In Memoriam Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020)

On March 29, the musical world lost a giant – Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki. I can’t even begin to summarize the life and career of Penderecki (but check out this website with international condolences). When I read the sad news online working from home during COVID-19 isolation, I immediately queued up my copies of the two-volume LP set, Penderecki Conducts Penderecki, released in 1973. I was quickly reminded of why I am still drawn to his compositions – walls of color, sound in shapes.

A close-up of the label on my personal copy of Penderecki Conducts Penderecki, Album 1.

In 1966, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress commissioned Penderecki for one of his early period works, the Cello Concerto No. 1 completed in 1967 and revised in 1972. The Music Division holds Penderecki’s holograph score. In fact, the revised version’s first recording is on Penderecki Conducts Penderecki, Album 1 with Penderecki conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra with the cello soloist Siegfried Palm. However, this work was not originally written for cello; it was written for an instrument called the violino grande, a 5-stringed instrument that is sort of a cross between a cello and a viola. Penderecki revised the original two-movement version for this instrument in 1972 as a one-movement concerto for cello; then, the Library of Congress received the holograph in 1973. Fun fact: the orchestration contains baritone saxophone, electric guitar, and harmonium, but no violas.

The Cello Concerto isn’t the only Penderecki gem in our collections. If you explore the digital collection of the Moldenhauer Archives, you will find Penderecki’s 1961 work Polymorphia for 48 string instruments. It’s an excerpt of the colorful sketches, and the complete item in Box 107 of the Moldenhauer Archives is 33 pages with performance instructions in Polish. Online, the Moldenhauer Archives also contain another colorful sketch of Penderecki’s 1962 work for orchestra, Fluorescences. The complete item in Box 107 of the Moldenhauer Archives is 80 pages and contains performance instructions in both Polish and German. Be sure to zoom into the high resolution images closely! 

Krzysztof Penderecki, Polymorphia (excerpt), 1961. Box 107, Moldenhauer Archives, Music Division, Library of Congress.

While both of these images are excerpts of the complete items, you can absolutely get a feel for Penderecki’s creative process. To learn more about this collection and Hans Moldenhauer the collector, read the finding aid! I also recommend that you read this article by Peggy Monastra within the digital Moldenhauer Archives specifically about Polymorphia and Fluorescences. Personally, I love seeing how he thinks in visual blocks of sound and time duration, and I sense a frenetic energy in his sketches. Graphic notation has always made innate sense to me as a performer because I respond to and create visual art. I think graphic notation also allows for a unique synthesis of trust and creativity between composer and performer. 

The Library of Congress Music Division remains connected to Penderecki through primary sources in our collections, and we hope that you can remain connected to him in this way, as well. I think Penderecki’s own words in the announcement of his death on this website say a great deal more than I can: “I believe that the artist is a witness of the era in which he lives and his surrounding reality must be reflected in his works.”

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