Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Krzysztof Penderecki
BORN: November 23, 1933. Dębica, Poland
RESIDES: Wola Justowska, a suburb of Kraków, Poland

COMPOSED: He composed his Threnody—later called Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima—in 1960

WORLD PREMIERE: It was submitted in May of that year to a composers’ competition in Katowice, Poland, and was broadcast by Radio Warsaw on May 31, 1961, with Jan Krenz conducting the Great Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The work received its official public premiere on September 22, 1961, with Andrzej Markowski conducting the Kraków Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at the Warsaw Autumn Festival

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—January 1977. Seiji Ozawa conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 52 strings, consisting of 24 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses

DURATION: About 10 mins

THE BACKSTORY  The 1950s witnessed an extraordinary revitalization of Polish music. As the Soviet Union gradually softened its grip on cultural activities in that nation, twentieth-century classics by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern received their belated first hearings there, and several luminaries of the new music scene, such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, found avid listeners among Polish audiences. The watershed moment came in 1956, when the inaugural Warsaw Autumn Festival of contemporary music publicly aired truly avant-garde works in Poland for the first time in decades.

The Festival served as an essential proving ground for the most important Polish composers—senior practitioners such as Witold Lutosławski as well as impressive up-and-comers, of whom Krzysztof Penderecki would be embraced as the most exceptional after his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was programmed there in 1961. He had scored a triple-threat success in 1959 when three of his pieces, all submitted anonymously, swept the top three prizes of a composition sponsored by the Union of Polish Composers, but the success of the Threnody boosted his career to a higher plateau. Prestigious awards began coming his way as his career developed in the 1960s and ’70s. By now, about to celebrate his 84th birthday, he is the laureate of an impressive array of international honors, including (but far from limited to) the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1990); the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (1992); a commandership in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1996); honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998), Society of Friends of Music in Vienna (2000), and Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (2001); an officership in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2000); the Grand Gold Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria (2003); Japan’s Praemium Imperiale (2004); and Poland’s Order of the White Eagle (2005). 

A prolific composer, he has built up a catalogue that includes eight symphonies (he says he would like to write a ninth), concertos or concertante pieces for a variety of instrumental soloists, many standalone symphonic movements, four operas, and much choral and chamber music. His style has assumed some late-Romantic grandeur with the passing decades, but at the time of his Threnody, Penderecki was exploring a revolutionary path of sound. In 1960, the year he wrote it, he entered the piece in the Grzegorz Fitelberg Composers’ Competition in Katowice, Poland. It earned only third prize, but a tape of a broadcast radio performance a year later made its way to Paris, where the piece was awarded the 1961 Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs UNESCO. The work’s renown spread from there, and it remains his most famous composition.

Let us consider the title for a moment. Penderecki originally called this piece 8’37”, that being what he envisioned as its running time. (John Cage’s 4’33”, premiered in 1952, was much on composers’ minds just then.) Before long, he changed the name to the more evocative Tren (meaning Threnody, a lament). That jibed with the emotional impact it made on listeners such as the West German critic Karl H. Wörner, who in the publication Musica, described it (in 1961) as a “profoundly disturbing piece of apparently hopeless cataclysmic atmosphere in a highly individual technique of composition and instrumentation.” Penderecki subsequently expanded the title to Tren pamieçi ofiar Hiroszimy (Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima), but he cautions that the piece was not inspired by any idea or image of the atomic-bomb destruction of that Japanese city. He stated in a 1994 address, “Works like the Polish Requiem, or the earlier Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, while they may possess an autonomous artistic existence, are liable to be read as journalism.” (The speech was reprinted in his essay collection Labyrinth of Time.) Still, he would not have enlarged his title if the allusion had not seemed apt. Certainly Penderecki was horrified by the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb. When this piece was performed in Hiroshima on December 1, 1964, he wrote a letter to the city’s mayor referring to the detonation at that site as a “tragedy of mankind.” “This was not really political music that I was writing,” he stated in a 1997 interview, “but it was music that was appropriate to the time during which we were living in Poland.”

THE MUSIC  This piece may suggest many images to a listener—buzzing insects, shrieking sirens, even a bomb exploding. The musical encyclopedist Nicolas Slonimsky felt that the work’s conclusion was “a massive tonal cloud of gray matter, encompassing two octavefuls of icositetraphonic harmony”—icositetraphonic denoting the division of an octave into twenty-four steps. It is nonetheless worth underscoring that Penderecki approached it on strictly musical terms. “First of all,” he wrote, “I was a string player. I was at that time still playing and working in the Warsaw Experimental Electronic Music Studio, experimenting with the violin and electronic instruments. . . . I think the electronic studio helped me at that time in experimenting with all those clusters you find. . . .” By clusters, he was referring to a practice established in new-music circles decades before—sonorities in which all the notes between high and low end-points are sounded at once. Traditionally, this was an agglomeration of chromatic half-tones, but in the Threnody, Penderecki’s clusters also encompass quarter-tones, with each player within a defined instrumental group playing a different pitch. This composition may sound to some listeners like a piece of electronic music transcribed for acoustic instruments. In fact, it was an acoustic conception from the outset, though emerging from a mind well acquainted with electronic sound.

The Threnody is scored for 52 strings, with each musician playing an individual line: 24 violins (mostly divided into four groups of six each), 10 violas (in two groups of five), 10 cellos (two groups of five) and 8 double basses (two groups of four). These sections can re-form; in an episode toward the work’s end, for example, the ensemble operates as three groups, each comprising four violins, three violas, three cellos, and two double basses. All of the players employ extended techniques that go far beyond the normal string vocabulary of bowing or, for a special effect, plucking (pizzicato). The bows strike many places on the strings—along the fingerboard, on or near the bridge, between the bridge and the tailpiece, and so on. The musicians employ wide variations of vibrato and tremolo, sometimes changing the flutter of a note substantially as it is sustained, often connecting notes with seamless glissandos. They do these things at extremes of volume. They strike the body of their instruments with their bows or their fingers. “In my Threnody of 1960, the string instruments sound like percussion,” observed Penderecki in his 1997 interview. “Today, such a solution is nothing new.”

Details of his Threnody did indeed become much imitated. As part of his composition, Penderecki invented various symbols to signify the effects he envisioned; these became standard in new music graphic notation, just as the sounds themselves became adopted by other composers who worked at the outer limits of acoustic possibilities. No live performance of the Threnody can be replicated exactly; although the piece is written out in careful detail, Penderecki allows the musicians some leeway in interpreting the score, the aleatoric aspects extending even to letting the players decide in what order they may play certain groupings of notes. There are no bar-lines in the score; instead, the duration of pitches or gestures is indicated by timings, in seconds. The piece can seem to stand on the brink of chaos at many moments, yet the composer keeps it under attentive control much as composers have always done.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Krzysztof Penderecki conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI)  |  Antoni Wit conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice (Naxos)  |  Penderecki conducting the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch)

Online: A meticulously produced “animated score” helps guide the ear through what many listeners may find a difficult piece to grasp. Check it out at

Readings: Krzysztof Penderecki: His Life and Work, by Wolfgang Schwinger (Schott)  |  Krzysztof Penderecki: A Guide to his Works, by Ray E. Robinson (Summy-Birchard)  |  Labyrinth of Time: Five Addresses for the End of the Millenium, by Krzysztof Penderecki, translated by William Brand (Hinshaw Music)  |  A Polish Renaissance, by Bernard Jacobson (Phaidon Press)

(September 2017)