15 17 Oct '24

Krzysztof Penderecki, the composer that crossed many boundaries

Penderecki2 2 min
Stories 23 Apr 2020
Film has made avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki world famous. Starting as two separate sources of inspiration, film and music became one and enriched each other. Precisely for this reason, Penderecki received a Lifetime Achievement Award of the World Soundtrack Academy, last year at Film Fest Ghent 2019.

The recently deceased, world-renowned Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has crossed many boundaries. In the first place, with himself and subsequently greater than ever between two art forms: music and film. He himself and similar giants such as Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Andrzej Wajda assembled these two and the new whole obtained a higher spiritual dimension or immersed itself in the abysses of the human subconscious. For this unique interplay, Krzysztof Penderecki received the WSA Lifetime Achievement Award, last year at Film Fest Ghent. His fragile health status did not allow him to accept his award in person. However, it was handed out to him in Kraków by the FFG-music director Dirk Brossé.

Away from the Western avant-garde

Krzysztof Penderecki was born on the 23rd of November, 1933 in Debica, near Kraków. Initially, he studied the violin followed by composition at the conservatory of Kraków, of which he would later become the director. In Anna Schmidt’s magnificent documentary ‘Paths Through The Labyrinth’, exhibited at FFG in 2018, Penderecki tells us why he started composing. In the communist Poland of the 1950s, there was a travel ban. When a competition for young composers was held, the first prize consisted of a trip to the West. The young Krzysztof Penderecki submitted three works and won the three first prizes. Even at that time, he did not put up with boundaries.

At once, this feeling was at the basis of his preference for avant-garde music. “I wanted to transcend what I had learnt and thereby omit the Western avant-garde”, he told Anna Schmidt. As such, his particular, Polish sonority and his inventive exploration of various tonal possibilities and diverse instruments, especially with the violin. The dissonant, scrawny, and abrasive character of his compositions allured film directors when they wanted to intensify the level of suspense and horror in their films.

Knocking film directors

As a film composer, in the strict sense, his oeuvre is restricted. He wrote music for a number of short animation films and among others for two films by Wojciech Has, the famous ‘The Saragossa Manuscript’ and ‘Szyfry’ (‘Codes’). He did not have time for more film projects, as he went from composition to composition, sometimes even working on three different projects simultaneously. As such, he even rejected Stanley Kubrick, when he was contacted to write a score of ‘The Shining’. However, he referred Kubrick to some of his works that were probably eligible for the film. According to some sources, the composer would have been malcontented with the way his music was used by Kubrick. Either way, after William Friedkin (‘The Exorcist) and Kubrick, it was the turn of Martin Scorsese (‘Shutter Island’) and David Lynch (‘‘Inland Empire’, ‘Twin Peaks’) to alter their films or TV-series to a higher level.

One plus one is three

To his compatriot, film director Andrzej Wajda, Penderecki did promise a film score, provided that he would produce a film on the war drama that took place in 1940 in the Polish Katyn. There, a thousand Polish officers and intelligentsia, among whom a family member of Penderecki as well as the father of Wajda, were killed by Russian army. The film was finalized in 2007, but the original score was never made. Penderecki, however, gave the director his ‘Polish Requiem’ and was surprised himself how two completely independent art forms could coincide and bring one another to a higher level.

With the ‘Polish Requiem’, arisen from the Lacrimosa-composition in remembrance of the killed insurgents at the shipyards in Gdansk, Penderecki had already concluded his avant-garde period and had arrived in what is called his post-romantic period. There, he used the human voice, which he considered to be the most beautiful instrument. Moreover, in ‘Katyn’, two of his favorite themes, history and religion, come to the fore in a unique, harmonious manner.


With his sacred works, he resisted against a boundary once again. Under a communist regime, religious music was not exactly something the government was awaiting. For Penderecki, an encouragement to compose them. With his focus on the Polish history, he stayed true to his own identity, but he did not confine himself to it. As such, his ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’. Initially, the duration of the work, 8’37”, was also the title. However, its breakthrough only came when Penderecki renamed it to ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’. This also resulted in the fact that some people blamed him for being an opportunist. In Anna Schmidt’s documentary, he revealed that he had composed the lamentation on the lines of brain activity of psychiatric patients listening to his ‘Polymorphia’. ‘Polymorphia’ is one of Penderecki’s most notorious works and was also used in ‘The Shining’ by Kubrick. Moreover, it was one of the highlights of the WSA-concert on October 18, 2019 at the Capitole in Ghent.



The late composer worked like an architect with schemes that he later filled up and - in. As such, he had planned to write nine symphonies, of which he eventually completed eight. Even without his ninth, he leaves us with a gigantic and extremely varied oeuvre, that he preferred writing down in his domain in Luslawice, near Kraków. It comprised thirty hectares and over 1700 tree species and shrubs. Besides being a composer, Krzysztof Penderecki was an incredible nature-lover, obsessed with trees. He even smuggled little trunks in his suitcase when he returned home from one of his countless trips abroad. The fact that the Polish Intelligence was not aware of this, is rather peculiar. If only they had known that he would have returned to the country for his arboretum only, perhaps it would not have been necessary to take his son hostage by not granting him a passport, whenever his parents went abroad.

The latter is of course long history, and the Polish borders have been opened a long time ago. Nearby and next to the trees, there is now a European centrum for young musicians, where the warm and gracious Krzysztof Penderecki lives on. Across the boundaries of death.

Raf Butstraen

Listen to Penderecki's masterpiece 'Polymorphia', conducted by the Brussels Philharmonic, directed by Dirk Brossé at Capitole Gent below.

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