MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

RIP Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020)

Another great one has passed. Krzysztof Penderecki was one of the first postwar “Modernist” composers I remember responding to immediately when I was first discovering music. has a summary of his career here.

“I also have my Iliad and my Odyssey,” Penderecki said in a 1993 speech, referring to a famous quote by Goethe according to which the artist’s life replicates the full Homeric paradigm: a youthful, heroic struggle a la Iliad typically is followed by a “homecoming” in later age, resembling Odysseus’ desire to return home.

“For me, Troy was the avant-garde, the era of youthful rebellion and faith in the possibility of changing the way of the world through art.” But once this phase had been lived through, “I realized that there was more of destruction than of building anew” in the avant-garde approach.

Penderecki became the “Trojan horse” of the avant-garde, turning back toward the inspiration he found in tradition. Viewed as a complete arc, his career might be interpreted as an ongoing search for a synthesis of these warring tendencies. “The conscious use of tradition,” he observed, “became an opportunity for overcoming [the] dissonance between the artist and the audience.”

The composer Derek Bermel offers an intriguing glimpse of the master, whom he encountered in his days as a graduate student at the University of Michigan:

On the last day, after his concert in Indiana, we drove through a small forest, a fertile valley in the vast, flat Indiana heartland, and he reminisced about his own schooling. “At the Academy of Music in Kraków, we had no access to the modern music from the West. It was the early 1950s, and Poland was occupied….“Then one day Luigi Nono came across the Iron Curtain to give masterclasses. And he brought with him dozens of scores from the West, so many new, interesting scores; we didn’t even have Bartók’s and Webern’s music; we were very deprived. You have to understand… we needed these scores, we needed them more than you can imagine. So before he returned to Italy, we made sure to copy them all.”

Daniel Lewis’s NYT obituary notes Penderecki’s presence in film scores (The Exorcist, The Shining) and his appeal to adventurous pop musicians: “Artists as disparate as Kele Okereke of Bloc Party and Robbie Robertson of the Band professed to have been inspired by him. But his influence is most directly evident in the music of Jonny Greenwood, the classically trained guitarist of Radiohead.”

From Penderecki’s publisher, Schott:

Penderecki composed several of his works in remembrance of catastrophes in the 20th century. Threnos for 52 string instruments, composed in 1960, is dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the piano concerto Resurrection was composed as a reaction to the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. For Penderecki, these associations in content are not merely an abstract concept, but also in their instrumental tonal colouring and dramatic sounds emotionally comprehensible for listeners. Extensive political-social associations can also be found in the Polish Requiem which he began in 1980 with the composition of the Lacrimosa which is dedicated to Lech Walesa. The composer dedicated other movements of this work to the Polish victims of Auschwitz and the Warsaw uprising in 1944. This was supplemented by the Ciaccona in memoriam Johannes Paul II in 2005 which commemorated the Polish Pope.

Here’s the exceptionally beautiful horn concerto Winterreise, which Penderecki composed in the winter of 2007:

Filed under: Krzysztof Penderecki, obituary

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