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An unending path for composer Krzysztof Penderecki

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Krzysztof Penderecki composed “Polymorphia,” for 48 string instruments, in 1961. It pushes the strings’ sonic abilities to modernist limits: squeaks, wails, mutterings, and growls, an idiom of noise and effects. The piece ends, however, with a grand C-major chord.

“This was, of course,” he recalls, “a shock for people of that time.” But the tonality was always there, waiting to be revealed. “I started with a C-major chord, and worked back to the beginning. . . . I didn’t want actually to shock, but for me this was a logical solution after all these very dense, quarter-step clusters, you know?” he says. “It was the only solution at the end of this piece I could imagine.”


Penderecki composed his Eighth Symphony, for solo singers, chorus, and orchestra, between 2005 and 2008. It is largely tonal, Mahler-like, late-Romantic harmonies amplified and concentrated. The piece ends, however, with a long, eerie upward glissando by chorus and strings, over which soloists intone poetry of Achim von Arnim: “The path is unending.”

It’s an effect that would not be out of place in “Polymorphia.” It’s an effect, Penderecki is quick to point out, that he previously used in his thoroughly polystylistic “Polish Requiem.” But it also is an effect specific to this text, the image of the unending path: the upward slide, Penderecki says, should “actually should be very long, like the never-ending glissando.”

Penderecki turns 80 next month; the Boston Symphony Orchestra is marking the occasion this week with performances of his Concerto Grosso No. 1 (2000), a brooding showpiece for three solo cellists and orchestra. He has garnered nearly every award and honor the classical music world can bestow. And yet Penderecki remains elusive, pursuing a stylistic path that has always left listeners and critics continually having to reorient their expectations.

During a post-Stalinist thaw in Communist Poland, he traversed the bleeding-edge of the 1960s avant-garde; a decade later, he began to adopt a thoroughgoing neo-Romanticism, regenerating the rhetoric of the 19th century. It might be a standard narrative — young radical turns conservative apostate — except that Penderecki’s radical music was always more connected with tradition, and his conservative music always more radical, than the surface might indicate. His music has continued to cross those two paths at varying angles.


Consider “Polymorphia” and the Eighth Symphony: wildly different, written almost 50 years apart, nevertheless both looking forward and back at the same time. To paraphrase the medieval master Guillaume de Machaut, Penderecki’s ends are — and, for a long time, have been — his beginnings.

He has always been an inveterate traveler. For this article, Penderecki talks on the phone from New York, where he has just arrived after concerts in Beijing. He will come to Boston by way of New Haven and a concert with the Yale Philharmonia. (Penderecki was a professor at Yale from 1972 to 1978.) After Boston, he will leave for Budapest. November brings the centerpiece of his birthday celebrations, a weeklong festival of his music in Warsaw. In December, he heads to Seoul. “Traveling, talking to people, and rehearsing, I’m always finding new ideas,” he muses. “If I stay in one place, maybe I won’t have so many ideas.”

In the beginning, the ideas were purely sonic, unlocking the timbral potential of traditional instruments, dragging the unearthly sounds of electronic music into the realm of live performance with some unorthodox reverse engineering. The chorus in “Dimensions of Time and Space” (1959-61) chants chains of percussive consonants and keening vowels, the phonemes organized in serial fashion. In “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” the 1960 piece that was the composer’s first international, breakout success, the 52 string players whack their instruments, bow behind the bridge, and combine into massive, roaring tone-clusters. “This was a time of discovery,” he remembers. “I wanted to write every piece so it was really different.”


Penderecki became the leader of a new Polish school of avant-garde music. As he and his fellow composers pursued ever-more radical conceptions, “we closed the door behind us,” he says, shutting out the past. But, after “Polymorphia” and “Fluorescences,” its full-orchestra cousin, Penderecki sensed that the quest for novelty was becoming increasingly Sisyphean. “There is some limit to finding, always, new things,” he realized. “It’s rather impossible.”

Form came first: Penderecki started to put his unorthodox instrumental techniques in service of older templates, especially sacred ones: the “St. Luke Passion” (1966, a massive work that ratified the celebrity that started with the “Threnody”), a “Dies Irae” setting, a “Magnificat.” Tonal anchors and references became more pronounced: in “Kosmogonia,” a space-themed oratorio composed for the 25th anniversary of the United Nations, characteristic fogs of dissonance are suddenly burned away by a blazing, E-major Copernican sun. With his 1978 opera on Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and the unabashed 19th-century atmosphere of his 1980 Second Symphony — a work punctuated with quotations of “Silent Night” — it seemed he had retreated from modernism completely.


But that, too, was only a stop on the way. Beginning with his large-scale “Polish Requiem” — which itself began as a “Lacrimosa,” commissioned by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity party as a memorial to victims of the 1970 Polish uprisings — Penderecki’s avant-garde and traditional leanings began to more subtly mingle. “After so many years, I don’t really think writing has to be absolutely new,” he insists. “No. It has to be good work.”

The Concerto Grosso shows the synthesis in action. The piece was born from long associations with practitioners of the cello, a favorite instrument: “I decided to write the concerto where I would use more than one cellist, for three of my friends.” (One of the friends was intended to be Mstislav Rostropovich, but Rostropovich, Penderecki recalls, declined to appear with two other cellists.) It is a big, dark piece. The tonality and gestures are those of standard, even stock musical drama: grim, dotted-rhythm marches, melodramatic diminished-seventh chords. But the tropes then seem to expand into a more wide-angle sonic exploration, somehow spinning outward and inward at the same time.

Penderecki’s older, wilder music has slipped into the background of the mainstream. It became a featured player in horror and science-fiction films; it is a touchstone for younger, electronically primed composers. (Last year brought an album and a series of concerts in tandem with English composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood: “Polymorphia,” paired with Greenwood’s “48 Responses to Polymorphia.”) Penderecki never turned his back on his most avant-garde works, even as he grew skeptical of the utopian milieu in which they were written.


The skepticism extends to the present. In the 1990s, he published a collection of lectures, “The Labyrinth of Time,” a book saturated with a profound pessimism about the cultural present, but also a confident hope in the cultural future. It is, it is suggested, a paradox: apocalyptic optimism. Penderecki doesn’t disagree. “You know, I lived through a very difficult time, in the war, and this apocalypse is coming back always,” he says. “I think if I had spent my youth in another country, without the war — I think my music would be completely different, for sure. But this apocalypse — for me, inside, it is coming again and again.”

“So I am also always looking for some universal subject.” It is the counterweight to pessimism, rechanneling that emotion, that energy, into musical renewal. The restless traveler scans horizons both old and new, forever in search of the good work. Apocalypse is also revelation.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.