Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020)

Krzysztof Penderecki, the eminent Polish composer whose creative trajectory from 1960s avant-gardism to more tonal and expressive music from the 1970s onward heralded a stylistic transition by many classical composers in the late-20th and early 21st centuries, has died at 86.

Penderecki first achieved international prominence in the ’60s with his “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and “St. Luke Passion.” These and other early works showed the influence of serial techniques, then fashionable among Western composers but frowned upon by the more conservative cultural establishment of the old Soviet bloc. Unusually for a composer in a communist-ruled state, Penderecki wrote a large body of religious music. He nonetheless was lauded by Polish authorities with awards, travel permission and other forms of recognition.

While working in the West in the 1970s, Penderecki began to write works that were more traditional in form, tonality and instrumental technique. His “Christmas Symphony” (No. 2) of 1980, which extensively quotes “Silent Night,” provoked sometimes heated critical comment for its perceived conservatism. His subsequent works, while never quite deserving description as “neo-romantic,” were more firmly rooted in pre-serial Western traditions.

Penderecki’s music also frequently reflected social and political currents of his time – notably his “Polish Requiem,” introduced in 1984 and revised several times thereafter. The work’s genesis was a Lacrimosa, commissioned by Solidarity, the Polish workers’ movement whose protests at the Gdańsk shipyards were among the first to bring about the relaxation, and ultimate breakage, of communist control over Eastern European countries.

Penderecki’s most widely heard music was featured in several films: William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” He also wrote a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, violin concertos for Isaac Stern and Anne-Sophie Mutter, the widely acclaimed opera “The Devils of Loudun,” and a large body of orchestral and choral music. His Third String Quartet (“Leaves from an Unwritten Diary”) was introduced by the Shanghai Quartet at the University of Richmond in 2008.

An obituary by Daniel Lewis for The New York Times:

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In another obituary, Keith Potter, writing for The Guardian, surveys Penderecki’s most important works and the stylistic evolution that they represent:

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