Born in 1933 in Dębica, he studied philosophy, art history and literature at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. His first teacher of composition was Franciszek Skołyszewski. Between 1954 and 1958 he studied at the State High School of Music in Cracow with Artur Malawski and, after Malawski’s death, Stanisław Wiechowicz. In 1959 three of his works: Strophes, Emanations, and Psalms of David won the Polish Composers’ Union competition. In 1960 he captured the attention of Western critics with Anaklasis, performed at the Donaueschingen Festival under the direction of Hans Rosbaud. His international position was consolidated in the 1960s with performances of works such as Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (awarded at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in 1961), St Luke Passion (Great Arts Award of the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, 1966 and Prix Italia, 1967), and Dies irae (Prix Italia, 1968). In 1967 he was also awarded the Sibelius Gold Medal.
Between 1966 and 1968, he taught at the Folkwang Hochschule für Musik in Essen while composing the opera The Devils of Loudun (after Aldous Huxley), whose world premiere took place at the Hamburg State Opera in 1969 (directed by Konrad Swinarski and conducted by Henryk Czyż); it was later staged at theatres throughout the world, and premiered in a new version in 2013 in Copenhagen. His other highly acclaimed operas include Paradise Lost (premiered in Chicago in 1978), The Black Mask (Salzburg Festival, 1986), and Ubu Rex (Bavarian State Opera in Munich, 1991).
Penderecki served as Vice-Chancellor of the Academy of Music in Cracow (1972–87). From 1973 to 1978 he lectured at Yale University. Since 1973 he also pursued a highly successful career as a conductor.
Penderecki’s long list of honours granted to him in Europe, Asia and both Americas is too long to list them all here; it confirms his position as one of history’s greatest composers (as he was called in the comment to one of his awards). Accolades presented to him in Poland include the Award of the Polish Composers’ Union (1970), Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1993), and the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest state decoration (2005). He has also received state awards in Germany, Austria, France and Monaco, as well as the Honegger (1977) and Sibelius (1983) Prizes, Premio Lorenzo Il Magnifico (1985), Karl Wolff Foundation Award in Israel (1987), Grawemeyer Award (1992), Greatest Living Composer of the Year at the MIDEM in Cannes (2000), Romano Guardini Award from the Catholic Academy in Bavaria (2002), European Church Music Award during the Festival of European Church Music in Schwäbisch Gmünd (2003), State Award of the Land of North Rhine–Westphalia (2002), and the 16th Præmium Imperiale, bestowed by Prince Hitachi of Japan in Tokyo (2004). In 1990 the Federal Republic of Germany honoured him with the Great Cross of Merit, the only federal decoration of Germany. From the same year, he has held the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In 2008 Krzysztof Penderecki (who was partly of Armenian descent himself) was presented with the Gold Medal of the Armenian Minister of Culture, and in 2009 with the Order of Honour of Armenia (by the President of the Republic of Armenia). The composer’s other honours include the honorary citizenship of Strasbourg (1995); an honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998); the honorary citizenship of his home city of Dębica (2003); honorary doctorates or professorships from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Georgetown University in Washington, Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, the universities of Glasgow, Rochester, Bordeaux, Leuven, Belgrade, Madrid, Leipzig, Saint Petersburg, Yale, Seoul, and the Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He was a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London, member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Akademie der Künste in Berlin, and Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.
2013 saw the opening of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, combined with the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations. In 2015 Krzysztof Penderecki was granted the title of Honorary President of the Polish Composers’ Union.
Krzysztof Penderecki’s other passion was gardening. In the arboretum that he established on his estate in Lusławice, he has planted and cultivated several hundred varieties of trees. He died on 29 March 2020 in Cracow.
Selected works (since 1990): Ubu Rex, opera buffa after Alfred Jarry (1990–91), String Trio (1990–91), Sinfonietta per archi (1992), Symphony no. 5 (1992), Concerto for flute (or clarinet) and chamber orchestra (1992), Clarinet Quintet (1993), Sinfonietta no. 2 for clarinet and strings (1994), Divertimento for cello (1994), Symphony no. 3 (1988–95), Violin Concerto no. 2 Metamorphoses (1992–95), Clarinet Concerto (1992–95), Symphony no. 7 Seven Gates of Jerusalem for soloists, speaker, three mixed choirs and orchestra (1996), Serenade for string orchestra (1996–97), Hymn to St Daniil for mixed choir and orchestra (1997), Hymn to St Adalbert for mixed choir and orchestra (1997), Credo for soloists, children’s choir, mixed choir and orchestra (1998), Violin Sonata no. 2 (1999), Sextet for violin, viola, cello, clarinet, horn and piano (2000), Concerto grosso for three cellos and orchestra (2000–1), Piano Concerto Resurrection (2001–2),Largo for cello and orchestra (2003), Concerto grosso no. 2 for five clarinets and orchestra (2004), Symphony no. 8 Lieder der Vergänglichkeit for three voices, choir and orchestra (2004–5), String Quartet no. 3 (2008), Three Chinese Songs for baritone and orchestra, to words by Chinese poets translated by Hans Bethge (2008), Concerto for horn and orchestra Winterreise(2007–9), Kaddish for soprano, tenor, reciter, male choir and orchestra, to words by Abraham Cytryn and the Bible (2009), “A Sea of Dreams Did Breathe on Me...” – Songs of Reverie and Nostalgia for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra, to words by Polish poets (2011), Concerto doppio for violin, viola and orchestra (2012), De natura sonoris no. 3 for orchestra (2012), Adagio from Symphony no. 3 for string orchestra (2013), Quintetto per archi for two violins, viola, cello and double bass (2013), Dies illa for three soloists, three mixed choirs and orchestra (2014), Concertino for trumpet and orchestra (2015), String Quintet (2015), Polonaise for symphony orchestra (2015), Domine quid multiplicati sunt for mixed unaccompanied choir (2015), String Quartet no. 4 (2016), Symphony no. 6 Chinese Songs for baritone, symphony orchestra and erhu (2017), Lacrimosa no. 2 for soprano, women’s choir and chamber orchestra (2018), A Fanfare for Free Poland for symphony orchestra (2019).