What do atomic bombs, horror movies, and classical music have in common? This Guy.
Let me first start out by saying it feels awesome to be writing again. Those final months of last year really threw me for a loop but we did it. Whoop Whoop! In my time huddled away in my apartment fleeing from the outside world and social interaction, I discovered my own new music crush!
His name is Krzysztof Penderecki (pronunciation video because I know you, like me when I first saw his name, are probably not gonna pronounce it right — it’s not how it looks) and he’s a Grammy nominated Polish composer who is behind some of the most iconic pieces of classical music and movie scores.
Penderecki was born in Poland in 1933 to a family of lawyers, painters, and doctors. Due to WWII, in 1939, Penderecki’s family moved out of their apartment to make room for the ministry of food. In 1946, he began his violin studies and, after graduating from his grammar school education, went to Jagiellonian University. His name as a composer really gained traction in 1959 but his international fame ignited with his piece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
His music was considered highly experimental. Using timbres (the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity) and musical gestures as a basis of composition instead of a strict adherence to traditional 18th and 19th century harmony. I think it would be fair to label him an avant-gardist, but what does that term really mean anyway? To me, he just seems like a dude who really really liked innovating with music.
My first exposure to his music was in 2020 when I was taking a class on opera composition by the amazing professor Ketty Nez. We studied his opera entitled Die Teufel von Loudun and at the time I thought it was the most amazing music I’d ever heard.
The music was so riveting and compelling and, after my composition professor tasked me with some listening assignments, I am thrilled to share my nerdy feels about this music. As you’ll come to find out, I think this music is so horrifyingly beautiful and rigorously human. I am a definite fan of his avant-gardy musical style because it just imagines possibilities in me.
The first piece I want to tell you about is called Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy or Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Apart from being amazing and terrifyingly beautiful, this piece has a pretty cool history behind it.
Threnody was composed in 1960 under the original title of 8’37” (it’s theorized that this title was inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”, yes that famous musical piece with no music) but after hearing the work performed for the first time, Penderecki changed the title.
Penderecki wrote, “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”
Even though the piece was not initially inspired by the events at Hiroshima, I can definitely see where Penderecki was coming from on this one. It’s flat out moving. The sweeping strings swell and ebb with a human quality about them. But they’re also devastating and powerful. It’s also interesting to place this piece in the time that it was written. It was a decade and a half since the atomic bomb was dropped and WWII was over.
Penderecki wrote, “This was not really political music that I was writing,” he stated in a 1997 interview, “but it was music that was appropriate to the time during which we were living in Poland.”
Even though the composer writes that this piece isn’t political (to a certain extent, the piece wasn’t originally about the victims), I can’t help but think about the risk Penderecki was taking. Diving deeper into my imagination to think about it, if this piece was written in our day and age, I wonder what critique or praise it would receive. I imagine the conservative folks would go absolutely bonkers, but alas I digress.
Again, the piece is horrifyingly beautiful and definitely inspires a hard minute just to sit and listen to it.
Not only did Penderecki write amazing concert music, but he’s also behind one of the most iconic movie scores of all time! Have you seen The Shining? Yeah, this guy composed some of the scenes from that movie! When I found that out I was actually too stunned to speak.
Needless to say, if you’ve listened to Penderecki’s works, it makes total sense why he would be asked to score a horror film. I think his style is gorgeously unique while also terrifying. Listening to similar composers around this period, you get the impression that texture, timbre, and pitch are all important factors translating to big gestural pieces of music. But, to me, Penderecki’s music feels more human. It feels more horrifyingly realistic. I’m not aware of a “realism” period of music (if anyone does please let me know), but if there were, maybe Threnody or Die Teufel von Loudun would be what it sounds like.
Also, he’s Polish and I’m Polish, but it’s not like I needed another reason to love his music.
To be honest, this type of music satisfies an itch that I’ve had for a long time. Part of the reason I’m so drawn to his music is that it sort of answers my ongoing question of “what’s out there?” when it comes to classical music after the 1950’s.
In another sense, I can’t help but be drawn to the brutal sound world that his music occupies. Brutal in the sense that it doesn’t conform to what might be traditionally understood as “nice sounding music”.
For all my lovely readers, this composer is worth a listen. I promise you, his music is striking, it’s bold, and it’ll challenge you to think about classical music outside of the great composers like Beethoven and Mozart that we’ve all come to know. If anything, let his experimental style of music open up the realm of possibility to what music can be, regardless if you care for it. I’ll have to be honest, this is not gonna be on repeat on Spotify for me. It’s gonna be the music that reminds me of my imagination.