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Penderecki, then and now

By Meghann Wilhoite


Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (pronunciation here) celebrated his 80th birthday over the weekend. As Tom Service has pointed out in the past, you’ve probably already heard some of Penderecki’s famous pieces from the 1960s, which feature in several films from directors such as David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese. The Radiohead fans out there might also remember Jonny Greenwood’s collaboration with Penderecki last year, which resulted in fresh recordings of two of those famous early pieces, that in turn inspired two new works by Greenwood (48 Responses to Polymorphia and Popcorn Superhet Receiver). Penderecki’s early work, experimental in just about every possible way, still sounds futuristic in 2013; take for example Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima:

Despite the popularity of his avant-garde works, which were considered truly ground-breaking at the time of their composition, Penderecki left that style behind in the mid-1970s to embrace what some would call more familiar musical territory. This perceived familiarity arises mostly from the fact that Penderecki distilled the texture of the later works to discernible tones. In the early works, the textures are so dense and/or unusual that it is difficult to know what notes are being sounded, and what instruments are playing them, at a given moment. Often the music sounds electronically produced when in reality only acoustic instruments are playing. In the works since the mid-70s it becomes easier to identify which instruments are playing, as in his Symphony No. 7, written in 1996:

Nonetheless, Penderecki’s post-avant garde music is still arcane, and can be challenging listening even if it is lighter on the tone clusters. Take for example the opening cello solo in his Concerto Grosso No. 1, for three cellos and orchestra, written in 2000:

The notes in this solo string together to make, not so much a melody, but more of a sinuous line whose path takes advantage of the wide range of the cello and whose message seems grave and deep. The orchestra and other cellos continue in the same vein until about 4:55 into the video, when we hear a descending succession of rich, contemplative chords, interrupted about a minute later by loud woodwinds drawing us back into the more linear, angular style of the opening. This mixing of styles is common in Penderecki’s work, and further prevents us from planting it firmly in any one camp of composition.

Arcaneness aside, there is, as Adrian Thomas puts it in his Grove Music Online article on Penderecki, “an almost cinematic quality to the emotional directness of the music” in both the early and current styles. Penderecki, whether blowing our minds with experimental sounds or using instruments in more traditional ways to no less dramatic effect, consistently leads his listeners down a clear emotional path. I’m looking forward to hearing where he leads us next.

Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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