The composer who refused to be categorised

The composer who refused to be categorised


norman lebrecht

March 29, 2020

Krzysztof Penderecki, who died today, would bridle when journalists called him ‘the greatest Polish composer’ or ‘the most important’ or any other relative terms because he never fitted into any group or movement.

Hailed as an avant-gardist for his breakthrough Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, closer listening revealed a profound affinity with the night music of Bela Bartok and the increasingly abstract expressions of his compatriot Lutoslawski.

Acclaimed by the Me Generation for his sexualised opera The Devils of Loudun, he was a uxorious, conservative man who lived on the quiet outskirts of Krakow.

Embraced by the Pope in Rome for his St Luke’s Passion and other devotions, he attended a minority Armenian church.

Polish to all appearances, he had a German grandfather and a grandmother from Isfahan in Iran, as well as a lifelong sympathy for Jews, whose roundups by the Nazis he witnessed in his home town Debica, known in Yiddish as the shtetl Dembitz. His hour-long seventh symphony is titled The Seven Gates of Jerusalem. In his last concerto grosso, he heard elements of klezmer music.


An early supporter of the Solidarity uprising, he steered stricly clear of factions and party politics.

His most heard works – aside from music for The Exorcist – are probably a cello concerto commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich and two violin concertos, one for Issac Stern, the second for Anne-Sophie Mutter. All three have virtuosic flourish and audience appeal, along with a fastidious self-distancing.

His range extend from baroque imitation…

to borderline atonality.

photo: Polish Government

The Threnody will always be his signature work and there will always be a place for major statements like his Polish Requiem. But in years to come, and in times of stress, we will turn increasingly to the adagio of his third symphony, a Mahlerian contemplation of love and loss, eternal in its message.

May he rest in peace.


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Very sad to hear this. His Dies Irae was the first work of his I heard and remains one my favourites. The Devils of Loudon was the first opera I ever saw. I recall taking myself up to Peterborough for (if memory serves) the premiere of his Second Symphony. Good Friday requires me to make a choice between his St Luke Passion and Parsifal. Rest in peace.

    • gareth says:

      I can only echo what you say. Oddly enough, I was watching my DVD of “The Devils of Loudun” only the other week, in a Hamburg production conducted by Marek Janowski. IMHO it’s a great 20th Century opera, and I wish they’d re-release the old Phillips recording on CD, or at least make it available to download.

    • Paul Terry says:

      Surely that was the First Symphony, commissioned by Perkins Engineering. Both symphonies are impressive, though, in my opinion, fwiw.

      • Paul Dawson says:

        You’re quite right. I’ve been carrying the notion that it was second round in my head for decades. I had also completely forgotten that it had been commissioned by Perkins. That explains why it took place in Peterborough, another issue which had been puzzling me. Many thanks. I’m glad to have that cleared up.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I regret missing his concert with Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1980’s when he conducted his own works. The same goes for Lutoslawski, who also gave a concert with the same orchestra in those years. It was not as good an orchestra as today by the way.

  • Paul says:

    in 2016, I once heard an atonal viola concerto late at night on the radio. I had no idea what it was but somehow every note, every entrance of every instrument just seemed right, familiar, and even predictable to me. Only when the radio announcer then said at the end that this was by Penderecki did I realize that I have played in the orchestra for that work 24 years earlier in university. I had never looked at the score nor listened to it since then, but the music stayed with me.

  • We privatize your value says:

    A tremendous loss!!

  • Thanks Norman for this great article!

    I just wrote a very few words about his Die Teufel van Loudon
    In English and Dutch

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Lovely, Basia! I’ll return to this.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Let me second the praise for Mr Lebrecht’s article, which renders the seeming heterogeneity of Penderecki’s music coherent to me. It will spur me to both deeper and broader listening to his work.

  • Grand old composers still with us:

    Ned Rorem (96), György Kurtág (94), Carlisle Floyd (93), Thea Musgrave (91), George Crumb (90), Stephen Sondheim (90), Sofia Gubaidulina (88), Per Nørgård (87), Morton Subotnick (86), Harrison Birtwistle (85).

  • Anon says:

    A magnificent eulogy, Norman. Thank you.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    “An early supporter of the Solidarity uprising, he steered strictly clear of factions and party politics.”

    And yet I remember reading a explicit statement of Penderecki, in a 1987 interview, to the effect that he did not believe in communism.

  • Hilary says:

    a rarity : I echo the sentiments of a person in the comment section who says if only HvK had made a commercial recording of this rather than yet another Brahms or Beethoven cycle.
    This is Penderecki at his best, rather than the later style.

  • Edward says:

    when I engaged him in conversation, all he wanted to talk about were his mushrooms!