He was born in Debica and after taking private composition lessons with Franciszek Skolyszewski, he studied music at Krakow University and the Krakow Academy for Music under Artur Malawski and Stanislaw Wiechowicz. After graduating in 1958 he took up a teaching post there himself, teaching Iannis Xenakis amongst others.
Penderecki's early works show the influence of Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez (he has also been influenced by Igor Stravinsky). The piece which brought him international fame was Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima (originally called 8' 37", perhaps in a nod to John Cage), written for 52 string instruments. In it, Penderecki makes used of extended instrumental techniques (for example, playing on the wrong side of the bridge, bowing on the tailpiece), and creates novel textures. He makes great use of tone clusters (notes close together played at the same time) to evoke the effects and aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion.
The St. Luke Passion (1963-66) brought Penderecki popular acclaim. Various different styles can be seen at work. The experimental textures such as were seen in the Threnody are balanced by the baroque form of the work and the more traditional harmonies seen in places. The Stabat Mater section ends on a simple major chord. Penderecki makes use of serialism in this piece, and the tone row he uses includes the BACH motif, which acts as a bridge between the conventional harmonies and the more experimental work.
Around the mid-1970s Penderecki's style began to change. The Violin Concerto No. 1 largely leaves behind the dense tone clusters with which he had been associated, and instead focuses on two melodic intervals: the semitone and the tritone. Some commentators went so far as to compare this new direction to Anton Bruckner.
This direction continued with the Symphony No. 2, Christmas (1980), which is rather straightforward from a harmonic and melodic standpoint for a composer who had been one of the most experimental in Europe. It makes frequent use of the tune of the Christmas carol, "Silent Night".
In 1980, Penderecki was commissioned by Solidarity to compose a piece to accompany the unveiling of a statue at the Gdansk shipyards to commemorate those killed at anti-government riots there in 1970. Penderecki responded with the Lacrimosa, which he later expanded to become one of the best known works of his later period, the Polish Requiem (1980-84, revised 1993). Here again the harmonies are quite lush, although there are moments which evoke his earlier work in the 1960s. The tendency in recent years has been towards more conservative romanticism, however, as seen in works like the Cello Concerto No. 2 and the Credo.
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2 Choral works
Orchestral and instrumental
see also Polish composers