Honoring Poland’s Greatest Living Composer: Krzysztof Penderecki

Bloomington, IN

Monday, November 13, 2017

IU President Michael A. McRobbie presents Maestro Krzysztof Penderecki with an honorary degree. Photo by Eric Rudd, IU Communications

Trustees, Maestro Penderecki, Provost Robel, Dean Richards, honored guests, colleagues, and friends:

In 1994, the late Ernest Boyer, then-president of the Carnegie Foundation, spoke of the importance of the arts in education and in our society.

"We need the arts," Boyer said, "to stir creativity and enrich (our) ways of knowing. (And) we need the arts to express ideas and feelings in ways beyond words."1

Indeed, as Boyer suggested, human experiences are sometimes so profound that words alone cannot give them full expression. We have seen unending wonderful examples of how great works of music can express ideas and feelings in ways beyond words through countless performances by the enormously talented students and faculty of Indiana University’s peerless Jacobs School of Music.

Music can help us to reflect and remember. It can provide comfort and solace in times of conflict. And it can foster reconciliation and hope for the future. 

All of this is made abundantly evident in the work of the man we honor today—a man who has had an enormous and seminal influence on composers, performers, and the musical landscape of both the 20th and 21st centuries—Poland’s greatest living composer, Maestro Krzysztof Penderecki.

Maestro Penderecki was born in Dębica, a small city in southeastern Poland in 1933. Much of his music responds to and reflects on all that he witnessed while growing up during an almost unimaginably difficult time in Poland, a period that included the murderous and bestial Nazi occupation during World War II, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the brutal and stultifying postwar communist oppression.

While in grammar school, he began violin lessons under the instruction of his hometown’s military bandmaster. He later went on to Kraków, where he studied composition privately, and attended Jagiellonian University, where he continued to study violin and music theory. In 1954, he entered the Academy of Music in Kraków, where he began to focus entirely on composition. He began teaching at the Academy after his graduation, and soon thereafter, he began to receive international recognition as a composer.

The piece that truly announced Maestro Penderecki’s arrival on the world musical stage was his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, written in 1960. This trailblazing piece for 52 string instruments is one of the hallmark pieces of 20th century composition. It is a prime example of sonorism, an avant-garde style in Polish music of the 1960s. Maestro Penderecki has said that he was "interested in liberating sound beyond all tradition."2 The piece makes use of unconventional playing techniques, including varying vibrato, slapped instruments, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge.

Like many of the Maestro’s other works, this evocative piece has been used extensively in film and television, including in Stanley Kubrick’s legendary The Shining, and more recently in this year’s season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Maestro Penderecki dedicated the piece to the victims of Hiroshima so that their sacrifice might not be forgotten.

He soon followed this with the St. Luke Passion, an ambitious concert work that brought him further acclaim. It was commissioned by German radio to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed in 1966. The piece also had an important Polish context, as 1966 was the millennial anniversary of Christianity in Poland, an anniversary that was virtually ignored by the official media of what was then communist Poland. In the Passion, the Maestro blended avant-garde techniques with the great traditions of Western choral music. It has been widely praised and appreciated for its powerful emotional impact, and we will be immensely fortunate to have Maestro Penderecki conduct a performance of the Passion on Wednesday evening at the Musical Arts Center.

In 1980, he began work on the composition of his magnificent Polish Requiem, the sequences of which are dedicated to heroes and victims of Polish history. Among the events commemorated in the piece are the accession of Pope John Paul II, the heroic uprisings against the Nazis by the Polish underground resistance during World War II, and the death of Polish national hero and friend of Maestro Penderecki’s, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. One 1984 review called Polish Requiem "a distillation of yearning, of integrity in the face of tragedy."3

Maestro Penderecki has written four operas, eight symphonies, nearly 30 orchestral works, and dozens of choral works, pieces for solo instruments, and nearly 20 chamber works. He is held in equally high regard as a conductor, known for often conducting his own works, but also for his skill in interpreting the repertoire of other composers.

From the time of his first academic appointment at the Academy of Music in Kraków, where he also later served as rector, the Maestro has also been deeply committed to music education. He has taught at Folkwang University of the Arts in Germany, at Yale University, has taught master classes around the world, and established the Krzysztof Penderecki European Center for Music as a platform for education where students are able to establish close connections with artists and scholars.

He has garnered nearly every award and honor the classical music world can bestow, including the UNESCO Award, the Prix Italia, three Grammy awards, two Emmy Award nominations, the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, and the Cannes Classical Award as "Living Composer of the Year" in 2000.

He holds more than 20 doctorates from universities around the world, and has received state honors from countries around the globe, including Poland’s Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

Last year, I led an IU delegation to Poland, where we celebrated the 40th anniversary of IU’s partnership with the University of Warsaw. In 1976, in the depths of the Cold War, and at a time of fundamental political and social transformation in Poland, IU became actively involved with the study of Poland, almost alone among American universities, and helped to establish the American Studies Center in Warsaw and the Polish Studies Center here at IU Bloomington. This led to IU’s establishing academic programs with Warsaw University and Jagiellonian University at a time when such formal exchanges between the two countries was rare due to the Cold War.

While we were in Kraków, we had the opportunity to meet with Maestro and Mrs. Penderecki. They could not have been more charming, gracious, and accommodating in hosting the IU delegation. Maestro Penderecki was, of course, no stranger to Indiana University. He held the Distinguished Citizen Fellowship of IU’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1993, and he spoke highly of the international reputation of the Jacobs School during our visit. It is fitting then, that Indiana University honors Maestro Penderecki with an honorary doctorate today, not only in recognition of his outstanding career, but also as a way of further celebrating IU’s longstanding friendship with the nation of Poland.

As Ernest Boyer also said in his seminal address on the arts: "The arts are not a frill. They are deeply embedded in that which makes us human."4

Throughout his extraordinary career, Maestro Penderecki has, with unparalleled artistry, inspired countess people around the world to reflect upon that which makes us human. His music has given people hope in troubled times, and his body of work is a reminder to all of us that the quality of our culture and the quality of the arts are deeply and inextricably interconnected.

And all of us are truly grateful.

Source Notes

1. Ernest Boyer, “Lifelong Learning in the Arts,” delivered before the National Endowment for the Arts, Chicago, Illinois, April 16, 1994, Vital Speeches of the Day, Volume LXI, Number 1, October, 1994, 18.

2. Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, "Penderecki: Orchestral Works Volume 1 Liner Notes," (2000).

3. Elizabeth Pond, “Penderecki’s Stirring New Polish Requiem: Unabashedly Sacred,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1984.

4. Ernest Boyer, “Lifelong Learning in the Arts,” delivered before the National Endowment for the Arts, Chicago, Illinois, April 16, 1994, Vital Speeches of the Day, Volume LXI, Number 1, October, 1994, 15.