• Song of Joy and Rhythm

A text message came through from Anna Górecka, at 08.24 on this day last year, to say that her father had died earlier that morning.  She was away on tour and went on to fulfil her commitment to perform Górecki’s Piano Concerto that evening in Szczecin.  Her husband left me a voice message.  Although I knew that Henryk Górecki was dying, it was still a shock.  The rest of the day was a blur.  I phoned his publishers in London, but the news was not yet public knowledge even in Poland.  At 10.30, a friend in Warsaw, whom I’d alerted as soon as I had heard, phoned to let me know that Górecki’s death had just been announced.

The phone rang off the hook: advice for a researcher on R4’s PM programme, an interview for the World Service’s The Strand, a live interview on R3’s In Tune, a call from R4’s Front Row and an unfulfilled promise “We’ll phone back”, an interview down the line to a live Polish TV tribute, plus writing a short appreciation for The Guardian.  The last was difficult to do.

Amidst this, I had a visitation at 10.20 from a blue tit, which flew in unannounced through a narrowly open window, stood immobile on the floor for a while, eyeing me keenly, before eventually finding its way back outside and to freedom.  I’m not given to fanciful symbolism, but even I found myself seeing a message in the bird’s arrival and departure.  They say that it’s good to open a window after a death to let the spirit free.

When I was writing on Górecki in the early 1990s, I came across the poem which inspired the title of his extrovert Pieśni o radości i rytmie (Songs of Joy and Rhythm, 1956/60).  This early work bears all the hallmarks of Górecki’s contrasting musical and personal temperaments.  The heart of the work is the contemplative third movement.  It is arguably here that Górecki principally evokes the wonderment of the poem from which he borrowed his title.

Pieśń o radości i rytmie was written by one of Poland’s best-known poets of the twentieth-century, Julian Tuwim (1894-1953).  Many Polish composers have set Tuwim’s verse, including Szymanowski and Lutosławski.  Górecki was particularly attached to Tuwim’s poetry, setting it in his early student days (3 Songs, 1956) and again for his five-year-old daughter (2 Little Songs, 1972).  His most striking setting, in a terse Webernian style, was in Epitafium (1958), for SATB choir, piccolo, D trumpet, five percussionists and viola.  The text is Tuwim’s last poetic fragment, written on a serviette in a coffee shop just an hour before his death.  Its enigmatic message – ‘… for the sake of economy put out the light eternal, if it were ever to shine for me’ – is evocatively captured by Górecki’s exploratory score.

A year ago today, I looked out Tuwim’s (singular) poem and read it several times, mainly because it immediately recalled Górecki’s boundless energy and the inner peace which he sought during his often difficult life.  So I offer it here, in my own raw translation, as a tribute to a composer and a man for whom I had enormous respect and affection and who miraculously returned the favour.   

Pieśń o radości i rytmie (Song of Joy and Rhythm)
from Chyhanie na Bogu (Lying in Wait for God, 1918)

The stars twinkled in the sky.
In space – billions of universes.

Resting my forehead in my hand and thinking.
I do not dream.
A big Reality has awoken me,
A truth that strikes the eye,
The truth that is being, visible, unique,

I – under this huge starry dome,
I – perceiving its entirety with my brain,
I relish it, I become one with myself
And slowly – inside – I am restored to myself:
To profound joy and perfect rhythm.

All my thoughts, words and deeds
Were only bringing me closer
To universal embrace:
Here I am resting joyfully in myself
Wrapped in deep silence on all sides
And my heart beats in the rhythm of
Everything that surrounds me.
Enough.  No need for words.

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