The goodbye of Krzysztof Penderecki a few days ago (Debica, 1933 – Kraków, 2020) is impossible to leave a void because his music would immediately fill it, among the most recognizable and recorded of the second half of the 20th century, and even of the new millennium . “A composer must be defined by his style,” he replied to ABC Cultural during his last interview in Spain on the occasion of a visit to La Coruña in January 2018. The style of this Polish author was nothing but a form in constant evolution until find your own stamp, a personal way of expressing your particular sound universe. For this reason, the Penderecki del Treno for the victims of Hiroshima (1960) hardly resembles that of his Symphony No. 6 Chinese Poems (2017). And so it should be, according to his own philosophy: «I am not clear where my music is going. Someday it will end, but I am not sure. I continue my way ».
His father gave him, as a child, his first violin. Penderecki trained as a musician in his native Poland, studying composition privately with Skolyszewski and, later, with Malawski and Wiechowicz at the Krakow Conservatory, of which he was rector in 1972. His talent began to dazzle when in 1959 he won the first three awards at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. “I wrote one piece with my left hand, another with my right hand, and the third one I dictated to a friend,” he boasted. The prize was to cross the Iron Curtain and travel through Europe.
“There are people who think that I abandoned the vanguard. rather, I wanted to go my own way »
This would not be the only trip of Penderecki, embarked on the journey by the avant-gardes of the sixties, exploring – if there were any left – unknown spaces. From that time of marked atonal production “there was nothing to understand,” he confessed. They are the years of Fluorescencje (1961) the Treno or Polymorphia (1961). These dark sound atmospheres, which dispense with any melodic or rhythmic intention and only harbor a descriptive spirit, went around the world as a soundtrack for two milestones of horror cinema: The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980. Showy was also his interpretation of string instruments, through original techniques with which to achieve novel sounds.
Curiously, when the cinema remembered Penderecki, the Pole was no longer stylistically there, but had abandoned avant-garde research to find new compositional horizons. “There are people who think that I abandoned the avant-garde,” he defended himself on ABC Cultural, “but rather it turned out that I wanted to go my own way. What I wanted were large format works, such as oratorios and operas. And the avant-gardes were not going in that direction. So I had to go back to tradition.
Religious and profane
The great work that illustrates this evolutionary leap is its best-known choral page, The Passion according to Saint Luke (1964), a monumental cantata of contained and ascetic expressiveness. I met Stravinsky. He told me that he was listening to her and that he had been enthusiastic, “he confessed, referring to what was one of his primary influences at the beginning. “It was the greatest compliment anyone could do to me.” Religiosity was an ascendant in Penderecki’s choral production, as demonstrated in Utrenia (1971), a psalm based on the liturgy of the Orthodox rite, or in pieces such as his Te Deum (1980-1981), the Polish Requiem (1980-1984). ) or the Creed (1997-1998).
“The most beautiful instrument that exists is the human voice.” And this led him, throughout his compositional career, to grant a clear choral role in orchestral works such as his symphonies No. 7 Gates of Jerusalem (1996) or No. 8 Songs of Fleeting (2004-2005).
If anything shows the production of Penderecki it is a deep knowledge of the classics. Even the avowed avant-garde was able to cross-dress his admired Johan Sebastian Bach to compose the Three Pieces in the Baroque style (1962-1964) that he was commissioned for the film adaptation of Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Zaragoza. “To write an Italian romantic opera, my left hand is enough,” he boasted smiling.
Starting in the 1970s and gradually abandoning the most innovative forms, critics chose to label him as a contemporary neo-romantic. However, he followed his particular musical speech, interrupted to collect awards such as the Prince of Asturias for the Arts in 2001, the Honoris Causa doctorate from the University of Rochester (USA), or the honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music London (1975).
In the last three decades, his symphonic production, more affordable for the general public, has found its place in large concert halls. The orchestras commissioned works for his performance that he himself conducted; the most diverse record labels have collected the bulk of their work. Penderecki affirmed that he did not compose for the public but for himself, although “I am very pleased that the public likes my music”, peches de vieillesse, sins of old age.
His legacy is not only his work, but also the center that bears his name, a country house that he bought and restored in 1974 and that opened its doors in Krakow in 2013. It welcomes young musicians in training. His other inheritance will be his arboretum of more than 1,800 species in the vicinity of what was his home. “Sometimes I think maybe it’s more important than my music.” Evidence of someone who just wanted to be remembered as “a sincere man” who lived “an interesting life.” .