen (1966-68) and at Yale University, U.S. (1973-78). In 1987–90 he was an artistic director of Kraków Philharmonic Hall, since 1993 he has been an artistic director of Festival Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico and since 1997 he is the music director of Sinfonia Varsovia. In 1998 he started advising the Beijing Music Festival.

The Conductor

As a conductor Krzysztof Penderecki debuted in 1971 in Donaueschingen, when he performed his own composition Actions for a free jazz ensemble (1971), and has been very active in this field since then. In 1972 he recorded some of his pieces for EMI with the National Symphonic Orchestra of Polish Radio from Katowice. He conducted many celebrated orchestras from all over the world, such as Müncher Philharmoniker, Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks in Hamburg, Sinfonieorchester des Mitteldeutschen Rundfunks in Leipzig, London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Japanese Radio Orchestra (NHK) in Tokyo, Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra, Since 1998, he has been a main guest conductor of Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks in Hamburg.

In 2013, DUX published a CD box set containing all of the Penderecki’s symphonies, conducted by the composer himself. It was a sort of a gift from this recording label for Penderecki’s 80th birthday. The International Classical Music Awards awarded the box in the ‘Contemporary Music’ category.

"When I conduct my own compositions I can try to guide each part of the piece to the ideal, which I created in my head when I composed it (…) Only I know how long each part should last, how quickly it should develop."

Krzysztof Penderecki - Agnus Dei

Awards and honours

Penderecki has twice received the Prix Italia - in 1968 for his Dies irae Oratorium ob memoriam in perniciei castris in Oswiecim necatorum inexstinguibilem reddendam for three solo voices, mixed choir and orchestra (1967), and in 1972 for his work, Passio et mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam for three solo voices, speaker, three mixed choirs, boys' choir and orchestra (1963-66). In addition, Penderecki has received the following awards: the first state prize (1968, 1983); the award of the Polish Composers' Union (1970); the Gottfried von Herder Award from the W.v.s. Foundation in Hamburg (1977); the Jean Sibelius Award from the Wilhouri Foundation in Helsinki (1983); Premio Lorenzo Magnifico, Florence (1985); the award of the Karl Wolff Foundation (Israel, 1987); a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (USA) for his Cello Concerto No. 2, with Mstislav Rostropovich (1988); the Grawemeyer Award of the University of Louisville (1992); the award of the UNESCO International Music Council (1993), Order for Merits for Monaco (1993), Commander’s Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta(1993), Austrian Honorary Distinction for ‘Scientific and Artistic Achievements’, Pro Baltica Award (1995), Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1996), Duisburg Music Award (1999), AFIM Indie Award (1999), MIDEM Classical Award for Best Living Composer of the Year (2000), Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (2000), Premio Principe de Asturias de las Artes (2001), Award of the Great Foundation of Culture (2002), Romano Guardini Prize (2002), Preis der Europäischen Kirschenmusik (2003), Medal Fundacji Judaica (2003), Praemium Imperiale (2004), Order of the White Eagle (2005), Commander of the Three Star Order of the Latvian Republic (2006), Ministry of Culture Yearly Award, Józef Chełmoński Award, and Gold Medal of the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Armenia.

He has been granted honorary doctorates from the universities of Rochester, Bordeaux, Leuven, Washington, Belgrade, Madrid, Poznań, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Glasgow, Kraków, Pittsburgh, Luzern, New Haven, Saint Petersburg, Leipzig, and Seoul. He is an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien in Stockholm, the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, the Académie Nationale des Sciences, Belles-lettres et Arts in Bordeaux, the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academia Scientiarium et Artium Europaea in Salzburg, the Institut for Advanced Study University, Bloomington, The Kościuszko Foundation in New York, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, and the Academy for Performing Arts in Hong Kong. In 1997, he published a book entitled Labirynt czasu: Pięć wykładów na koniec wieku / The Labyrinth of Time: Five Lectures for the End of the Century (Warsaw: Presspublica, 1997).

At the 2013 Grammy Awards Antoni Wit received the award for Best Classical Compendium category for the recording of the Polish National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra's performance of Penderecki's Fonogrammi, Horn Concerto, Partita and The Awakening of Jacob and Anaklasis.

Major works

  • Sonata na skrzypce i fortepian / Sonata for violin and piano (1953)
  • Miniatury / Miniatures for clarinet and piano (1956)
  • Prośba o wyspy szczęśliwe / Asking for Happy Isles, song for voice and piano (1957)
  • Epitaphium Artur Malawski in Memoriam for string orchestra and kettle-drums (1957-8)
  • Psalmy Dawida / Psalms of David for mixed choir, strings and percussion (1958)
  • Emanacje / Emanations for two string orchestras (1958-59)
  • Miniatury / Miniatures for violin and piano (1959)
  • Strofy / Strophes for soprano, speaker and ten instruments (1959)
  • Anaklasis for forty-two strings and percussion groups (1959-60)
  • Wymiary czasu i ciszy / Dimensions of Time and Silence for mixed choir, strings and percussion (1959-60)
  • Tren 'ofiarom Hiroszimy' / Threnody 'For the Victims of Hiroshima' for fifty-two strings (1959-61)
  • Quartetto per archi no. 1/ String Quartet No. 1 (1960)
  • Psalmus 1961, electronic music (1961)
  • Fonogrammi per flauto e orchestra da camera (1961)
  • Polymorphia for forty-eight strings (1961)
  • Fluorescencje / Fluorescences for symphony orchestra (1961-62)
  • Kanon / Canon for 52 strings and tape (1962)
  • Stabat Mater for three mixed choirs (unaccompanied) (1962-63)
  • Brygada śmierci / Brigade of Death, electronic music for a radio play (1963)
  • Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam for soloists, speaker, boys' choir, three mixed choirs and orchestra (1963-66)
  • Cantata in honorem Almae Matris Universitatis Iagellonicae for mixed choir and orchestra (1964)
  • Sonata per violoncello e orchestra (1964)
  • Capriccio per oboe e 11 archi (1964-65)
  • Najdzielniejszy z rycerzy / The Bravest Knight, opera for children in 3 acts for soprano, tenor, 2 baritones, bass, mixed choir and orchestra (1965)
  • De natura sonoris No. 1 for great symphony orchestra (1966)
  • Concerto per violino grande ed orchestra / Cello Concerto No. 1 (for cello and orchestra) (1966-67, revised 1971-72)
  • Concerto per violoncello ed orchestra no. 1 (1966-67)
  • Uwertura pittsburska / Pittsburgh Overture for brass band, percussion, piano and double-basses (1967)
  • Capriccio for violin and orchestra (1967)
  • Dies Irae, Oratorium ob memoriam in perniciei castris in Oświścim necatorum inexstinguibilem reddendam / Dies Irae, oratorio in memory of those murdered at Auschwitz for three soloists, mixed choir and orchestra (1967)
  • Capriccio per Siegfried Palm for cello solo (1968)
  • Quartetto per archi no. 2 / String Quartet No. 2 (1968)
  • Diabły z Loudun / The Devils of Loudun, opera in three acts (1968-69, rev. 2001)
  • Jutrznia (Utrenja) I: Złożenie Chrystusa do grobu / Utrenja I: The Entombment of Christ for five soloists, two mixed choirs and symphony orchestra (1969-70)
  • Kosmogonia / Cosmogony for three soloists, mixed choir and symphonic orchestra (1970)
  • Jutrznia (Utrenja) II: Zmartwychwstanie pańskie / Utrenja II: The Resurrection for five soloists, two mixed choirs, boys' choir and symphony orchestra (1970-71)
  • De natura sonoris No. 2 for symphony orchestra (1970-71)
  • Canticum Canticorum Salamonis for sixteen-part mixed choir and chamber orchestra (1970-73)
  • Actions for free-jazz orchestra (1971)
  • Preludium / Prelude for brass band, percussion and double-basses (1971)
  • Partita for concertante harpsichord, electric guitar, bass guitar, harp, double bass and chamber orchestra (1971-72)
  • Ecloga VIII / Eclogue VIII for six solo male voices (1972)
  • Ekecheirija / Ekecheiria for tape (1972)
  • Symphony No. 1 for great symphony orchestra (1972-73)
  • Intermezzo for 24 string instruments (1973)
  • Magnificat for solo bass, seven male voices, two mixed choirs, boys' choir and symphony orchestra (1973-74)
  • Przebudzenie Jakuba / The Dream of Jacob for symphony orchestra (1974)
  • Concerto per violino ed orchestra no. 1 / Violin Concerto No. 1 (for violin and orchestra) (1976-77)
  • Raj utracony / Paradise Lost, sacred representation in two acts (1976-78)
  • Te Deum for solo voices, two mixed choirs and orchestra (1978-80)
  • Vorspiel, Visionen und Finale aus Paradise Lost for six soloists, great mixed choir and orchestra (1979)
  • Adagietto z Raju utraconego / Adagietto from the Paradise Lost [version I] for symphony orchestra (1979)
  • Capriccio per tuba (1979-80)
  • Symfonia nr 2 Wigilijna / Symphony No. 2 (Christmas Symphony) for symphony orchestra (1979-80)
  • Lacrimosa z Polskiego Requiem / Lacrimosa from the Polish Requiem for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra (later part of the Polish Requiem) (1980)
  • Polskie Requiem / Polish Requiem for four soloists, mixed choir and orchestra (1980-84, Sanctus added 1993)
  • Agnus Dei z Polskiego Requiem / Agnus Dei from the Polish Requiem for mixed choir (unaccompanied) (1981)
  • Concerto per violoncello ed orchestra no. 2 / Cello Concerto No. 2 (for cello and orchestra) (1982)
  • Koncert na altówkę i orkiestrę / Viola Concerto (1983) for viola and orchestra - reduced version (1985) for viola, strings and percussion
  • Cadenza per viola sola (1983-84)
  • Koncert na altówkę / Viola Concerto [chamber version] (1984)
  • Koncert na altówkę / Viola Concerto [version for cello] (1984)
  • Koncert na altówkę / Viola Concerto [version for clarinet] (1984)
  • Cadenza per viola sola [version for violin] (1984)
  • Die schwarze Maske / The Black Mask, opera in one act (1984-86)
  • Per Slava for cello solo (1985-86)
  • Pieśń Cherubinów / Song of the Cherubim for mixed choir (unaccompanied) (1986)
  • Veni creator for mixed choir (unaccompanied) (1987)
  • Preludium / Prelude for solo clarinet (1987)
  • Der unterbrochene Gedanke for string quartet (1988)
  • Concerto per violino ed orchestra no. 1 [version II] (1988)
  • Symfonia nr 3 / Symphony No. 3 (1988-95)
  • Symfonia nr 4 'Adagio' / Symphony No. 4: 'Adagio' for symphony orchestra (1989)
  • Ubu Rex, opera buffa in two acts with prologue and epilogue (1990-91)
  • Trio smyczkowe / String Trio for violin, viola and cello (1990-91)
  • Sinfonietta no. 1 per archi (for strings) (1990-92)
  • Partita [wersja II] for harpsichord and electric guitar, bass guitar, harp, double-bass and chamber orchestra (1991-92)
  • Symfonia nr 5 'Koreańska' / Symphony No. 5, 'The Korean' for symphony orchestra (1991-92)
  • Benedicamus Domino for male unaccompanied choir (1991-92)
  • Concerto per violino ed orchestra no. 2 (Metamorphosen) (Violin Concerto No. 2) (1992-95)
  • Concerto per flauto ed orchestra da camera / Flute Concerto for flute and chamber orchestra (1992)
  • Kwartet na klarnet i trio smyczkowe / Quartet for clarinet and string trio (1993)
  • Agnus Dei z Polskiego Requiem [version II] for string orchestra (1994)
  • Entrata for brass and timpani (1994)
  • Sinfonietta No. 2 for clarinet and strings (1994)
  • Divertimento for cello solo (1994-95)
  • Concerto per flauto [version for clarinet] (1995)
  • Agnus Dei aus Requiem der Versöhnung zum Gedanken an die Opfer des 2.Weltkrieges for four solo voices, mixed choir and orchestra (1995)
  • Siedem bram Jerozolimy / Seven Gates of Jerusalem (Symphony No. 7) for five soloists, speaker, 3 mixed choirs and orchestra (1996)
  • Serenade for string orchestra (1996-97)
  • Hymn do Świętego Daniela / Hymne an den heiligen Daniel for mixed choir and orchestra (1997)
  • Hymn do Świętego Wojciecha / Hymne an den heiligen Adalbert for mixed choir and orchestra (1997)
  • Credo for for solo voices, choir and symphony orchestra (1996-98)
  • Sonata per Violino e Pianoforte no. 2 / Violin Sonata No. 2 (for violin and piano) (1999)
  • Sextett for clarinet, horn, string trio and piano (2000)
  • Musik für Blockflöten, Marimbaphon und Streicher (2000)
  • Suita z Raju utraconego / Suite from the Paradise lost for soloists, choir and orchestra (2000)
  • Concerto Grosso for three cellos and orchestra (2000-2001)
  • Sextet for clarinet, horn, string trio and piano (2000)
  • Lied for voice and piano (2001)
  • Concerto per pianoforte ed orchestra Resurrection (2001, 2007)
  • Adagio for cello and orchestra (2002-2003)
  • Phedra for voice, choir and orchestra (2002)
  • Benedictus for female choir a cappella (2002)
  • Fanfarria Real for orchestra (2003)
  • Concerto grosso no. 2 per 5 clarinetti ed orchestra (2004)
  • Tempo di Valse for cello solo (2004)
  • Symfonia nr 8 Lieder der Vergänglichkeit / Symphony no 8 Lieder der Vergänglichkeit for soprano, mezzosoprano, baritone, choir and symphony orchestra (2004, 2007)
  • Chaconne - in memoriam Giovanni Paolo II z Polskiego Requiem / from the Polish Requiem for chamber orchestra (2005)
  • Cadenza z Koncertu Brandenburskiego nr 3 G-dur J.S. Bacha / Cadenza from J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no 3 in G for viola, cello and harpsichord (2006)
  • Largo per violoncello ed orchestra (2007)
  • Film music for Katyń / Katyn directed by Andrzej Wajda (2007)
  • Adagietto z Raju utraconego / Adagietto from the Paradise lost [version II] for English horn and string orchestra (2007)
  • Agnus Dei z Polskiego Requiem / Agnus Dei from the Polish Requiem [version III] for eight cellos (2007)
  • Serenata per tre violoncelli (2007)
  • Concerto per corno e orchestra Winterreise (2007-2008)
  • Capriccio per violino solo (2008)
  • Quartetto per archi no. 3 (2008)
  • Drei Chinesische Lieder für Bariton und Orchester (2008)
  • Sanctus und Benedictus na chór a cappella (2008)
  • Chaconne for violin and viola (2009)
  • Kadish 2009
  • Powiało na mnie morze snów… Pieśni zadumy i nostalgii for soprano, mezzosoprane, baritone, choir and orchestra (2011)

Source: Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, November 2001. Updated August 2012, March 2014 (Filip Lech, translated by WO)