Born in Debica (130 km east of Krakow) on 23 November 1933. His father, a lawyer and an enthusiastic violin player, brought his son into contact with music very early. Penderecki was given violin and piano lessons at an early age and was admitted to the Krakow Conservatory at the age of 18, studying at the same time philosophy, art history and literary history at the local university and from 1954 composition at the Krakow State Academy of Music, first with Artur Malewski and after his death in 1957 with Stanislas Wiechowicz. In 1958 he finished his studies with a diploma and was appointed professor at the Musikhochschule.
In 1959 Penderecki's three works STROPHES, EMANATIONS and PSALMS OF DAVID won first prizes in the 2nd Warsaw Competition of Young Polish Composers of the Composers' Union. Only one year later, in 1960, his piece ANAKLASIS for 42 string instruments, premičred by the Südwestfunk Orchestra under the direction of Hans Rosbaud at the Donaueschingen Festival, was celebrated by the press. With these works and other works following in rapid succession, such as DIMENSIONS OF TIME AND SILENCE, THRENODY (UNESCO Award in 1961), POLYMORPHIA and FLUORESCENCES, the STRING QUARTET NO. 1, DIES IRAE in memory of the victims of Auschwitz (Prix Italia 1968) and STABAT MATER for three mixed choruses a cappella which later became part of the ST. LUKE PASSION performed for the first time in 1966 at the Cathedral of Münster, Penderecki laid the foundations for his international reputation as a composer. For the ST. LUKE PASSION, Penderecki was awarded the Great Arts Award of the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1966 and the Prix Italia in 1967. In the same year, he was also awarded the Sibelius Gold Medal.
From 1966 to 1968 Penderecki taught at the Essen Folkwang Hochschule; during this time he began his intensive work on his first opera THE DEVILS OF LOUDON (based on a book by Aldous Huxley, dramatized by John Whiting and translated by Erich Fried) which, after its premičre at the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1969, was successfully performed at theatres throughout the world - as were the three following operas PARADISE LOST (after the play by John Milton; premičre 1978 in Chicago), DIE SCHWARZE MASKE (after the play by Gerhart Hauptmann; premičre 1986 at the Salzburg Festival) and UBU REX (after the play UBU ROI by Alfred Jarry; premičre 1991 in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper). In 1968 he received a scholarship of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) in Berlin. In 1970 he was awarded the Prize of the Union of Polish Composers. Since 1972 he was rector of the Krakow Musikhochschule; from 1973 to 1978 he was professor at the Yale University, New Haven. In these years, on extended concert tours all over the world, Penderecki rapidly acquired an international reputation even as a conductor of both his own compositions and works of other composers.
Other prizes awarded to Penderecki for his other 5 symphonies, small-scale orchestral compositions, solo concertos (two violin concertos, an alto concerto, two violoncello concertos, a flute concerto, some of them in versions for other solo instruments, among others), chamber music works and numerous vocal works are the Prix Arthur Honegger in 1977 (for MAGNIFICAT), the Sibelius Prize of the Wihuri Foundation and the National Prize of Poland in 1983, the Premio Lorenzo Magnifico in 1985 and the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1992 (for ADAGIO - SYMPHONY NO. 4), among others. In 1998 he was honoured with the Composition Award of the Promotion Association of the European Industry and Trade, conferred upon him on 10 September on the occasion of the Penderecki Festival in Krakow. In 1999 he received the Music Award of the City of Duisburg. In January 2000 he received the Cannes Classical Award as "Living Composer of the Year". 2001 he received the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts, 2002 the Romano Guardini Prize of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria. He received the North-Rhine-Westphalia State Prize 2002 and the European Church Music Award 2003. He is one of the prize-Winners of the 16th Praemium Imperiale 2004, which was presented in Tokio on 21. October 2004.
Since 1990 he has been holder of the Grand Cross for Distinguished Services of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and Chevalier de Saint Georges. In 1992 he received the Austrian Medal for Science and Art. In 1993 the Institute for Advanced Study at the Indiana University Bloomington conferred upon him the Distinguished Citizen Fellowship; in the same year he was awarded the Prize of the International Music Council / UNESCO for Music and the Order of Cultural Merit of the Principality of Monaco. In 1995 he became member of the Royal Academy of Music, Dublin, and freeman of the city of Strasbourg. In 1995 and 1996 he was awarded the Primetime Emmy Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In 1998 the American Academy of Arts and Letters conferred upon him the Foreign Honorary Membership; in the same year he became a corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, and was appointed to the Honorary Board of the Vilnius Festival '99. 2000 he became honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Vienna, 2001 of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. On 5 January 2003 Penderecki was given the freedom of his native town Debica, and the very same month received the Eduardo M. Torner Medal of the 'Conservatorio de Música del Principado Asturias' during his stay in Oviedo, Spain and was appointed honorary director of the choir of the Prince of Asturias Foundation and honorary president of the cultural association 'Apoyo a la Creación Musical'.
Penderecki has received honorary doctorates and professorships from numerous universities, such as the Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., the University of Glasgow, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the universities of Rochester, Bordeaux, Leuwen, Belgrad, Madrid, Poznán and of the St. Olaf College, Northfield/Minn., the Duquesne University, Pittsburgh (PA), the Universities in Leipzig, St. Petersburg and Yale, as well as honorary memberships from the Royal Academy of Music (London), the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome), the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien (Stockholm), the Akademie der Künste (Berlin) and the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes (Buenos Aires). In 1998 the Beijing Conservatoire appointed him as honorary professor.