Early in his career, the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki declared, “All I’m interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition.” It’s a level of aesthetic ambition that matches the enormity of the subject matter the renowned modernist has spent his life tackling: the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and 09/11, among other tragic chapters of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The longtime fixture of the international avant-garde may have surprised the audience gathered in Auer Hall at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Monday November 13 for his honorary degree conferral ceremony in referencing a character from the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. “Pointing his hands to the skies, Tevye keeps repeating ‘Tradition, tradition, tradition,’” Penderecki noted. “A significant gesture as it shows that we don’t start our road from nothing.”
A relentlessly experimental composer whose early works favored dissonant tone groupings, labyrinthine structures, and unorthodox instrumentation, Penderecki returned to more traditional and sometimes sacred forms by the mid-1970s. “Rebellion is the privilege of the young age, the irresistible desire to change the world,” the maestro told the audience. “However, I have always had plenty of respect for the ethos of tradition.”
The composer was literally cloaked in tradition during Monday’s ceremony, when University Grand Marshal Brian Horne draped the pink academic hood associated with the musical field upon his shoulders and President Michael A. McRobbie presented him with the honorary degree. In addition to the president, speakers at the ceremony included Provost Lauren Robel, School of Global and International Studies Dean Lee Feinstein and Jacobs School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards. Feinstein and Richards had originated the recommendation for Penderecki’s recognition with the university’s highest award.
The ceremony included a performance of the composer’s 1984 piece Cadenza by Jacobs School Master of Music viola student Lan Wang.
Widely considered Poland’s greatest living composer, Penderecki was born in Poland in 1933 and studied at the Academy of Music in Kraków, whose faculty he joined in 1958. Penderecki and his compatriots were able to take advantage of the politically transitional period that followed the death of Stalin to explore stylistic innovation and participate in the international contemporary music scene. Securing early renown with his UNESCO prize-winning composition for 52 string instruments, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), Penderecki has continually composed music that engages with current events and recent history, especially that of his homeland. In his Polish Requiem, for example, Penderecki honors the suffering and resilience of his countrymen in sections devoted to the Warsaw Uprising, the Katyn Massacre, and the Gdańsk shipyard protests that eventually toppled Poland’s communist regime.
Penderecki’s inspiration to make music confronting the horrors and upheavals of history, noted Feinstein, was a product of having grown up in wartime. The SGIS dean referred to an interview in which Penderecki explained, “Being a child or very young, you never forget, so I had to write some music to say which side I am on.”
In 1966, he made that assertion definitively with the St. Luke Passion, the choral and orchestral masterwork whose performance by the IU Oratorio Chorus & Philharmonic Orchestra he will conduct at the Musical Arts Center Wednesday, November 15 at 8 pm. “A sacred and avant-garde work,” Feinstein noted, “it was a double challenge to the Communist authorities.” In a panel at noon on Wednesday, Feinstein and Penderecki will join musicologists, historians, and Piotr Wilczek, the Polish ambassador to the United States, in a discussion of the political and aesthetic contexts of the work.
Written in an avant-garde idiom and commemorating the millennium of Christianity in Poland, the St. Luke Passion exemplifies the simultaneous directions of Penderecki’s musical exploration. “I continuously look both into the past and into the future,” the composer remarked Monday, “in an internal dialogue with myself and with tradition.” Although the composer eventually relinquished the strident experimentation of his youth, he suggested that the distinction between the traditional and the innovative might be collapsed. “I think we can see Bach’s music as highly contemporary,” he noted, “because The Art of Fugue was so open to new horizons in musical culture. Frédéric Chopin used to tell his students, ‘Play Bach, always Bach.’”
Along with musical forebears, Penderecki in his remarks alluded to the Polish military leader who played a key role in the American Revolution and in Poland’s conflicts against Prussia and Russia. Noting the 200th anniversary of Tadeusz Kościuszko’s death, Penderecki commended the general for an “attitude known to have been significantly ahead of his time [favoring] the ideas of freedom, tolerance, and dialogue.” But he was also, Penderecki noted, “a poet who played the piano and composed. As Aristotle repeated in his lectures, ‘Music calms the savage breast.’ In a world torn by various conflicts, music and art can play an important mission [toward] dialogue and understanding.”
The maestro has spent his life at the intersection of art and politics. “For decades,” Feinstein concluded, “Krzysztof Penderecki maintained his commitment to artistic integrity while operating in a system that did not condone this freedom of expression. Today we recognize him not only for his leading role on the musical vanguard, but for continuing to be a voice to speak truth to power in a world that continues to need it very much.”