• Górecki – An Appreciation (2010)

Górecki – An Appreciation

This brief appreciation was first published in Tygodnik Powszechny (16 November 2010, in a Polish translation) and in The Guardian (25 November 2010).  It was reprinted, in English, in PWM’s Quarta 4/11 (April 2011), 8.


with Górecki in Zakopane, 14 January 2008, when an Honorary Fellowship was conferred on him by Cardiff University

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

b. 6 December 1933, Czernica, Poland
d. 12 November 2010, Katowice, Poland

My introduction to the music of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki came on a Polish LP of his music that included the orchestral Scontri (Collisions, 1960) and Refren (Refrain, 1965).  The strength and originality of his musical character were immediately apparent.  Scontri was a storm of lightning and thunder, vast as well as intimate, totally unpredictable in its trajectory.  Refren was the opposite: still full of contrast, but this aspect was marshalled into long sections searching for a serenity while not denying the volcanic temperament at its heart.

Refren was unlike any piece of its time.  So too was the now-famous Third Symphony (1976), where Górecki’s search for the transcendent achieved probably its most perfect expression.  This masterpiece continues to weather all sorts of external storms and misinterpretations inflicted upon it by radio, television and film.

It is this searching for peace and resolution that characterises Górecki’s music.  He became extremely attached to uplifting, quiet codas, sometimes using existing pieces of Polish music to achieve this.  In his last major works, such as the Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (1993) and the three string quartets, the troubled undercurrents of his creative world became more apparent, even to the extent where he introduced comic or clownish musical idioms as stark contrasts to the plangent semitones elsewhere.  I recall vividly the rapt and emotional attention paid by the audience to the premiere of the Third Quartet (1995/2005) by the Kronos Quartet in Bielsko-Biała, near Katowice, in 2005.  Here, all was laid bare, his questing for resolution ultimately denied as the music stuttered, recalled its past and accepted its future.

If this sounds heavy going, it was not meant to be, because Górecki the man – as strong and original as his music – was a life-force who galvanised all those around him.  He was intensely private, sometimes impossible, with moods as mercurial as Scontri and opinions to match.  He had a strong belief in family, a great sense of humour, a physical courage in the face of unrelenting illness, and a capacity for firm friendship.

I first met him in 1972, when he took me to meet his own teacher, Bolesław Szabelski.  In 1984 I met him again, to ask him about what I had taken to be a quotation of the opening of Chopin’s Mazurka op.17 no.4 at the start of the Third Symphony’s finale.  “Geniusz!  Geniusz!” he cried.  No-one appeared to have spotted this before.  But, he parried, had I spotted the Beethoven quote?  No, I sheepishly admitted.  For, a few bars later, he references the climax of of the development of the first movement of Beethoven’s own Third Symphony.  He laughed, and later often teased and tested me, not least by switching into Silesian or mountain dialect, knowing full well that I would not understand.

When I was preparing my book on him in the Oxford Studies series (1997), he dug out unpublished pieces and vigorously recreated them for me on his studio piano.  He guarded his compositional workshop zealously, so that when I asked him if I could look at his sketchbooks, he refused point blank.  Yet a couple of evenings later he relented, allowing me to choose just one, although I had to return it at breakfast the next day.  His wife Jadwiga wondered why my light was on all night.

My most abiding memory of him was being with him in the Tatra mountains.  There he was in his element, hiking and talking to craftsmen and farmers.  It seemed to me that he, like Karol Szymanowski before him, was never happier than in the company of Tatra musicians, from the highland people known as górale, occasionally joining in on the fiddle.  With his wife, he passed on a boundless enthusiasm for music to their children, Anna and Mikołaj, and six grandchildren, of whom he was justly proud.

© 2010 Adrian Thomas

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