F 08


Is this really music????

If Penderecki had kept his original title of 8’37” and you had no programmatic title with which to associate it, how would you describe this as a piece of absolute music (music without a literary association or story of some sort)?

In your opinion, what are the most striking, thrilling, significant, shocking, beautiful or unattractive aspects of this piece? Also, comment on Penderecki’s use of clusters at the end of the work.

Penderecki’s Threnody laid the foundation for sonorism. Explain this compositional style and list a some composers and their works that were composed using this style.

Comment on other works written by Penderecki after 1970.


I’ve been listening to the audio courses of Dr. Robert Greenberg for many years. It took me a long time to accept his definition of music, but he finally convinced me. In his course “Fundamentals of Music” Dr. Greenburg says, “I would suggest that music is the ultimate language — a mega language — a language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone. […] Music is sound in time — or, if you prefer — time ordered by sound. That’s it! And that’s enough. That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music — sound and time — without any qualifications.”

Penderecki’s “Threnody” fits Dr. Greenburg’s definition of music — “sound in time” — and also is an example of how music can communicate on a completely different emotional level than words.

There is a genre called “Ambient Music” — the name originated with Brian Eno in the 1970s — which has very little rhythm or musical structure. It is often soothing and meditative. Later a subgenre developed that was called “Dark Ambient” which is more unsettling. Here’s an example

In my mind, Penderecki’s Threnody is about as dark as Dark Ambient can go. The sounds convey extreme horror, pain, fear, and disorientation. It’s interesting to me that when I heard the harsh, intense violin techniques in Paganini’s Caprice earlier this semester, I felt annoyed. It seemed to me that the violinist’s ego was taking up all the air in the room! But the Threnody doesn’t affect me that way at all. Even though the sounds are made by stringed instruments, they are so otherworldly that they seem beyond ego and personality. It’s a voice coming from the depths of a black hole, or the sound of atoms screaming as they are pulled apart.

One way that Penderecki made the cloud of sounds so disturbing was that he used clusters of notes that were not just discordant chromatically but also microtonally. The score included symbols that directed the musicians to “raise by 1/4 tone” “raise by 3/4 tone” and to play a “very slow vibrato with a 1/4 tone frequency difference produced by sliding the finger”. When the different subgroups of stringed instruments overlapped and phased in and out, this intensified the effect. The piece culminates with a huge cluster, “tutti archi”, which lasts 30 seconds and whose dynamics start at fff and fade away to ppp.

Here’s an in-depth discussion that includes close-up images from the score.

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 strings by Krzysztof Penderecki

According to Wiki, the term “sonorism” started being used in the 1960s as a classification for music that was based on “timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, and motion”. Some other composers in this genre include Henryk Gorecki and Zygmunt Krauze. I think that these techniques have influenced contemporary composers of film and video game soundtracks. Just for fun, here’s a podcast which is an interview with the composers of the score for the video game “Alien: Isolation”. They talk about how stressful it was to compose this kind of music!


According to Wiki,┬áPenderecki felt that the “avant-garde had gone too far from the expressive, non-formal qualities of Western music: ‘the avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism […] this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive’ “. Penderecki is currently 85 years old and in 2017 won a Grammy for Best Choral Performance.