7 Keys to Penderecki’s The St. Luke Passion

On July 20, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal will open the Salzburg Festival with The St. Luke Passion by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. It will also be performed in Krakow, Poland on July 18. Québec audiences are invited to discover this monumental and gripping work on July 14 at the Festival de Lanaudière.

Here are seven facts to deepen your appreciation!


  1. About Krzysztof Penderecki

Born in Poland in 1933, Krzysztof Penderecki is one of our era’s foremost composers. He is the author of an imposing body of work including four operas, eight symphonies, and hundreds of pieces for orchestra, choir, chamber musicians, and solo instruments.


  1. Context of creation

The St. Luke Passion was commissioned to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Münster Cathedral in Germany. The premier took place on March 30, 1966 at the cathedral, under the baton of conductor Henryk Czyz, and was a great success.


  1. Profound faith in a particular context

As a Catholic, Penderecki has always been very devout, and this faith characterizes his work, which features many sacred pieces, such as his Polish Requiem. On the subject of his Passion, he has said,

“I am a Roman Catholic, but in my opinion, you don’t need to belong to a Church to compose religious music; the most important thing is to have a faith to express.”


  1. Human suffering, beyond religion

Throughout his work, Penderecki is preoccupied by human suffering.

Likewise, in The St. Luke Passion, Penderecki wanted to describe not only the suffering of Christ, but also that of all humanity. He explained himself saying, “I had help from the archetype of the Passion; that is to say, it’s a two-thousand-year-old theme, expressing not only the Passion and the death of Christ, but also expressing the cruelty of our times, the cruelty of Auschwitz.”

This intention is conveyed admirably in the work, in which the tensions, the pain, the drama, and the anguish are expressed in a thousand and one ways, notably using dissonance, cries, and “spoken singing”, a technique which in German is called “sprechgesang”.


  1. Music as a mystical experience

Penderecki’s Passion is captivating in its contrasts and its evocative force. From the first measures, the listener is gripped by its somber, even mournful character. Although imposing and demanding, it is nevertheless accessible thanks to its power and its universal character, which plunges the listener into a state of introspection and salutary self-reflection. Here, music acts as a vector for a profound and spiritual human experience.


  1. Links with Bach

Like J. S. Bach before him, Penderecki was keenly aware of the colossal challenge that awaited him in composing a major work on the passion of the Christ. Like Bach, the composer based his work on the evangelical texts, and we therefore find an Evangelist, the narrator, in his piece.


  1. The past meets the present

Penderecki’s Passion is marked by his efforts to develop a style that would link past and present, a concern that has largely influenced his musical evolution.

In an interview given in 1997, the composer himself explained his approach in these terms:

“[The St. Luke Passion] was my first attempt to find a musical language that was not only modern but which also employed some elements from the past. I was trying to find a co-existence between the very avant-garde style of my experimental works and the past. I made the first step in Stabat mater, before the Passion.”

The St. Luke Passion, July 14 2018, 8 PM, Fernand-Lindsay amphitheatre, Festival de Lanaudière

July 18, Krakow, Poland.

July 20, inaugural concert, Salzburg Festival, Austria.