Krzysztof Penderecki, Composer of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Shining,' Dies at 86

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Krzysztof Penderecki

The avante-garde composer and conductor, famed for such experimental works as 1960's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima," died at his home in Krakow in southern Poland.

Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland's leading composer and conductor whose music became known worldwide through his work in Hollywood films such as The Shining and The Exorcist, has died. He was 86.

Penderecki died early Sunday at his home in Krakow in southern Poland after a long illness, his family said in a statement released by Ludwig van Beethoven Association, which was founded by his wife Elzbieta. In a statement emailed to the Associated Press, the association said Penderecki had a “long and serious illness." The cause of his death is unknown, but was understood to not to be associated with the coronavirus; Penderecki tested negative for the virus after his carer was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Penderecki was born on Nov. 23, 1933, in the southern Polish town of Debica. His maternal grandfather was German and his grandmother was Armenian. His father, a lawyer, loved to play the violin and instilled in his son a love of music.

Penderecki studied violin and composition at the Krakow Conservatory, where on graduation in 1958 he was appointed a professor, and next a rector. From 1972-1978, he also taught at the Yale University School of Music.

Penderecki's career as a young composer launched in 1959. At the age of 25, he won all three top prizes in a competition after submitting one score written with his right hand, another with his left, and a third copied out by a friend to conceal his handwriting. Penderecki earned scores of accolades, including four Grammys — most recently for best choral performance in 2016 — during his long career.

Often inspired by religious themes or world-shattering events, Penderecki's distinctive style was first recognized by a major figure in Hollywood when William Friedkin used four of his pieces, including a score from his controversial 1969 work The Devils of Loudon. Based on a novel by Aldous Huxley about the Inquisition, the score received criticism from the Vatican, which called upon the composer to stop performances. Despite the criticism, he refused to stop. 

Penderecki became more successful in Hollywood after Stanley Kubrick made extensive use of his work in The Shining (1980), as did David Lynch in Wild at Heart (1990) and Inland Empire (2006).

Elements of his monumental work Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima — designed to be performed by 52 strings — were used in both in West Craven's 1991 horror The People Under the Stairs; in Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 film The Children of Men; and in the 2017 sequel to Lynch's Twin Peaks.

In 2012, Penderecki collaborated with Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboardist with the British alternative rock band Radiohead. Greenwood told the British newspaper The Guardian that the composer's pieces made "such wonderful sounds."

He added: "I think a lot of people might think his work is stridently dissonant or painful on the ears. But because of the complexity of what’s happening — particularly in pieces such as Threnody and Polymorphia, and how the sounds are bouncing around the concert hall — it becomes a very beautiful experience when you’re there."

His other distinctions include the “Best Living Composer” award at the Cannes Midem Classic music event in 2000, and Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, bestowed in 2005.

Poland's culture minister Piotr Glinski said the country's culture had "suffered a huge and irreparable loss."

Penderecki is survived by his second wife, Elzbieta, and by daughters Beata and Dominika and son Lukasz.