TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Krzysztof Penderecki, one of the world’s most celebrated living composers, says his music bears witness to the harrowing history of his native Poland in the 20th century.
Now 80 but showing no signs of slowing down, Penderecki is performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra this week in Israeli cities his Polish Requiem, a monumental composition with soloists and choir first performed 30 years ago.
“I am emotionally very much involved in this piece because it tells us the story of our history and the history of the last decades to which I was a witness,” Penderecki told Reuters in an
interview between rehearsals in Tel Aviv.
“I have lived through very difficult times,” said Penderecki, reflecting on the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War Two, the Holocaust and postwar communist oppression.
“When the Second World War started, I was only five but I still remember... Being a witness ... I wanted people to remember what happened in our country and elsewhere,” he said.
Among the events commemorated in Polish Requiem are the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 (Dies Irae) and the Soviet massacre of some 22,000 Poles in Katyn Forest in 1940 (Libera me, Domine).
Penderecki embarked on the Requiem in 1980 with the brief, lyrical “Lacrimosa” section commissioned for the unveiling of a monument at the Gdansk shipyard to the Solidarity trade union, which helped topple Poland’s communist regime nine years later.
“It was an idea from (then-Solidarity leader and future Polish president) Lech Walesa,” Penderecki said.
“A year later, my friend Cardinal (Stefan) Wyszynski, who was a very important political figure in our postwar history, passed away, so I wrote the Agnus Dei.
“And then I started to write the requiem, but it took me 25 years. The last movement for strings was only written to commemorate the death of Pope John Paul II (in 2005),” he said.
The Requiem includes thrilling, frantic passages with brass and percussion and haunting choral and soloist performances.
Penderecki, who began composing “at the age of six or seven” and whose first composition was a Polonaise for violin and piano as a birthday gift for his grandmother, said he was still very busy, working on three or four compositions simultaneously.
He has been commissioned to write a major work to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, which is due to be performed in Brussels in November.
Penderecki has also been commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to compose an opera “Phaedra”, based on French dramatist Jean Racine’s version of the ancient Greek myth.
“I am writing maybe one big piece a year and a lot of chamber music. Now at my late age, I appreciate it very much. There are very few good chamber music (works)... in the last decades and I think it is very necessary to write,” he said.
Penderecki is known for his film scores, including for William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and the largely atonal St Luke’s Passion.
From a highly experimental, avant garde youth he moved to more traditional forms, often with a religious theme
“In my long life, I have made many, many changes. The last one was the big one at the end of the ‘70’s and I think since then, my music style has not changed much ... I have always had an audience for my music, even in the very avant garde, crazy times,” he added.
With eight symphonies to his credit, Penderecki said he hoped to complete a ninth like Beethoven, whom he listed as one of the main influences on his own work.
“Writing music is something very natural ... this is the way to communicate with other people,” he said.
Additional reporting by Rinat Harash, writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones and Michael Roddy