Composer Krzysztof Penderecki passed awayrecently at his home in Poland, aged 86. As a tribute to the legacy left by one of the world’s foremost composers, Hamburg State Opera have made their original production of Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudunavailable to stream on demand for free from 13 April. This world premiere production from 1969 is part of a series of videos from the era of the legendary intendant Rolf Liebermann that the theatre is offering during its present shutdown. It was directed by Konrad Swinarski with costume and stage design by Lidia and Jerzy Skarzynski, and conducted by Henryk Czyz.
The opera is set in the small French town of Loudun, a showplace for sensational occurrences in 1633-34 that were extensively documented and gained renown around Europe, regarded with a mix of fervent repulsion and voyeurism. Urbain Grandier, the village priest of Loudun, was accused in 1633 of having bewitched the nuns, above all Prioress Jeanne of the newly founded Ursuline-Cloister. Under torture he admitted to regretting his lapsed lifestyle and having had relationships with two women – one of whom expected a child from him – but refused steadfastly to confess to his “Devil’s Work” despite “proofs” of the same. In the summer of 1634 he was burned at the stake. For years afterwards the obsessions of the nuns occupied doctors and exorcists, the events ending only as Cardinal Richelieu withdrew his financial support of the cloister.
Krzysztof Penderecki: The Devils of Loudun – an opera about tolerance
The trial against Urban Grandier was included in François de Pitaval’s collection of famous criminal cases. This source, along with the autobiographical recollections of Prioress Jeanne from 1644, and two reports of the trial from 1634 and 1693, were used by Aldous Huxley in 1952 as the basis for his non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Eight years later John Whiting dramatised Huxley’s writings, and this was the starting point for Penderecki’s libretto (translated into German by Erich Fried).
For Penderecki, The Devils of Loudun is a work about tolerance and intolerance. Grandier was the victim of political intrigue, where even Jeanne was not really his enemy, but a victim of religious-political fanatics; her erotic neuroses exaggerated by Richelieu’s handiwork into a necessary possession by the Devil. – Wolfram Schwinger
This world premiere production will be available on Hamburg State Opera’s streaming service until 27 April.
With the death of Krzysztof Penderecki, the music world has lost an outstanding representative of the generation of composers who received their original impulses from 20th century avant-garde. As early as the late 1950s, Penderecki looked for and found new possibilities of compositional expression in the tension-filled area between noise and music. Thus, he unsettled the conservative concert audience, yet at the same time opened new artistic horizons and reached the forefront of the European avant-garde. After turning away from his early sound experiments, Penderecki was said to have taken a neo-Romantic turn. Unlike any other composer of his generation, he drew both criticism and admiration for his development as a composer. In the mid-1980s, he found himself in an exposed position right in the middle of the postmodernism discussion. However, Penderecki never followed a purely Orthodox movement. For him, the equation of avant-garde and tradition was no contradiction. He rather believed in the aesthetics of synthesis: ‘I have spent decades looking for and finding new sounds. At the same time I have studied forms, styles and harmonies of the past. I have continued to adhere to both principles …’. It was works like his Symphony No. 7 Seven Gates of Jerusalem, the opera The Devils of Loudun, the Polish Requiem and the monumental St. Luke’s Passion that made him one of the most internationally admired and frequently performed contemporary composers
One of the last representatives of the large-scale form
Anyone who listens to the St. Luke Passion from 1966 today, with a distance of time, will not only discover experimental ways of composing but also find traditional elements in this work. It is not least the distinctive a cappella settings that revealed Penderecki’s close ties to historical composition techniques. Over the decades, the dense clusters of early works thinned into tonal structures, with complex sound surfaces taking second place to a rhythmically and melodically accessible score. Reminiscences to the late Romantic tradition of Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich or Strauss were chosen deliberately. ‘I am one of the last representatives of the large-scale form who writes everything: symphonies, operas, oratorios, concertos and chamber music. I work like a 19thcentury composer who had to know everything, even conducting.’
In numerous compositions, Penderecki embedded extra-musical content in; his sacred compositions often testify to his strong Catholic faith. With his music, he also set political accents time and again. The instrumental work Threnos was dedicated to the victims of the catastrophe of Hiroshima, the piano concerto Resurrection to the events on 11 September 2001. In the Polish Requiem Penderecki established connections to his native country in different ways. Lacrimosa was commissioned by the Polish trade union ‘Solidarnosc’ in 1980, other parts were written by the composer in memory of the victims of Auschwitz and the Warsaw Uprising. When the composer received the news of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, he added Ciaccona in memoria Giovanni Paolo II. Penderecki never minced matters, not even when he was accused of embracing the aesthetics of Socialist realism in a Polish press campaign after the world premiere of Resurrection.
Faith and fugaciousness
For decades, Penderecki worked in close friendship with outstanding soloists. The composer’s catalogue of works contains numerous solo works for artists such as Anne-Sophie Mutter (2nd violin concerto Metamorphosen, among others), Boris Pergamenshikov (Concerto grosso) and Mstislav Rostropovich (Concerto per violoncello ed orchestra no. 2). He effectively learned instrumental tone colours and performance techniques by listening, and gave the performers as much space for development as possible. As Penderecki also wanted to share his love of music with the following generations of composers, he built the European Krzysztof Penderecki Music Centre not far from his country estate in Lusławice which has become a meeting place for musicians from all over the world.
In his eighth symphony Lieder der Vergänglichkeit, in which Penderecki set texts of famous poets on all aspects of the subjects ‘forest’ and ‘tree’ to music, he managed to combine his two great passions: music and his private arboretum where he collected more than 1,700 different kinds of trees. Just as the list of his commissioners, dedicatees and countless awards and distinctions provide information on his recognition in the international music world, so the trees collected by the internationally acclaimed conductor on his concert tours tell of his great love of and his close affinity with nature. After his seventh and eighth contributions to the symphony genre, Penderecki finished his 6th Symphony with the subtitle “Chinese Songs” for the world premiere in Guangzhou in 2017. Films like “The Shining”, “Shutter Island” or “Katyń” brought his music to the silver screen and home televisions worldwide.
Krzysztof Penderecki died on March 29 in Kraków, Poland.
The Passacaglia from Krzysztof Penderecki’s 3. Sinfonie features in choreographer Goyo Montero’s latest dance piece, Dürer’s Dog. Inspired by the paintings of German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, the premiere will be on 25 November at the Staatstheater in Nuremburg.
In the 1980s, Penderecki was commissioned to write a symphonic work but although he began writing immediately, only the current fourth movement, Passacaglia, and a Rondo, which would become the second movement, were completed by the premiere in 1988. It would take until 1995 for the work to be performed in its entirety. The piece is rooted firmly in the tradition of the genre with its five movements connected by overarching themes and structures.
Krzysztof Penderecki – 3.Sinfonie: Passacaglia’s life of its own
Passacaglia made its way into the conscience of millions of filmgoers when it featured in Martin Scorsese’s thriller Shutter Island (2010) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Penderecki’s use of constant repetition and harsh rhythmic fragments were a perfect accompaniment to the film’s atmosphere of apprehension and discomfort.
One cannot simply plant a few trees, it needs order and a shape. It is similar to music: all my works have a clear form – I am not an improvisator. – Krzysztof Penderecki
Dürer’s Dog will run from 25 November until 9 February 2018. Penderecki’s 2. Sinfonie (Christmas Symphony) can be heard on 14 December in Budapest with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and Keri-Lynn Wilson.