The Canadian rock legend, Robbie Robertson, who died this week, was best known for his performances as a solo artist, as a member of The Band and as the lead guitarist for Bob Dylan.
What classical music lovers may not know is that Robertson was also intimately influenced by the 20th-century Polish composer Kryzsztof Penderecki.
Robbie Robertson grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Toronto, Ontario. Robertson co-founded The Band along with fellow Canadians Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and American Levon Helm. They found early fame as the backing band for artists such as Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins before going solo with their first album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968.
While touring with Dylan and working on his own musical projects in the 1960s, Robertson developed a fascination with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
“[His music] stirred a nerve that inspired me to write him a letter of appreciation,” Robertson described, citing his appreciation for works including St. Luke’s Passion (1966), Polymorphia (1961) and Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima (1961).
“We were pen pals for a while,” he told the CBC in 2019.
The Last [Operatic] Waltz
In 1976, The Band held their last concert, “The Last Waltz.” The performance used sets from the San Francisco Opera’s La Traviata and showcased performances by rock legends including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Muddy Waters.
The concert was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary of the same name. After the project was over, Scorsese and Robertson became collaborators on films including “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Gangs of New York” (2002), and “Shutter Island” (2010).
Robertson and Penderecki
When it came time to score Scorsese’s psychological thriller, “Shutter Island,” Robertson revisited his early admiration for Penderecki’s music.
“I said to Marty [Scorsese], I think Penderecki’s music could be a centrepiece for this movie,” Robertson recounted. Scorsese agreed, and Robertson anchored the film’s drama around the Passacaglia from Penderecki’s Third Symphony.
Why It Matters
The admiration between Robbie Robertson and Krzysztof Penderecki was mutual.
“After he heard some recordings of The Band I sent over,” Robertson said in 2020, “he wrote me back with such kind words of how our different styles of music had deep connections.”
Relationships between classical composers and rock musicians are few and far between, with many music lovers in both camps shunning the relationship between the two styles. The deep respect between these two vastly different artists demonstrates shared musical values that transcend stylistic differences.
“We will miss Krzysztof but his sound will live on and on forever,” Robertson wrote on Facebook following Penderecki’s death in 2020.
Penderecki might have written a similar tribute for Robertson, who died on August 9th at age 80.