Who was the last great composer? By that I mean, not the last great composer who will ever live, but the most recent composer to have been great. Was it Shostakovich (who died in 1975)? Britten (1976)? It is possible that Krzysztof Penderecki will be given a very high ranking: near great, if not great. He has always been rated highly.
Penderecki died on March 29, at the age of 86.
Over the years, I have conducted Q&As with many musicians, many performers. And, not wanting to leave today’s music out of the discussion, I usually ask, “Who are some contemporary composers you admire, or consider worth performing?” Almost always, my interviewee names Penderecki.
In 2009, as he was concluding his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, I interviewed Lorin Maazel, the conductor. I asked him the question I mentioned above. Quick as a flash, he said, “Penderecki.” He waited a while before continuing his list.
Penderecki was a Pole, as his name tells you, and he was born in 1933. That means he grew up in the war. This ever marked him, obviously. Penderecki wrote a variety of music, including symphonies, operas, and concertos. In his younger years, he was attracted to a severe modernism. But gradually he loosened, and broadened. “I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition,” he once remarked.
In the 2013–14 season, I reviewed a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter, the violinist, in Carnegie Hall. On that occasion, she premiered a piece by Penderecki called La Follia. Allow me to excerpt my review:
This is a throwback of a piece, as the title suggests: follia means madness in Italian, and this word described a kind of dance. According to the evening’s program notes, Penderecki originally called the piece a chaconne, but changed his mind: it took “chutzpah,” he concluded, to use the same title as one of the most popular and greatest works for violin, the Chaconne in D minor by Bach. I’m not sure Penderecki needed to worry (though I understand, completely).
La Follia is a formidable piece, presenting modern Paganini, in a way. I think that violinists will want to play it for years and generations: because it is a rigorous, intellectual piece and a showpiece at the same time. Also, it’s a good length (ten minutes) and is unaccompanied. Penderecki, who once planned to be a violin virtuoso, has made a substantial contribution to the instrument’s repertoire, I think.
Something I did not say in my review was this: I was sitting directly in front of Penderecki. And, when the piece was over, we had a little discussion in the aisle. I said essentially what I would go on to say in my review: that I thought he had given violinists something they would find useful, challenging, and enjoyable for a long time to come. He said, essentially, “I sure hope so. That was my aim.”
Maybe I should not have done this: as a rule, critics should not speak with musicians, including composers—should not speak with people they review. “No fraternization,” was the old rule, and it was a good one. I should probably not do my Q&As either.
But I am stricter than most about these matters—if I say so myself—and I have to say, I’m glad I had a little encounter with Krzysztof Penderecki.
You know what may curb the spread of his fame? Few outside of Poland know how to pronounce his name. Our Roger Kimball says this is a disadvantage to Walter Bagehot, the British writer who lived from 1826 to 1877; I say this is a disadvantage to Leonardo Sciascia, the Italian writer who lived from 1921 to 1989.
That would be “Badget” and “Shah-shah.” How do you pronounce Krzysztof Penderecki? I won’t even get near the first name, that Christopher. But the last name is in the ballpark of Pender-ET-ski.