A composer for all seasons


A potent mix of the avant-garde and the sacred, Krzysztof Penderecki’s critically acclaimed music has been experienced by most people unbeknownst to them, as a chill down the spine while watching films such as The Shining and The Exorcist, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

HOW MANY Krzysztof Pendereckis are there? There’s the Penderecki who, back in 1959, entered three works into a composers’ competition in his native Poland, and won all three prizes. There’s the Penderecki who received international recognition for the startling sounds of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimajust a year later. There’s the man who combined the sound world of the musical avant-garde with the sacred text of St Luke’s Gospel to huge emotional effect in his St Luke Passionof 1966.

There’s the Penderecki who, in the 1970s, embraced the past and started writing romantic music. There’s the unheard composer of the late 1940s and early 1950s, who was studying the violin and creating concertos in the manner of the 19th-century violinist/composers he so admired, Paganini, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps.

And then there’s the Penderecki so many people have heard without even spotting his name, the composer whose music has been used in movies by Stanley Kubrick ( The Shining), David Lynch ( Wild at Heartand Inland Empire), Martin Scorsese ( Shutter Island), and William Friedkin ( The Exorcist).

In person, the composer looks younger than his 76 years, perhaps because of his spectacular tan, which he attributes, not to sunning himself, but to his Armenian ancestry. He lives in a spacious, detached house with an almost baronial feel, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the exclusive Kraków suburb of Wola Justowska.

I ask him first about the Poland he grew up in, a Poland under communist rule.

“We couldn’t travel. We couldn’t get any scores, practically. There was no contact. We were isolated. But, because of this isolation, there was a desire to do something – because, politically, we couldn’t do anything.” The result, he says, was the greatest artistic ferment his country had ever known – in theatre, in film, and eventually in music, too.

“We had one enemy, on one front: the communist, Zhdanov aesthetic. So we tried to be different, me and my colleagues. We began to be interested in 12-tone technique.” Then, in 1956, came the Warsaw Autumn Festival, which opened a window on the West, and which the authorities didn’t interfere with. For many years it was the only forum behind the Iron Curtain where the latest western music could be heard.

He heard the music that was making waves in the West, by Stockhausen and Boulez, and the Italian composer Luigi Nono. Nono, who was a communist, even came to Kraków and brought scores by Webern and Schoenberg with him.

The big barrier for Penderecki was that he couldn’t get a passport to travel abroad. That, it turns out, was why he took the trouble to enter three pieces in the competition. The prize was a trip to the West. He can write with his left hand, he tells me. He copied out a score with each hand, so the handwriting would be different, and got a friend to do the third. He wanted no one to suspect the three scores were the work of one individual.

He had originally intended to use his freedom to go to Darmstadt, a West German hotbed of the musical avant-garde through its summer courses in new music. When the time came, however, he had already found his own voice. His Stropheswas performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1959, and resulted in him being sought out by a German publisher. He’d already started work on one of his groundbreaking pieces, Anaklasisfor 42 strings and percussion. He didn’t feel the need for Darmstadt any more. And, since he’d always longed to visit Italy, that’s where he went.

His major work of the mid-1960s, the St Luke Passion, was written partly in a spirit of rebellion. Sacred music was still frowned upon, and not often heard in Polish concert halls.

“I thought it had to be possible in our time to write religious music,” he says. “I was very connected with the church. When I was a child my mother had wanted me to be a priest. I lived in a small city [Debica] where the cultural centre was the church. It was because of the repression towards the church that I started to write religious music.” Now, religious music, accounts for 30 or 40 per cent of his total output.

The St Luke Passionwas a breakthrough in another way, too. Most of his music up to that point had been short, not much longer than 10 minutes or so. The passion, with a duration of about 80 minutes, was a new kind of undertaking, one that took him three years to complete.

Penderecki’s interest in larger forms was destined to grow. He lived in Germany in the late 1960s, first through a professorship in Essen, then on a stipend in Berlin, where he found himself listening for the first time to Bruckner symphonies under the likes of Herbert von Karajan. “There was a time,” he says, “maybe up to two years, when I was fascinated with Bruckner’s music. I wanted to write a symphony like Bruckner.”

The First Symphony of 1973 is what the world sees as the old Penderecki; the Second, of 1979, represents the new. The difference between the percussive opening of the First and the heavily sighing strings over a drum-roll of the Second remains astonishing.

As a young man, he says, writing a symphony was not something he could ever have imagined doing. But the St Luke Passionwas followed by other large pieces, Utrenja (The Entombment of Christ), the operas The Devils of Loudunand Paradise Lost. “If you look in my catalogue now there are very many pieces which are longer than an hour,” he says.

The most challenging aspect of any work, long or short, is getting it started.

“Even if I have an idea about the form, a clear idea, and I keep this idea and it crystallises over days and weeks, the starting is difficult. To [get] inside the piece takes a couple of weeks, always. Actually, every day there is a false start. I start something, I don’t like it, I change it and I start again. And again. Every day it’s a struggle.”

Strange as it may seem for a composer who began life as a radical, it’s the melodies which come most easily to Penderecki. “All my compositions – of course, except for the very avant-garde ones, where there was no place for this – are melodic.”

These days, he composes all the time. He wants to finish his cycle of symphonies, with nine as the target. He’s written eight, but never completed the Sixth. He’s working on an opera on Racine’s Phèdrefor 2014 (there’s another planned after that), and also on a commission for the bicentenary of Chopin, setting words by poet friends of the composer to music.

Unlike other composers whose work has ended up in film soundtracks, he has no problem with this, “if [it] is [for] a good movie, like The Shining. I am very happy that such a great spirit, as Kubrick was, should find my music interesting.”

Kubrick, it turns out, actually wanted Penderecki to write an original score. He rang the composer to commission him. “But I had no time, and also I didn’t want to write music for it. If you start to write music for movies, it’s a very difficult way back — it’s a very easy way to make money, and then, really, it’s very difficult to stop. So he told me very briefly what the movie was about, and I gave him the titles of some pieces I thought he might like to use. And he [used] a sacred work, The Awakening of Jacob, towards the end of the film, when is trying to kill his son, in a labyrinth. It was fantastic in the movie.”

When I ask which of his life’s achievements has given him the greatest pleasure, the answer is not about music. “I planted a park. I have an arboretum. It’s very big, 30 hectares. I started from nothing, 40 years ago. This is something which is growing with me, and in me also. My love for trees.”

He’s grown 1,700 species of tree, an achievement which, he says, is unrivalled in Eastern Europe. “This arboretum also has form, like an open, unfinished symphony. Really, to plan a park you need more than one generation. Usually it takes two or three generations. I did it myself in 40 years. But my work is unfinished. There is no place to plant any more, so I have to expand my garden. This is something which gives me peace and brings another dimension to my life.

“I have also planted a labyrinth there. Sometimes, going through my labyrinth I get lost. It’s the way of an artist, of a composer, getting lost, being in a labyrinth. Sometimes you meet a green wall, and you have to go sideways, but very often you have to go backwards. This is very important: not to be afraid to sometimes go back to the roots – not only my roots, but the roots of the great composers. This is the labyrinth. This is my aesthetic.”

The Castletown Concerts (Friday to Sunday, September 10 to 12) feature Krzysztof Penderecki as composer and conductor with Camerata Ireland in Castletown House and with an orchestra of music students at NUI Maynooth. Details at castletownconcerts.com

Key works on disc

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima(1960), the breakthrough piece which launched his international career. Naxos 8.554491.

St Luke Passion(1966), a startling, avant-garde treatment of a religious text. Naxos 8.557149.

Metamorphosen(Violin Concerto No. 2), written for and here played by Anne-Sophie Mutter, today’s high priestess of romanticism in violin playing. Deutsche Grammophon 453 507-2.

Penderecki is also on YouTube, including a feature about the première of the Sextet which has an interview snippet with Rostropovich.