• Górecki: Miserere (Decca, 2012)
Decca 478 3537 (2012)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, cond. Grant Gershon
• Lobgesang (2000)
• Miserere (1981)
• Five Marian Songs (Pieśni Maryjne) (1985)
The music performed at the funeral of the Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) included not only the Stabat Mater by his compatriot Karol Szymanowski but also part of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. This repertoire, combined with performances of Górecki’s own Beatus Vir (1979) and Amen (1975), was witness to the strength of Górecki’s belief in the transformative power of music, its ability to transcend the trials and tribulations of earthly life. The most striking evidence of this has been the worldwide impact, since the early 1990s, of his Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976).
The three works on this CD are also eloquent examples of this central thread in Górecki’s music. They date from between 1980 and 2000 and form part of a long line of choral works, many of them a cappella, which have their roots in Polish Catholic and folk traditions. As always, however, they have something unusual about their context or musical character that sets them apart from purely liturgical functions.
Miserere (1981) is a case in point. Górecki was so horrified by a brutal police beating of ordinary people in Bydgoszcz in northern Poland in March 1981 that he knew that he had to do something about it compositionally. The inscription on the score of Miserere reads ‘I dedicate this to Bydgoszcz’. The incident in the town involved members of the Rural Solidarity union at a time when tensions were rising between Solidarity and the communist government in Poland. Nine months later, the government imposed martial law, union members were imprisoned, and Górecki’s new work, completed in June that year, could not be performed. During the following years, a young Polish priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko, defied the government at huge masses in Warsaw. He was murdered by security forces in 1984. When the premiere of Górecki’s Miserere eventually took place on 10 September 1987, it was in the town of Włocławek, near where Popiełuszko’s body had been found three years earlier. By association, Miserere thus became a double tribute to the victims of state oppression.
Yet Górecki was never interested in recreating the violence or anguish of such events. His aim was to suggest a spiritual response that rises above the cruelty. Typically daring, he uses minimum means for maximum effect. There are only five words – ‘Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis’ (Lord our God, Have mercy on us) – and the last two are held in reserve until the last three minutes of the piece. The focus is on contemplation and pleading – Górecki uses the Polish word błagalnie (imploringly) – and the prayerful repetitions are akin to the use of the rosary.
The main body of the work, some 25 minutes long, consists of a very slow build-up of eight layers, starting in the lowest register with the basses and ending with the sopranos. Each of the eight lines has its own modal melody contained within a sonorous harmony structured as a ladder of thirds whose foundation is a low A natural. Any change in this texture is immediately telling, as when the basses eventually move down a third to a low F natural.
After the main dynamic climax is reached (here the choir sings in ten parts), the music refocuses and subsides. At this moment, Górecki introduces the last two words: ‘MISERERE NOBIS ‘ (the capital letters are his). The basses move down another third to a resonant D natural. This coda makes its point as the subtle resolution of a sustained and eloquent commemoration of the sacrifice of the few for the many.
Five Marian Songs
The Five Marian Songs (1985) are fine examples of a particular feature of Górecki’s choral interests in the mid-1980s. Suffering from ill-health, he turned to Polish folk song and church songs for inspiration and made many homophonic arrangements of his favourites. He treated the originals with a high degree of reverence (he habitually set them in the original key), harmonising them tenderly and with the occasional expressive dissonance. They were clearly a labour of love. The power of repetition is in evidence in the Marian Songs, as elsewhere, not only in the inherent versification of the text but also by design (such as the repetition of cadential phrases), to underline the supplicatory nature of the original hymns. The second song, Most Holy Mother, is substantially more developed than the other four, while the third, ‘Hail Mary!, was the first to be performed and recorded.
The small but beautifully formed Lobgesang (2000) stands a little apart from the a cappella works on this CD. Like the contemporary Salve, Sidus Polonorum (1997-2000), Lobgesang has an instrumental accompaniment. This, however, is used sparingly and, unsurprisingly, is saved for the end. The text for Lobgesang is typically concise and consists of little phrases from the Book of Psalms which Górecki put together. The piece begins robustly with old-style movement in parallel fifths, which may also connect to the folk influence in his string quartets of the 1980s and 1990s. Lobgesang is also a good example of Górecki’s developing taste from the early 1980s for interesting and unexpected chordal shifts.
The spur to write Lobgesang was not in itself sacred, even if Górecki’s chosen texts imply this. It was commissioned to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of the inventor of printing, Johannes Gutenberg, and the premiere took place in Mainz, Gutenberg’s birthplace, on 13 August 2000. In order to stamp the piece with something unique to Gutenberg, Górecki’s fashioned a theme of twelve notes from the letters of his name. This occurs just before the end, when it is played on the glockenspiel as the choir sustains an E major chord on the word ‘Ewig’ (Ever). In fact, Górecki made quite a number of similarly constructed tributes to individuals for whom he had high regard, be they living or dead. Some of these were private gifts to the dedicatees. This public example is one of the most magical and moving, not least because Górecki creates a dissonance between instrument and voices as if underlining the fractured relationship between life, mortality and commemoration.
© 2012 Adrian Thomas