Universally considered as a unique phenomenon in contemporary music, the oeuvre of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki enjoys an unabated popularity. It was considerably enhanced with the 1992 recording of his Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) by the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman (with Dawn Upshaw as soloist). Nobody expected that this, the fourth recording of the work, made fifteen years after its premiere, would become an unprecedented commercial success. The work of a composer who not long ago was in the forefront of the avant-garde sold over a million copies worldwide, topping best-seller lists alongside the stars of rock, pop and jazz. It was a success that gave analysts of mass culture much food for thought.
There is no doubt that one of the main reasons of the Górecki phenomenon, which stands no comparison with any other contemporary composer, is the fact that Górecki’s music is rooted in Polish folk art. lt constitutes an ultimate point of reference for the composer’s life and work. ln folk art’s lyrical tone, simplicity and sincerity, and its organic links with nature, Górecki found answers to fundamental, existential questions. Indeed, every piece by Górecki, irrespective of genre and complexity, probes into the problems of the human condition and experience and in doing so employs musical devices rooted in folk material. The universal character of Górecki’s music suggests parallels with Chopin, who, by making folk music relevant to the whole mankind, at the same time defined his national identity vis-a-vis the world. The main direction and artistic goal of Górecki’s music has also been charted by religious inspiration, which is rooted in the national tradition. It proceeds from negation (a rebellion against the pressures of modern life) to affirmation, concentration and inner harmony, which are symbolized by traditional tonality, harmony and melody. Thanks to his unique creative personality, Górecki handles all types of musical utterances with great mastery. Under his hand, a simple melody and a simple triad have retained an expressive power which had seemed to have been lost forever.
The launch of the latest CD album in the series The Pearls of Polish Music coincides with the 70th birthday of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki. It is a good opportunity to take a retrospective look at his achievements. Any selection of the pieces is, naturally, of a subjective nature. The producer of the present recording have decided to include five works spanning several decades and representing two main, mutually interwoven strands in Górecki’s output: religious and instrumental music. In the opinion of the present author, the selected pieces demonstrate the composer’s idiom in an accessible, lucid and evocative way.
The psalm setting Beatus vir was commissioned from Górecki in 1978 by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as a work commemorating the 900th anniversary of the assassination of Bishop (later Saint) Stanislaus, who joined a rebellion against the king and died a martyr’s death in 1079. The piece was intended to be the first of a planned triptych Sancti Tui Domine. Górecki worked on the commission under unusual stress as in the meantime Cardinal Wojtyła, St. Stanislaus’s successor as Bishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papa throne in the Vatican. Beatus vir was premiered on 9 June 1979, in the Franciscan Basilica in Kraków, on the occasion of John Paul ll’s first pilgrimage to Poland since becoming Pope. It was performed by Jerzy Mechliński and the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the composer. This monumental work for baritone, chorus and large symphony orchestra is a setting of verses selected by Górecki from the Book of Psalms (Nos 142, 30, 37, 66, 33). The text alludes to the tragedy of St. Stanislaus and to the papa` theme. Dedicated to Pope John Paul ll, Beatus vir assumes a new dimension and importance 25 years after the start of his pontificate. It may be seen as an eloquent symbol of the suffering and pain despite which the PiIgrim from Poland is continuing to spread the Christian message to build a civilization of love and peace. In Amen for unaccompanied mixed choir (1975) Górecki explored the concept of devout choraI singing, enlivening the spirit of old Polish church song.
Three Pieces in Old Style was written in 1963. The title suggests that the work, with its archaic flavour, marks a departure from the present time. This is not the case. The composition fits into the basic Iine of development of Górecki’s style. One can find here many affinities with the style of his other major pieces. An archaic melodic pattern, which draws on medieval music with its recurrent simple motifs, is a pretext for exploring different variants of a single terse idea, a device typical of Górecki. The refined restriction of timbre in the string instrumentation and the contrasts in textural thickness and dynamics introduce us to the heart of Górecki’s individual style. Three Pieces constitutes a modest but highly effective and charming example of this style.
Coming as it did after the pieces such as the Third Symphony and Beatus vir, with their predilection for slow sustained music, the arrival in 1980 of the Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings caused something of a stir. The work was written for the harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka but in accordance with Górecki’s own suggestion the solo part may also be played on the piano (the present CD features the piano version). Both movements of the piece are in fast tempi (note the absence of the traditional slow central movement) and exhibit an exuberance and vivacity that took many listeners at the time by surprise. In the first movement, the soloist pursues rapic scalic figurations, while the unison strings play a steadily evolving and ornamented cantus firmus. The second movement follows attacca, with the piano and strings revelling in their uninhibited joviality.
Little Requiem for a Polka was written in 1993 to a commission from the Holland Festival and is dedicated to the Schönberg Ensemble. This somewhat strange title leaves room for interpretation, as Górecki himself has been elusive about its significance. There are some traces here of the specific rhythms of this characteristic Bohemian dance, but why a Requiem? There is a little clue in the opening movement, which is framed by a sequence of phrases on the piano which artfully recast the incipit of a very familiar chant. There is also the simple, but telling sound of the bells in the melancholy outer movements. However, in the third movement, there appears the ‘polka’ of the title as …circus music. Is it over the top, just clowning, or absolutely serious, or both? Are not such blatant contrasts just two sides of Górecki’s music, just as the sacred and secular aspects of the folk culture that is so important to the composer? lf we are taken aback by the boldness of Górecki’s challenge, perhaps we deserve to be.
Let me conclude with the final passage from Górecki by Adrian Thomas¹, the most definitive study on the Polish composer’s life and music to date.… And although much is made, rightly, of Górecki’s attachment to his motherland and its native culture, that would count as nothing had he no vision and character of his own. That he has both in abundance is clear in both his music and his personality. He is a truly striking, thoughtful, and passionate individual who throughout his eventfuI life has single-mindedly pursued his own musical goals, remaining true to himself and his musical ethos, constantly searching for that state of body and soul so eloquentIy penned by Tuwim in ‘Song of Joy and Rhythm’²:
Slowly – inside – I am restored to myself:
To intense joy and profound rhythm.
…Enough. No need for words.
Translation by Michał Kubicki
[with grateful acknowledgements to Adrian Thomas’s writings on Górecki]
1. Adrian Thomas Górecki (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997; Polish edition by PWM, 1998)
2. Julian Tuwim Collected Works, Vol.1 Poems (Czytelnik 1986)