Obituary: Krzysztof Penderecki

We pay tribute to the great Polish composer who has died at the age of 86

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The Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki has died aged 86. 

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Penderecki was a revered avant-garde composer, who, as well as writing operas, symphonies and concertos, was committed to sacred music, using sacred texts as the basis for many of his choral works. Venturing beyond the concert hall, his music was also used in films including The ShiningThe Exorcist and Wild at Heart. 

Having initially studied as a violinist, Penderecki went on to focus on composition at Krakow's Academy of Music in 1954. With Stalinism overthrown in Poland in the 1950s and the end of censorship, it was an exciting decade to be a young composer. Penderecki's early works were avant-garde in style, incorporating extended technique, note clusters and experimental sounds and textures.

Penderecki reached an international audience following the success of his 1960 work for strings Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, written as a response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and a reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. The piece went on to be featured in BBC Music Magazine’s list of 20 works that defined a century.

He was the composer most commonly associated with 'sonorism', a style of music used by avant-garde Polish composers which focuses on the qualities of the sound itself: textures, timbres and contrasts. This was often linked to the creation of new sounds from traditional instruments using extended techniques and graphic notation, a prominent feature of Penderecki's compositions. 

Citing his two greatest influences as JS Bach and Monteverdi, Penderecki went on to explore choral music, marked by the St Luke Passion, the first large-scale oratorio by a Polish composer since the 19th century. This was later followed by his Credo and Polish Requiem, the latter of which was dedicated to the heroes and victims of Polish history. 

Later in his career, his avant-garde approach developed into more of a focus on neoromanticism. His First Violin Concerto was the first major example of this, with a soaring violin part. 

Speaking to BBC Music Magazine in 2019, he said, ‘I was using the elements of different music – always in a form in which I was very much connected to the tradition, although the sounds were different. I was inventing new sounds – using old instruments to make them, particularly stringed instruments because I was a string player.’ He is known for his string works, with his first violin concerto dedicated to and premiered by Isaac Stern, and his second for Anne-Sophie Mutter, a violinist with whom he worked and recorded many times over the years.

Despite never having had any formal training, he conducted many of his own orchestral works in concert and on recordings. 

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Penderecki's other great passion was his arboretum, located 60 miles outside Krakow and the largest in Eastern Europe, with 1700 different species of tree. 'I go there, to the big trees and put my arms round one of them for a while,' he told James Naughtie in BBC Music Magazine last year. 'It is a huge. That gives me a feeling of power, and peace too.'