Known for adding extra doses of dread and fear to thrillers like The Shining and Shutter Island, the late Polish composer had an extensive compositional range than went far beyond film
To anyone who has ever jumped out of their skin during an edge-of-their-seat moment in The Exorcist or The Shining, it’s time to bow your head and observe a moment of silence, for the composer behind those extremely effective moments is gone.
Krzysztof Penderecki, who died on March 29 at the age of 86, was better known in the pop culture world for his contributions to film than his career as a classical composer, though the latter was marked by decades of success. He wrote symphonies, operas, concertos, chamber pieces and instrumentals that were at times political, religious and rule-breaking. Penderecki’s compositions were often arresting from the get-go, a quality that enabled his works to slip easily into film and elicit instinctive responses from those who listened, whether they realized their emotions were being so easily tapped into or not.
Penderecki was born in 1933 in Poland and began attending the Academy of Music in Kraków in the mid-1950s, where he later became a professor. His first real foray into music came a few years earlier when he began studying violin, developing an ear for string instruments that became vital for so many of his prominent works later on. Just as influential was the war culture Penderecki grew up immersed within—though his father was a lawyer and his family better off than many others, Penderecki was still a child in World War II-era Poland, surrounded in the years after the fighting stopped by Stalinist politics. In his first internationally recognized piece, Penderecki honored some who suffered during WWII, titling the haunting composition Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.
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That breakthrough piece earned him a nod from the International Music Council, and his shift into religious compositions soon after helped him continue climbing among the classical composer ranks. Just as Penderecki embraced opportunities to bring larger societal and religious messages into his work, he was also eager to explore the avant-garde styles his contemporaries were developing. Before Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima got its final title, Penderecki was planning to call it 8’37” in what would have been both a nod to and twist of John Cage’s 4’33”.
Though Penderecki later backed away from the avant-garde, many of the compositions he wrote while in that creative mode were adapted to near perfection for films from the 1970s through the 2000s. That same spine-tingling effect Penderecki so masterfully created on Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima enveloped The Shining through the film’s use of six Penderecki compositions. The music plays directly into the hands of anxiety-inducing thrillers, ramping up the tension through the rhythm and tone of the strings and leading audiences to believe the outcome they dread most may be waiting to jump out at them from around the next corner.
Penderecki was actively working late into his life, winning his most recent Grammy award just three years ago. He was constantly aspiring to create more operas or instrumental pieces as he watched other creators bursting with ideas—just as he always seemed to be—adapt his earlier works to fit new mediums and performance styles.
Penderecki leaves behind an innovative and thought-provoking legacy of work. But more than that, he remained curious throughout his career to explore the role of classical music in popular culture, a curiosity that afforded him opportunities to connect with wider audiences and find new ways in which to push his creativity. As Penderecki said in one 2000 interview with interviewer and Chicago radio host Bruce Duffie, he sought to forge human connection through music, believing it was the best way he could communicate with others. Judging by how well his work holds up, that assessment feels just as true now as it likely did 20 years ago.
When a Penderecki composition begins to play, there is no gap between artist and audience: there is simply the experience of his music.
AUDIO: Krzysztof Penderecki “Polymorphia”