Penderecki : a virtual celebration

Here at MusiCB3, we were saddened to hear of the death last weekend of composer, Krzysztof Penderecki. Born in 1933, Penderecki grew up in Dębica in Southern Poland. After studying in Krakow, at the Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Music, Penderecki started lecturing at the Academy, and soon established himself as a composer.

His compositional career divided into two sections, an earlier avant-garde period, and a more romantic approach, beginning with his first violin concerto, composed while he was teaching at Yale, and premiered in 1978. The two compositional lives of Penderecki were confusing to some fans, with many loving either the romantic Penderecki, or the avant-garde composer, but struggling to reconcile his two rather different voices.

The avant-garde period was a huge influence on many rock musicians, with Manic Street Preachers quoting the Threnody for Hiroshima in the introduction to their You Love Us. Penderecki also produced an album jointly with Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. Avant-garde film-makers were also drawn to the sound of earlier Penderecki, from Stanley Kubrick‘s use of De natura sonoris II in The Shining (Penderecki allegedly disapproved of the way his music was used), to frequent collaborations with David Lynch.


A lockdown would seem to be an ideal opportunity to listen more closely to Penderecki’s work, with The Shining, a particularly appropriate, if distinctly terrifying, lockdown movie.

Performances of Threnody ‘To the victims of Hiroshima‘ can be found on YouTube, alongside the Manic Street Preachers’ song, previously mentioned.

Penderecki’s music was used in two seminal horror films, with both The Exorcist and The Shining using Polymorphia. Stanley Kubrick also used De natura sonoris, nos. 1-2, The awakening of Jacob, Kanon for 52 strings and magnetic tape, and Jutrznia (aka Utrenja), all by Penderecki, in The Shining. As had been common with Kubrick, since working on 2001: a space odyssey, most of the music was taken straight from commercial recordings, but De natura sonoris no. 2, as used in the infamous final scene in the maze, was substantially edited, looped, and overlaid. An article by Valerio Sbravatti, “The music in The Shining” reveals that this mirrors the actions of the actors during the chase sequence, with two pieces by Penderecki, Jutrznia and De natura sonoris, no. 2, being woven around each other partly reflecting the movements of the child, Danny, and his father, Jack, through the maze.

For those, with a Raven password, a huge amount of Penderecki, can be listened to, courtesy of Naxos Music Library. This includes all of the music previously mentioned, and much of Penderecki’s later output.

Personally, when not watching horror films, Penderecki’s later style is more appealing to me. His first violin concerto, which was composed for, and dedicated to Isaac Stern, is particularly beautiful.

In these tricky times, a large amount of material about Penderecki may be found via iDiscover. Simply search, having clicked on the “Search everything” field. This will pull up articles available on Open Access, and Full text online (remember that many of these may be reviews of other articles or books, rather than the original scholarship).

Schott are responsible for the sale and hire of Penderecki’s scores in the UK. They have a very helpful website, where you can look at perusal copies of items within their hire library (for example, Penderecki’s opera The devils of Loudon), or see low resolution scans of music, that would usually be for sale as a hard copy. These are not intended for sale, or to be used for a performance, but are very helpful as a stop-gap measure, when planning future performances, or checking the odd musical query.

Krzysztof Penderecki.
Akumiszcza / CC BY

Many of the larger publishers run a similar service, so it’s always worth checking their sites.

Penderecki’s response to electronic music is fascinating. As a young man it inspired him, it was like no sound he had ever heard. However the humanity of acoustic instruments, the fact that no performance could ever be exactly like a previous one, proved to be unexpectedly important to him.

He was inspired to try and achieve the same emotional effect that he got from electronic sound through an acoustic medium, and this would gradually move him away from the avant garde into a more romantic soundscape. He was always an enthusiast though for new sounds, experimenting with new kinds of traditional instruments. For more information see this interview.

He burst professionally onto the musical stage with his electronic inspired scores, so it’s perhaps appropriate that in death technology continues to play a part. An electronic book of condolence can be found at


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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