Threnody was completed in 1960, and remains one of Penderecki's best-known works. Composed at a time when serial technique dominated avant-garde music, Threnody is instead a deeply personal work, disturbing in its evocations of human misery and terror. Though it is dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War, Penderecki drew on his own experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland in composing this work. He noted that Nazi war crimes, especially "the great Apocalypse" of Auschwitz, have been in his "subconscious mind since the war." As a result, this work, like much of Penderecki's music, is emotionally powerful and in large part autobiographical, but at the same time expresses a universal mourning for the victims of war.
Threnody is scored for 52 strings, and features a number of spectacular instrumental effects -- most significantly microtonal glissandi. Threnody is also a work of limited or "controlled" aleatoric elements: musical gestures are represented graphically on the score, but the performers are at times allowed some freedom in the realization of musical elements like pitch and duration. The work is divided roughly into three sections, with the outermost sections allowing the greatest freedom for the performers. At certain points in the score, performers may simply play their instruments' highest notes, or, when pitch is specified, performers may move from pitch to pitch by quarter tones.
Penderecki also demands unconventional bowing for effect, including bowing between the bridge and the tailpiece, and bowing the bridge or tailpiece. He also calls for striking the soundboard with the fingers. Instruments were divided into groups and assigned a particular range of pitches, within which they move by glissando. In terms of rhythm, Threnody is very nearly an arrhythmic piece, as there is no regular pulse to be found; instead, individual sections are measured by clock time, in minutes and seconds.
The result of Penderecki's controlled aleatoricism is a work of considerable expressive force -- a musical representation of human suffering that, despite its considerable technical difficulties, strikes home with surprising sincerity. Each string section, as it ebbs and swells, engages in a kind of dialogue with other sections, and the effect of many instruments playing glissandi at once simulates, rather distressingly, the sound of human voices wailing in a swirling, hellish polyphony. It is a vivid evocation of the horrors of war, and also a good example of Penderecki's so-called "sensualist," Neo-Romantic style.