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

Krzysztof Penderecki was born in Debica, Poland in 1933 and he studied composition at the Conservatory of Music Society in Krakow, today’s Academy of Music Krakow. In the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music from 1956 to 1958 he had contact with works of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Nono, Dallapicola, Carter, and Cage. In 1957 he worked at the Polish Radio Experimental Music Studio and made experiments on extended techniques for strings, clusters and noises in acoustical pieces.

In 1959 he won the first, second and third prizes of the second Competition of Young Composers of the Polish Composer’s Union with the compositions Strophes, Emanations and Psalms of David submitted under different pseudonyms and in 1960 he finished  Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, started in 1958 and originally called 8’37”.

“The piece existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Jan Krenz recorded it and I could listen to an actual performance; I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those “digits”. I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.” (Tomaszewski, 1998)

The piece is an example of “sonorism”, therm invented by Józef Chominski, “Sonoristic regulation consists in an exploration of the pure sound values of the sound material” (As cited in Mirka, 1997, 7), and it was restricted exclusively to Polish music of the early 1960s. The concept of sound matter taken in its totality — en “masse”, so the therm “Soundmass”and the sound value became the primary factor in place of melody, harmony, rhythm or metter.

The more important elements of the sonorism are the texture of sound masses and timbres, and the sound shape is divided in length and width by lines (long duration sounds that can be constant or variable), stripes (clusters) and points ( pizza., col legion battuto).

They were interested in dots, whereas I was interested in lines” (Penderecki about Darmstadt)

In Threnody, Penderecki utilized new composition techniques as

  • “Farbmusik” (Color Music) in which the form and structure are defined by timber and texture
  • Time-space notation with a innovative graphic spatial notation, vertical lines measured in seconds and time location of musical events only aproximated and related to the spatial position inside the rhytmic unit
  • Microtonal clusters to amplify the sound density and “Soundmass” as use of color and texture
  • New timbers for string instruments not organized in the traditional five parts, each instrument having an independent part and playing extended techniques listed at the beginning of the piece that reflects the influence of electronic music through imitation of electronic sounds by purely acoustic means


Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Abbreviations and SymbolsThrenody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Abbreviations and Symbols 2


The formal structure of the piece is divided in three parts

  • First section from measure 1 to 25
  • Second section from measure 26 to 63-64
  • Third section from measure 64 to 70

On measure 1 ten groups of instruments play high notes in imitation, gradually transformed by slow vibrato on measure 2

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 01

From measure 3 to 5 – alternation between slow and molto vibrato

Threnody from measure 3 to 5

From measure 6 to 9 – alternation between different events

  • 4 different sequences of 7 events (almost imitative )
  • The second is retrograde of the first
  • Numerology (each event appears 16 times)
  • Short events creating the effect of one soundtrack

Threnody from measure 6 to 9Threnody from measure 6 to 9 events

From measure 10 to 17

  • Less activity
  • Clusters extended by glissandos

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 03

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 04

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 05

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 06

On measure 18 the solo notes are expanded in imitation, creating clusters

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 07

These clusters gets to a climax on measure 19 and starts the dissolution on measure 20, finishing the section on measure 25 with one violoncello

Threnody measures 19 and 20


Threnody measure 20 dissolution one cello

The sound resulting of the second session from measure 26 to 63-64 is very similar to initial textures. The orchestra is divided in three parts like in a strict canon between three different orchestras.


Threnody from measure 26 to 31

Threnody from measure 32 to 37


Threnody from measure 44 to 55

In this section Penderecki utilizes the following techniques

  • Pointillism
  • Complex rhythms (duplets)
  • Extended techniques

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 09

  • Melodic imitation in inverted pitch, or 4th above and 5th below


Threnody from measure 26 to 31 detail first orchestra


Threnody from measure 38 to 43 detail second orchestra retrograde

Chords at the end of section start the transition between pointilistic texture of second session and cluster texture of the third

Threnody from measure 56 to 61 detail first orchestra

The third section from measure 62 to 70 return to initial textures, starting with first violins cluster and cellos imitative movement

Threnody from measure 62 to 63 detail first violins clusterThrenody from measure 62 to 63 detail imitative cellos

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 10

It is followed by a continuous movement toward a final cluster in fortissimo

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 11

The climax of the piece at the end is a 30 seconds cluster in fff, gradually decrescendo until ppp and remembering the beginning of the pieceThrenody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) Detail from Score 12

Penderecki – Threnody (Animated Score)


  • Boleslawska-Lewandowska, Beata . “Symphony and symphonic thinking in Polish music after 1956” ( Masters thesis, Cardiff University, 2013)
  • De Leeuw, Ton. Music of the Twentieth Century: A Study of Its Elements and Structure. Amsterdam. Amsterdam University Press. 2005
  • Mirka, Danurta. The Sonoristic Structuralism of Krzystof Penderecki. Poland. Music Academy in Katowice. 1997
  • Liner Notes by Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, trans. by Jan Rybicki and Richard Whitehouse. Penderecki, Krzysztof [National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice), Antoni Wit conducting]. Orchestral Works Vol. 1: Symphony No. 3, Threnody. Audio CD. Katowice, Poland: HNH International, Ltd., 1998.
  • Music Theory Online in Volume 6, number 1, January 2000. It was authored by Danuta Mirka,
  • Penderecki, Krzysztof: Threnody To the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings. Belwin Mills Pub. Corp., Melville, NY 11746.
  • Stone, Kurt. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century. New York. W.W.Norton & Company. 2000







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