Music Krzysztof Penderecki
Andrea F. Bohlman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0176


Krzysztof Penderecki (1933–) was one of the most celebrated and, at times, controversial composers from Poland in the 20th century. Still a prolific composer, he remains musically influential into the 21st century as a conductor of his own works, a generous collaborator with young musicians, and a prominent cultural organizer in post-socialist Poland. The cluster-anchored sonorities, creative graphic notation, and innovative use of orchestral timbres that characterized Penderecki’s early compositions drew international acclaim to the composer and, by extension, his nation in the 1960s as Poland’s new music scene thrived. From the Kraków area, where he has been based throughout his professional career, Penderecki cultivated networks strengthened by substantial state support: with the music publisher that prepared and disseminated his elaborate and enormous scores; at the Experimental Music Studio of Polish Radio as it developed its electronic laboratory, where he assembled short scores for animated films and experimented with sound; and with artists in the revitalized film and music festival scenes. The works from this time period, such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), earned him awards at home, invitations to celebrated West German festivals, guest professorships in Europe and the United States, and a bounty of international commissions. These remain the best known of his compositions, not least because of their frequent borrowing for film scores, especially horror films such as in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and recirculation in popular culture, most recently on the collaborative album released with Radiohead guitarist and orchestral composer Jonny Greenwood in 2012. Penderecki’s large-scale compositions push the size of traditional ensembles, such as the orchestra and choir, to their maximal for theological and dramaturgical purposes, as in the St. Luke Passion (1966), the opera The Devils in Loudun (1968–1969), and his Seventh Symphony (“The Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” 1996). His commissions from universities, chapel choirs, and solo and chamber performers have taken him beyond the monumental: many occasional prayers, fanfares, character pieces, and arrangements, for example of Christmas carols, show his versatility through the 21st century. Scholars and critics have traditionally divided Penderecki’s career into two periods, with the Passion at the threshold between avant-garde discontentment and a neo-Romantic mysticism rooted in tonality—a break that the composer reinforces in his public addresses. However, decentering style, it is possible to note a variety of themes across his career: voice and liturgy, string virtuosity, profane dramaturgy, Polish history, and the natural world. The centrality of the latter in his ambitious project for reorienting the arts in the 20th century is perhaps best exemplified by a non-musical representation of this vision: the expansive arboretum he has cultivated around his manor in southern Poland.


Penderecki’s international celebrity has been both stimulus and emphasis of biographical studies. To date, much of the writing reflects the challenges of chronicling the life of a living composer who works to control his legacy. Popular biographies such as Erhardt 1975, Jacobson 1996, Tomaszewski 2003a, and Tomaszewski 2003b advocate for the composer’s originality and importance. Lisicki 1973 and Schwinger 1994 present a more traditional life and works approach and are more detail oriented, with the latter most widely available in English. Scholars have worked to reconcile the composer’s ranging compositional approaches with his varied reception: in Bylander 2004, the two-volumes of collected essays in Robinson 1998–2003, and in Thomas 2001, an entry in Grove Music Online. Since the composer is still active, these works are necessarily positioned as preliminary.

  • Bylander, Cindy. Krzysztof Penderecki: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

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    An extensive annotated bibliography through 1998 that also includes a works list with selected performances, a discography (through 2003) and a very brief biography. Focus on press coverage in musical and mainstream periodicals in English, French, German, and Polish, with summaries.

  • Erhardt, Ludwik. Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim. Kraków: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1975.

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    Polish music publisher’s biography by a critic who was one of Penderecki’s early champions. Emphasizes his international success, connections, and renown by tracing his career as conductor alongside that of composer. Celebratory in nature, the book includes lengthy statements by the composer and generally avoids musical analysis.

  • Jacobson, Bernard. A Polish Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 1996.

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    In this collection of Polish composer portraits for the general public, Jacobson celebrates Penderecki’s success in western Europe, drawing attention to commissioning institutions and reproducing many images from stage productions. Much of the biographical detail replicated from Schwinger 1994. Also includes quotations from an informal interview by Jacobson from 1967. A brief essay on interiority in later music by Górecki and Penderecki caps the volume.

  • Lisicki, Krzysztof. Szkice o Krzysztofie Pendereckim. Warsaw: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1973.

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    First book-length biography of the composer. Chronological organization with substantial attention to the 1950s. For a general Polish, musically literate audience and thus provides unusual perspective on Penderecki’s legibility to broader audience familiar with the postwar avant-garde. Dramatic works from the 1960s explained at length along with musical notation and extended techniques.

  • Robinson, Ray. Studies in Penderecki. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Prestige, 1998–2003.

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    Collection of brief articles brings together international perspectives in musicology and music criticism on Penderecki. Focused analyses cover works from across his career. Covers reception and performance history in various national contexts and compares his relationship to the avant-garde, conceived broadly. Contains synopses of many scholars’ larger-scale studies and is therefore a useful tool for orientation.

  • Schwinger, Wolfgang. Krzysztof Penderecki: Begegnungen, Lebensdaten, Werkkommentare. Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1994.

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    Most recent update of an influential biography first published in 1979 and translated into English in 1989. Issued by Penderecki’s publisher, includes many photos and score excerpts. Remains the most comprehensive biography not in Polish. Attention to reception by the power brokers and performers of the German avant-garde gives the volume a focus on his career in international perspective. Work commentaries are descriptive and include comprehensive information about sources and genesis.

  • Thomas, Adrian. “Penderecki, Krzysztof.” Grove Music Online, 2001.

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    Concise biography that traces Penderecki’s international commissions and conducting career along with a brief sketch of his compositional output, with the mid-1970s as a dividing point. Thomas distinctively draws out larger themes—such as genre mixture in dramatic works and commemorative themes in choral compositions—rather than reproducing narratives about spirituality and neo-Romanticism. Available online by subscription. Complements the essayistic Thomas 2003 (cited under Music for the Stage) on Penderecki’s operas.

  • Tomaszewski, Mieczysław. Krzysztof Penderecki and His Music: Four Essays. Kraków: Akademia Muzyczna w Krakowie, 2003a.

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    A collection of articles by a prominent musicologist and close collaborator with Penderecki from 1989 to 2003. Interprets coherence across the composer’s career. Tomaszewski develops a theory of the composer’s attitude toward sound that bridges the sacred and profane, while rejecting postmodern readings of his early career. Though affect is of primary concern, form, tonal space, and genre are also discussed.

  • Tomaszewski, Mieczysław. Penderecki. Warsaw: Adam Mickiewicz Institute, 2003b.

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    Part promotion, part biography, and part reflection, this synthesis presents Penderecki to an English-speaking audience. Although it is a trove of details, readers should be aware that many of the anecdotes in the volume are unsubstantiated personal reflections—anecdotes that give a sense of Penderecki’s cultural significance and visionary presence for some aspects of musical life in Poland.

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