Krzysztof Penderecki


Composer, conductor

DAAD Scholarship 1968–1970

Krzysztof  Penderecki DAAD

The list of his worldwide awards and prizes seems endless – one of the more recent major awards is the Grammy for the Best Classical Compendium in 2013. Krysztof Penderecki is considered one of the leading contemporary composers and the most important representative of Polish music. Born in Debica, 130 kilometres east of Kraków, in 1933, he discovered the world of music from early on: his father, an enthusiastic violinist, arranged violin and piano lessons for the son at an early age.

I tried to escape dry sound, I found it too confined.
Krzysztof Penderecki

In 1954 Penderecki decided to take up composition lessons at the Academy of Music in Kraków to ensure a more focused musical development. His teachers were Stanislaw Skolyszewski and Artur Malawski. Malawski taught numerous distinguished composers and conductors over the years. In addition to his musical career, the young Penderecki also took up a degree course in philosophy, art, and history of literature at Kraków University, which he completed successfully in 1958.

At that time he was already celebrating his first musical successes. In Warsaw in 1959, at the second competition for young Polish composers, all three prizes went to Penderecki for his works Strophes, Emanations and Psalms of David. Three years later, with a number of unusual works such as Fluoresences, his international reputation was firmly established. Penderecki impressed audiences with the unusual tools he used in his compositions. "I was prepared to use any means. The music was very direct." Direct in the sense that it was accessible to everybody. In Fluoresences he used a steel panel to imitate the sound of thunder. Other tools were a typewriter and a siren.

By producing sounds in an utterly unconventional way he even made traditional instruments sound unfamiliar. "I was looking for a richer sound. I wanted to use the full potential of a big orchestra. I tried to get away from the dry sound, which I found too confined." His final breakthrough came with the premiere of the St. Luke Passion in Münster in 1966. "It is not important to me how the St. Luke Passion is described, whether traditional or avant-garde. For me it is simply genuine. And this must suffice."

Between 1968 and 1970 Penderecki took up a DAAD scholarship to study composition in Berlin. The following years were successful, too. Some of his expressive compositions were adapted for film classics such as The Exorcist and The Shining – and he also received awards for his film music. However, Penderecki also committed himself to the role of mediator between Germany and Poland, two neighbours with a difficult past. He began working with young musicians, trying to foster tolerance through music. However, he is aware that: "In theory, music is a very good way of promoting mutual understanding. But music cannot stop war. I no longer believe that music can bring peace to the world. It may, perhaps, make the world a slightly better place."