• A Conversation with Henryk Górecki

Exactly one year ago I flew to Poland for what turned out to be my last meetings with Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.  When I had learned a few days earlier that he had been awarded Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, and that the presentation had taken place at his hospital bedside, I sensed that the end was near.  His fellow composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) had been honoured in the same way just before his death, although he was too ill to receive it in person.

Staying once again with members of Górecki’s family, I was taken on three occasions to see Henryk in his hospital on the outskirts of Katowice.  It is never easy to see a close friend in such circumstances, when their vivacity, robustness and combativeness have seemingly vanished.  He was able to communicate only through those still-penetrating eyes.  I showed him pictures of the moorland where I live and reminisced about the often hilarious holiday that I had with him and the family at Chochołów in the Tatra Mountains in August 1987 and about our many walks and talks together.  I recounted my recent visit to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, where the Royal Quartet from Poland had given an unforgettable account of his Third String Quartet ‘… songs are sung’ and where I’d been mesmerised by the pianism and imagination of the jazz interpretations by Leszek Możdżer.  Even though all he could do was to look me straight in the eye, as he always did, I knew that he’d been listening and had understood.  There were to be no more moments like this.  I wish now that I had had the forethought to bring along some poetry or other texts to read to him, just as depicted in the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I may yet write about the day of his death (12 November 2010) and his funeral five days later, but for now I’m going to fast-forward to 10 September 2011.  I’ve been rather tardy in writing about a touching and somewhat whimsical tribute that was paid to him on that day in Poland.

Photo by Karol Kusz

Between the ages of two and twenty two, before he went to study composition in Katowice, Górecki lived some 50km to the south west, in a small town called Rydułtowy. There he went to school and subsequently taught primary school children a range of subjects, including Polish history, maths, biology, natural history and art.  Earlier this year, the town recognised its most famous son by renaming the Public Library in his honour.  On 10 September, ceremonies were held to mark the occasion, including the customary speeches and musical performances.  Górecki’s widow, Jadwiga, unveiled a plaque inside the library and also unveiled a sculpture outside.  But this sculpture – or is it a statue, or perhaps an installation? – is not a run-of-the-mill representation of the composer, nor an abstract concept inspired by his music.  It’s more in the line of Maggi Hambling’s A Conversation with Oscar Wilde (1998), which has been placed in London at the bottom of the pedestrian Adelaide St, behind the church of St Martin’s in the Fields and close to Charing Cross station.

Whereas Hambling (left) gives passers-by the opportunity to sit on Wilde’s all-too-solid ‘coffin’ and have a face-to-face exchange of witty one-liners (or sit in the opposite direction and ignore him), Henryk Fojcik’s sculpture (above) encourages side-by-side contemplation.  Górecki sits on the right-hand side of a posher-than-normal park bench, a lamp-post placed centrally behind (plenty of openings here on a rainy day for Gene Kelly impersonators).  He’s reading what looks like a newspaper, although I never knew him as an avid reader of newsprint.

In the picture below, in which his widow Jadwiga was persuaded to sit next to him on the bench, it seems that Górecki is looking instead at a piece of music, even though it’s oversize and much bigger than his largest score, Scontri.  He wasn’t one for looking at his existing compositions, either.  He preferred to work on new pieces.  It’s a good likeness, however: the head and face are pretty faithful and characteristic (much more so than the relief image on the plaque inside the library) and his body posture is very well captured.  And there is something wonderfully relaxed, quietly alive and of good humour about Fojcik’s sculpture.  It invites participation and companionship.

For myself, I think a chance has been missed by having his eyes downcast.  How more engaging it would be if his head had been facing towards the other person on the bench, fixing him or her with his searching eyes as if to say: “What are you doing now? … Well, get up and do it!”.

Further information may be found online at

• < http://www.biblioteka.rydultowy.pl/archiwum.php?id=263> – a report by the Rydułtowy Public Library of the event on 10 September 2011, with 27 photographs.

• < http://www.telewizjatvt.pl/raport/2011-09-13/5103> – a short news video by the local television station of the events on 10 September 2011.

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