Penderecki’s “Passion”

Penderecki Passion According to St. Luke

This evening I have been listening to a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, composed in 1966 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Poland, and for the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed. Penderecki has been a leading light of the European musical avant garde since the early 1960s. His Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima was a landmark (and has been used as source material for any number of movie soundtracks.)

The Passion is for three mixed choirs, boychoir, soprano, baritone and bass soloists, spoken narrator, and very large orchestra. It is a daunting work combining twelve-tone writing with vocal lines based on Gregorian chant, aleatoric passages as well as huge climaxes that end on shockingly diatonic major chords. The form is similar to the Bach passions: large choruses interspersed with narration and arias that comment on the action in Luke’s gospel. Other contemplative texts are taken from the psalms, Roman Catholic antiphons and hymns, sequences (Miserere mei Deus; Pange lingua; Stabat Mater, etc.)

The drama of the choruses is astonishing. Who could not be shocked by the screams of “Crucifige ilum.” (Crucify him)? Later there is an a capella setting of the “Stabat mater” describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The final chorus proclaims, “In Te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum.” (In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed.)

Penderecki’s Passion is a masterpiece that should be performed more often. Too bad it’s so expensive to produce and no one (but me) wants to hear it….

(And of course, I’ve been listening to Penderecki while procrastinating practice the organ continuo part for the Bach Passion I have to play on Friday evening.)

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