Penderecki St Luke


Adam Mickiewicz Institute and present Penderecki 's Garden.  


‘I was aiming for something that seemed unreachable’, said Penderecki, of his St. Luke Passion, a work written to Mark 1000 years of Christianity in Poland but commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Munster Cathedral. How was such a fundamental expression of faith received in Communist era Poland? And where does the St. Luke Passion sit in Penderecki's lifetime of composing sacred music? In this podcast, we'll reflect on belief and redemption in Penderecki's choral music.


When Christoph Penderecki premiered his mighty St. Luke Passion in 1966 in West Germany's Munster Cathedral, it was an instant international sensation. To the extent that over the next couple of years it clocked up well over 100 further performances from London to Dubrovnik to Vienna and from Mexico City to Minneapolis. The American musicologist Ray Robinson, would later claim that on the strength of the St. Luke Passion alone, Penderecki would be assured a place among the important composers of the 20th century. By anyone's terms, this was an extraordinary achievement for a contemporary choral work, but in the context into which Penderecki was writing, it was even more so. First, because this universal crowd-pleaser had been penned by a composer who, until that point, had made his name writing violently dissonant avantgarde works that were miles away from mainstream taste.


Secondly, because this definitely structured 80 minutes work was by a 32-year old who, up to that point, only had 20 or so short works to his name, none of them exceeding 15 minutes or so.


Third, because this major passion setting had been written from behind the Iron Curtain, under a secularist Communist regime, which at the time of the work's commission was actively engaged in stamping down the Church. So how and why did Penderecki pose such a feat off? Well, perhaps the key ideas here are those already mentioned ones of reaching for the unreachable, belief and redemption. Or to sum it up in two very simple words, faith and fight. Let's start with faith.


To say that religion was a dominant force in Penderecki's upbringing would be something of an understatement. His immediate day to day surroundings were those of a devout Catholic home with his mother going to church twice a day. This home life was set within the context of an equally devout community which also placed the Church at its centre. People would kiss the shoulder of the priest as he walked by. Penderecki had positive contact with other Christian denominations, too. Protestantism, through his German grandfather and the Eastern Orthodox through his Armenian grandmother.


Most importantly, religion wasn't just something that the young Penderecki passively accepted as part of the daily Wallpaper. By his own admission, he was a very religious child. By his early teens he was reading the writers Augustine and Aquinus , and both parents hoped he might go into the Church. And although, as we know it was music, that one, he kept theology in the mix to an unusual degree - during his earliest career years, he combined composing with lecturing at Krakov Theological Seminary, and in 1972 he became Rector of the Academy of Music in Krakov, a post he held for 15 years.


In fact, given that Penderecki's main instrument was the violin, it's very tempting to make parallels with that other famous violinist member of the cloth - Vivaldi. 


Next, though - the fight. After the Second World War, Poland found itself under a Stalinist Communist regime, and when Poland's Catholic Church was actively anticommunist, the regime cracked down on it with full force. The early 50s, therefore saw priests put on trial, general religious freedoms restricted, and in 1953, the arrest of Poland's primate and Penderecki's friend Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. And while the cultural thaw of 1956 brought minor relief, it was shortlived.


If you want a really solid example of the extent of this religious oppression, then look no further than Nowa Huta - a brand new Sovietfounded suburb of Krakov, built after the war as a perfect socialist city and thus with no churches in its design blueprint.


When the cultural thaw happened, its residents immediately sought and won planning permission for a Church and consecrated a cross on the proposed site.


However, before it could be built, the repressive policies returned. The site was redesignated for a school, and the result in 1960 was an all out street battle between the police and around 4000 so called defenders of the cross. Hundreds were killed and injured on both sides, and scores of arrests were made. And it was into this context that in 1962 Penderecki composed his Stabat Mater and premiered it in Warsaw. And in doing so, presented to Poland one of its very first overt musical expressions of faith since the end of the Second World War.


There's no question that this was a political statement, and years later, Penderecki said  as much: 'I began' he said, 'when it was a problem to write religious music. But I'm very aware that we in Poland belong to Western Christian culture, and I was strongly against the reigning ideology of Marxism. So I wrote religious music, and in doing so I defined what side I was on.'


With regard to the authorities, though he got away with it, perhaps partly because by this point, Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima had turned him into the internationally feted hero of Poland's Avantgarde movement and thus arguably one of his home government's greatest PR tools. Perhaps also because the work was only eight minutes long.


Either way, the main pushback he received was instead from his own club, the Musical Avantgarde, because this sacred work for three unaccompanied mixed voice choirs represented a significant stylistic departure from the violent sounding, experimental sonorism that he was still presenting via his instrumental works. Take Fluorescence, composed that same year of 1962 for percussion heavy orchestra plus typewriter and siren.


That was what Penderecki's admirers were expecting of him, with its cacophonous array of oral special effects, using instruments in such a way that they barely sounded like instruments. And compare that to the opening bars of this new Stabat Mater. You heard a few clips ago with the Stabat Mater, though, it wasn't that the stylistic elements of that Avantgarde experimentalism weren't still there. Penderecki was still using scrunching tonal clusters and quarter tones. He was also now taking his sound effect explorations into the domain of the human voice, experimenting with various sung, spoken and whispered effects.


But this was music of a new simplicity, very audibly drawing on choral tradition, with its emulation of Gregorian chant and Renaissance Polyphony. Also slightly less harmonically abrasive, with modal and diatonic elements creeping into the serial and quartertone material. Plus horror of horrors - it ended on a radiant tonal D major triad. For Avantgarde diehards this was Penderecki selling out. A retrograde stylistic step that saw him pander to populism, producing contemporary music for people who didn't like contemporary music. Although not everybody thought that. The German music publisher and radio producer Joseph Hostler put it this way:


'This was a work which spans the Gulf between plane chant and clusters, common chords and twelve tone chords.'


What Penderecki's critics were absolutely correct about, though, was the fact that the Stabat Mater would be popular. It was, and in 1964 Penderecki received a Commission from West German radio to write a new work to be performed in Munster Cathedral on the 30 March 1966. The timing could hardly have been more auspicious because 1966 also happened to be the year which marked 1000 years since the birth of the Christian Church in Poland.  An event the Polish authorities were doing their best to make sure was ignored. So now here with West Germany giving a Pole the chance to write a sacred work for that same Millennium year, the month before Easter and with international press coverage thrown into boot.


What's more, Penderecki even had a Stabat Mater already on his hands, which, as passion music, it depicts Mary's suffering as she watches Christ's suffering on the cross - was crying out to be incorporated into a larger scale choral work.


The significance of a Pole composing such music for Germany would also have been felt by one and all. A gift of music about the sufferings and deaths of Jesus from someone whose country had suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. So when the context was already one of unreachable suddenly becoming possible, Penderecki went all in and in his own words, as a young composer who to date hadn't written anything longer than a quarter of an hour -dared to conceive a passion of over an hour's length, using text drawn from the Vulgate, the Catholic Latin Bible. And as he did so to make it an explicit homage to the undisputed master of the Passion, Johannes Sebastian Bach.


Now at first glance, taking on both the challenge of a passion and of referencing Bach might have looked either arrogant or simply a bad fit. But actually it was none of those things. In fact, Bach, for all that he was the German Lutheran King of the Passion, and Penderecki, a Polish Roman Catholic Avantgarde newcomer, was a rather resonant fit.


On a contemporary social level alone Penderecki saw the Passion account of Christ sufferings on the cross as being immediately transferable to the context of 20th century Poland and Germany.


'It's a 2000 year old theme', he said, 'expressing not only the Passion and the death of Christ, but also expressing the cruelty of our times, the cruelty of Auschwitz'.


Meanwhile, there's no question that Bach himself would have identified, just as much as Penderecki, with the idea of holding fast to a profound living faith, even through extreme suffering, having endured the deaths of his first wife and ten of his children.


Bach's passions, meanwhile, were every bit as revolutionary for his first audiences as Penderecki's Avantgarde sounds were. The first of Bach's passion settings, the St. John actually broke new ground for its rich orchestral accompaniment and a liturgical Church setting, then equally for its faithfulness to biblical texts and for Bach's melding of theatrical drama, narrative commentary, and opportunities for personal reflection and devotion. It was a sermon, prayer and opera all rolled into one.


That combination of faith, theology and theatricality fitted Penderecki like a glove. And what he came up with, and its opening was what you heard at the start of the podcast - managed to both stand as a tribute to Bach and bring something truly his own to the Passion table, including taking the bulk of his carefully chosen text from St. Luke rather than from St. John and St. Matthew.


Because, after all, as he pointed out, 'those two Gospels had already been set uncommonly well'. Following the Bach model, the St. Luke Passion has a bipartite structure, each of its two halves divided into 24 sections, sung without a break. And as with Bach, these were a mixture of narrative Arias and reflective choruses. From this, Penderecki was able to build a framework that was staggeringly, tightly bound and logical when viewed against his complete lack of large scale experience. Most obviously via the work's structural pillars, the large choruses at the start and end of the work, the four unaccompanied choral movements placed its strategic points through it, three Psalm settings and the Stabat Mater and the second half's musically and emotionally significant, popular Mayor's Grand Passacaglia. Another Bach-like device was casting the baritone soloist as Christ. Likewise, giving the crowd scenes to chorus. There's an evangelist who takes the role of narrator, too. Although unlike Bach, Penderecki's evangelist is spoken rather than sung.


Then Penderecki's forces were very much a modern mirroring of Bach's 18th century [...]. Beyond his soloist and speaker, three mixed choirs and boys choir, Penderecki's Orchestra was the socrative gigantic, multi voiced, multitombered beast that gave this master explore of sound effects one serious Sonic toolkit to play with. Violins divided into 24 parts, and similar divisions for the other string sections. A wind section with no oboes or clarinets, but with base clarinet and two saxophones, giving it enormous capacity for darkness. An especially large and varied percussion section, including bongos, Tom Toms, Tam Tams, both Chinese and Javanese gongs, bells and a whip. Plus, in addition to harp, some serious keyboard -  piano organ  and harmonium.


Perhaps Penderecki's ultimate tribute to Bach, though, was that the passion's opening thematic motive you've already heard - a twelve tone one consisting of two minor seconds, which forms the root of much the works of musical material going forwards -  it spells BACH. Those twelve tone elements, though, are now rubbing shoulders with more tonal elements.


Nothing resolutely major or minor or modal, but fluidly borrowing from everything, with a section perhaps rooted around a central note. Also in the mix of the traditional choral techniques and sounds he had used in the Stabat Mater, which now sat in the second half of this passion. It's perhaps in the unaccompanied choruses, which, as with Bach's Passion chorals are the works moments for personal reflection, where you really hear the link with ancient choral tradition especially strongly. Take  Ot, quid, Domine - part seven of the first half, which was a solemn setting of Psalm ten.


This is the Passion's first acapella moment and the first moment where Penderecki organises his vocal parts in strict linear counterpoint for the first time. It's also a moment which seems Penderecki throw a political statement into the mix because when the bases enter it's with a four note theme borrowed from a fragment of an old Polish hymn 'Holy God', and that theme will turn up again in the aforementioned all-important passacaglia.


Still, there's also plenty that's recognisably part of Penderecki's Avantgarde language, too. Take the quartertone writings  sforzando outbursts of clusters and unusual tombral combinations found in the first half soprano Aria Domine Quis habitabit, translated as 'Lord, who may dwell in your Sanctuary'. This is a setting of Psalms 15, four, and six, and the extract here begins with a coloratura  passage punctuated by menacing pizzicato double bass scurries.


Then, when the Soprano's text finally begins, she's singing in nervous quarter tones, [...] Soft, accompanied by sliding four note tonal clusters in the four flutes, after which comes the sudden shock of a fortissimo cluster from four trumpets with bells and gong.


The tricks heard here are similar to those of Threnody, but in this sacred vocal anchored in tradition context, they pack even more of an emotional punch. Then, as the action moves to the betrayal and taking of Jesus, Penderecki's violent side kicks in with a vengeance. Indeed, you discover that he's been keeping in reserve some of his best theatrical and Avantgarde techniques for this highly dramatic point, not least because this is the first time the whole Orchestra has been deployed. In its extended instrumental introduction, it's the lower strings and brass that dominate via ugly brass shouts and brutal shoving glissando and lower strings. In fact, it's a battle between sections.


Brass cluster shouts, shaking strings, angry percussion, pounding, lurching cellos and bases, alarmed upper strings with violin tremolos.


Then, as the narrator and baritone enter, the vocal techniques are equally violent, as the evangelist says or shouts: 'Judas, the chorus centre with asymmetric murmurings from the bases and a pizzacato vocal style, then downwards glissando screams of horror.


Truly, this is the composer of Threnody. Likewise, the depiction of the mob before the high priests at 'Et viri, qui tenebant illum', rushing subdividing strings in chromatic semiquavers, low brass warning thuds, rushing woodwind. Then the mocking rabble falling staccatissimo  jabberings from the combined choirs, syllables scattered between vocal parts. Glissando shrieks and spoken word.


Essentially, Penderecki created a musical language that was modern but employed elements from the past, while using his dissonant, catastrophic Avantgarde sounds to convey pain, terror, and drama. There is an extent to which this was the only way of keeping that avantgarde language, if he wanted to write a piece much longer than ten minutes. Because while works such as Threnody and Fluorescence were incredibly powerful, their apocalyptic sounds couldn't realistically be maintained over longer distances of time without the years eventually acclimatising and getting bored. Their very power comes through being shortlived explosions.


So Penderecki's achievement with the St. Luke was precisely the way he incorporated his previous sound experiments, in such a way as for them to still root an audience to its seats. Or, as his biographer Wolfram Schwinger put it, when talking about the crowd scenes such as Viri they are no longer isolated and individual achievement. The proud result of research - they have become new materials for an art of expressive commitment. As such, they contribute much more than atmosphere. And the ultimate genius of all this was that through this approach, Penderecki managed to hit mainstream tastes without betraying his own style. And partly because it's the music that rings true, the palpable devotional feel and overall emotion of this combination of traditional and Avantgarde technique is stronger than the impression of off puttingly discordant music.


No discussion on the St. Luke's Passion can omit mention of the second half's extended Passacaglia 'Popule Meus', though. This and the Stabat Mater are the Passion's longest two movements, but out of the two of them, it's the 'Popule meus'   where Christ is on the cross, rebuking the people, contrasting the blessings heaped on them by God with the horrors and humiliations they've whipped on him. That stands as the work's musical and emotional crux.


What you're hearing here is Penderecki taking the work's main musical material, the Bach motive that aforementioned Polish hymn and marrying advanced musical techniques with the most heightened emotional expression. Intensely dark is funereal orchestral writing is full of eerie percussion effects. The choral writing itself, meanwhile, has everything in terms of both melodic treatment and technical effects. Homophonic clusters, which vertically are derived from thematic material, all manner of polyphonic writing, too. Sung, spoken, whispered, shouted, and perhaps most unsettling of all, a whistled cluster sliding downwards into nothing.


Penderecki doesn't leave us flounding blindly in the darkness and evil, though. Far from it. Ultimately, soloists, chorus, and Orchestra join forces in a call for deliverance and redemption, and the final phrase of the work 'Thou hast redeemed me’, or 'Lord, the God of Truth' concludes with an even greater light than the D major ray of hope offered at the close of the Stabat Mater. Out of nowhere, a triumphant, E-major explosion of warmth and light.


So that was what Penderecki brought to Munster. An Avantgarde composer composing music of simplicity and directness and wearing his profound Roman Catholic faith proudly in defiance of his Communist secularist home situation. What's more, the assembled forces made almost as much of a statement as the music itself because it was a Polish and German mix. Polish conductor Henryk Czyż conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir and the  Tölz Boys Choir with Polish soloists and a German evangelist. In fact, in many ways, it mirrored the 1962 premiere of Britten's War Requiem in the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, with its own cast drawn from former warring nations.


Then, for its part, Munster would have exceeded any hopes and expectations that Penderecki may have had. For starters, that aforementioned exposure.


In addition to the Bishop of Munster and the director of the radio, the performance was attended by papal Nuncio and over 70 European journalists. Furthermore, it was preceded by a press conference, at which the questions asked included whether Penderecki himself was a believer, to which he answered 'yes, a leftwing Catholic'. As for what the assembled press thought of the work, of course, not everybody liked it. The Avantgarde set were every bit as critical as for the Stabat Mater. In fact, even more so when this time he was going so far as to impersonate Jay Spark himself. However, more representative of the general view was Heinz Joseph Hogwart, writing in 'Decide' who proclaimed: 'Penderecki's Passion will be one of the most important compositions for new music. The striking clarity of this revolutionary score, the logic behind the structure of the work and the haunting effect of the music will go far beyond what prominent composers have offered to choral music in recent years.'


The result was that while Threnody was the work which brought Penderecki to international attention, the St. Luke Passion was the work that burst him onto the mainstream classical stage. Its string of international performances began with the contemporary music biennale in Venice that September and mainstream concert programmes worldwide followed. The work even got in two years working in Germany because West German Radio's recording of it won both the Italia Prize and the Great Art Prize of the North Rhine Westphalia province. And the latter of those led to the offer of a teaching position in Essen, for which Penderecki was granted official approval by the Polish authorities.


As for Poland, the work got its Polish premiere just three weeks later, on St. Luke's Day in Krakov, performed by the same team of sung soloists and conductors as in Munster. But now with Czyż's own Krakoff Philharmonic Orchestra and a Polish evangelist, Leszek Herdegen. Then, six months after its premiere, the Passion was programmed as the climax of the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music. Speaking in 2013, Pendrecki remembered: 'Given the success of the work's premiere in Germany, I was permitted to perform sacred music in concert for the first time in Communist Poland, first at Krakov's Philmonic Hall and then in Warsaw. The doors to the Philharmonic Hall were broken down during the concert. People ended up sitting down on the floor of the concert hall because it was so crowded. That was incredible.'


Indeed, this was something that the world's musical press were latching on to as well about this Polish composer and the art and cultural traditions of the country he hailed from. Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt was perhaps representative when in 1969 he summed up Penderecki's achievements, saying: 'With the st. Luke Passion, a member of Communist state, has built the most important bridge between religious tradition and the new music since Stravinsky and Webern. The Passion has been translated into a symbol of humanity.'


It's also been suggested that the works creation contributed to normalising relationships between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. Certainly that had been the flavour of the evening reception after its 1966 Munster premiere with West German radio managing director Klaus von Bismarck emphasising in his speech, Germany's need to atone for all that has taken place. While the Bishop reminded the crowd that music has at times provided a good bridge over politically divisive currents. With PR like that, no wonder the Polish authorities had no choice but to go with it and tolerate Penderecki and his sacred music.


Perhaps also, though, because he was also clearly writing with love and commitment to his home country, he wasn't rejecting it. 'I am a Pole', he once said, 'and I want to work within the culture and life of this country'.


One final gift the St. Luke Passion gave to the world was in a modern world in which secularism could have been described as increasingly an unofficial part of the cultural fabric of society, even if in Western Europe it wasn't through state mandate, This Passion stood as a 20th century affirmation of the relevance of tradition and faith. From this point, the St. Luke set off a chain of sacred vocal works, often with a social or political angle, and Penderecki was penning these new additions throughout the remainder of his life, including first the Dies irae or Auschwitz oratorio of 1964.


Next, Eutrenia - a two part work influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It's two parts dwelling, respectively on the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, which were premiered respectively in Altenberg Cathedral in 1970 and Munster Cathedral in 1971. In 1976 came an opera based on Milton's text Paradise Lost, dwelling on the fall of Man and his need for Christ's redemption. Penderecki wasn't pulling his punches with the Polish authorities from here on, either, despite their benevolence towards him. Take the Te Deum.


Written in 1980 in honour of Penderecki's fellow Pole and old acquaintance Pope John Paul II. This contains an extended quotation from the Church hymn 'God Save Poland', including the line 'Deigned to return a free homeland to us,oh Lord.'


No surprise then that when, in 1983 Penderecki was presented with a 50th birthday present in the form of the banner of work first class from Poland's head of state, he made his feelings known even as he accepted it. 'I express myself through my sacred music, which I have been composing for 25 years in this Communist country', he said. 'My position as a Catholic must be clear. I can only be so thankful that as an artist I have been honoured, in spite of ideological differences of opinion.'


Indeed, even as he made that statement, he was engaged in composing the most resplendent act of sacred musical protest of all in the form of his 'Polish Requiem'. Begun around his country's failed uprising of the early 1980s, premiered in its first form in 1984, and with its final expansion happening as late as 2005. Its various movements commemorate aspects of Polish suffering from World War II events to the death in 1982 of Cardinal Wyszynski, a close friend of Penderecki and symbolic figure for Poland's resistance.


Moving onwards, an important 1998 work was his Credo incorporating words from a Polish lenten song. While in 2012 he honoured back explicitly again with the Misa Brevis, his only multimovement acapella work, written for the 800th Jubilee of the St. Thomas Church and choir in Leipzig, where Bach served as cattlemeister. The year 2014 saw yet another GrandOratorio, the Dies Irae , commemorating the 100 anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and dedicated to its victims. Religion crept into ostensibly secular works, too. Perhaps most famously of all, in his second Symphony of 1979, nicknamed the Christmas Symphony because of its quotation of the Carol's Silent Night, which serves as a ray of hope amid what is otherwise a darkly brooding landscape.


And finally, it's perhaps that non sacred example that gets to the core of what makes Penderecki's sacred music so powerful. And what personal faith brought to his world outlook in general. They carry a sense of devotion and hope that rings true. With that still in your head listen now to Alfred Schnittke's take on that same Carol, Silent Night, written only the year before in 1978. Like Penderecki, Schnittke was struggling under a culturally repressive Soviet regime. But rather than treating the Carol as a redemptive force, he gradually corrupts it.


So, reaching for the unreachable, belief and redemption, faith and fight. 


Back to the St. Luke Passion and we'll leave the last word on it to Penderecki himself because his own attitude to his compositional style with it sums up its power and his subsequent sacred music's power. In a nutshell.


'I do not care if the passion is regarded as traditional or avantgarde' he stated, 'To me it is simply genuine and that suffices.'


This episode of Penderecki's Garden podcasts was hosted by me - Charlotte Gardner. The show is brought to you by, the flagship brand of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, financed by the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport of the Republic of Poland, as part of the multi-annual programme 'Niepodległa' 2017 to 2022. Remember to subscribe and help us to promote the show by telling your friends about it. And if you would like to listen to more records of Christoph Penderecki or read interesting facts about his life and work, take a walk in Digital Penderecki '