The ashes of Poland’s award-winning composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki were laid to rest during a state funeral filled with his music Tuesday after a two-year delay brought on by the pandemic. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Penderecki’s widow Elzbieta Penderecka their daughter, son and granddaughter, along with musicians, artists and throngs of Polish citizens attended the burial in the southern city of Krakow. Penderecki died in Krakow on March 29, 2020, at 86, but COVID-19 restrictions led to a lengthy postponement for the renowned composer’s funeral. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled his attendance at the service after testing positive for COVID-19, but his message was read out by Germany’s ambassador. Penderecki worked and taught in Germany for many years. Penderecki’s cream-colored alabaster urn was placed among some of Poland’s greatest authors and scientists at the National Pantheon at Krakow’s St. Peter and Paul Church, following a Mass during which his music was performed. His favourite violinist and friend, Anne-Sophie Mutter, played Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Ave Maria.” The head of Poland’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak said in his homily that the entire world of music is bidding farewell to a man who believed that music should make life better. Polak said this has particular resonance today when people are dying in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his address, Duda praised Penderecki as a world-class artist who chose to live in Poland and richly contributed to its culture.
“In his works you could hear everything that our nation has experienced, also pain and suffering,” Duda said. In Steinmeier’s message, he said the loss of Penderecki was also painful for Germans, who appreciated his music and his contribution as an educator. Penderecki’s music “was coming from a mind full of deep reflection, historical and philosophical knowledge … but also from the heart,” Steinmeier said in the message. “As a person who was free and exceptionally creative … he became an important link between the Polish and the German nation.” Penderecki’s widow said, in a read-out message, he believed that a composer “must bear witness to his times, to history, truth and beauty … we are better thanks to music, it helps us remain human.” Penderecki was one of the world’s most popular contemporary classical music composers. His powerful, sometimes menacing music was used in Hollywood movies including Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” He was best known for his orchestral and choir compositions like “St. Luke Passion” and “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” although his range was much broader. Rock fans know him from his work with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Penderecki’s international career began at 25, when he won all three top prizes in a young composers’ competition in Warsaw in 1959 — writing one score with his right hand, one with his left and asking a friend to copy out the third score so the handwriting wouldn’t reveal they were by the same person.
He would go on to win many awards, including multiple Grammys. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Penderecki experimented with avant-garde sound. His 1960 “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” won him a UNESCO prize. Written for 52 string instruments, it can be described as a massive plaintive scream.
In the 1970s, he turned to writing more traditional music for symphonies, concertos, choral works and operas. In 1967 he composed a major choral work, “Dies Irae,” known also as the “Auschwitz Oratorio,” in homage to Holocaust victims.
A violinist and a committed educator, he built a music centre across the road from his home in Luslawice, in southern Poland, where young virtuosos could perform and learn with world-famous masters. His house was surrounded by a park of trees and plants that he had brought from the distant corners of the world where his music was played.
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