• Górecki: Miserere (Nonesuch, 1994)

Górecki: Miserere
Nonesuch 79348 (1994)
Chicago Symphony Chorus and Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus, cond. John Nelson †
Lira Chamber Chorus, Lucy Ding *

• Miserere (1981) †
• Amen (1975) †
• Euntes ibant et flebant (1972) †
• Wisło moja, Wisło szara (1981) *
• Szeroka woda (1979) *


Almost half of Górecki’s music involves the voice.  From the affecting Three Songs (1956) to Good Night (1990), he has written works for solo voice and piano or instrumental ensemble as well as the three magnificent compositions of the 1970s: Symphony no.2 ‘Copernican’ (1972), Symphony no.3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976) and Beatus Vir (1979).  Several of these works also involved the choir, which in its unaccompanied form is probably Górecki’s favourite medium.  Since the composition of Euntes ibant et flebant (1972) and Amen (1975), he has written another dozen works for a cappella choir, some of a sacred nature, some based on Polish folk songs.  A few of these pieces have found their way onto concert programmes and CDs, but this collection is the first to give a glimpse of the breadth of Górecki’s interest in choral music.  It is dominated by his major large-scale composition of the 1980s.


The circumstances which precipitated the composition of Miserere are unusual in Górecki’s output in that they were of an overtly political nature.  On 19 March, 1981, following a sit-in at the headquarters of the United Peasant Party in Bydgoszcz by members of Rural Solidarity, some 200 members of the militia burst in on the demonstrators.  In the ensuing violence, when the protestors were forced to run the ‘path of health’ of militia batons, over 20 union members were injured, several of them very seriously.  Pictures of this provocative incident were soon seen all over Poland, unrest spread to the nearby towns of Toruń and Wrocławek and suddenly there was a dangerous national crisis.  The world looked on with grave concern, surpassed only by the imposition of the ‘state of war’ by General Jaruzelski nine months later.

Górecki’s response was immediate.  With a text of only five words – ‘Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis’ (Lord our God, have mercy on us) – and a simple dedication to Bydgoszcz, Górecki wrote his major work for unaccompanied chorus as his personal protest at this act of violence.  With heavy governmental restrictions in force after 13 December 1981, no performance of Miserere was possible or planned.  In the spring of 1987, Górecki worked again on the piece in preparation for the premiere, which was given later that year on 10 September in Włocławek and a day later in Bydgoszcz itself.

Górecki’s ground plan for the piece is daringly and characteristically blunt.  The words ‘Miserere nobis’ are saved until the final three minutes, a masterstroke of touching simplicity.  Miserere comes to rest on a chord of A minor, the root of the entire piece and a unifying harmonic device that is a familiar feature of Górecki’s music.  In this instance, the subtleties of the opening are contained in a new and contrapuntal approach to animating this underlying harmonic idea.  The eight parts enter in turn, from the bass upwards, over an extraordinarily sustained span of some 28 minutes.  Górecki gives a different melody to each of the eight voices as it enters.  But they are unified by a background chord built up in thirds from the second basses’ first A natural: each subsequent voice is centred on the next note in this arpeggio of thirds (A-C-E-G-B-D-F-A) until the note A is reached again with the entry of the first sopranos.

This architectural procedure is very close to the canon at the beginning of Górecki’s Third Symphony, except that the time-scale is three times magnified.  The significant difference here, however, is that each voice starts off with its own melodic identity.  This gave Górecki some considerable compositional headaches along the way, but he was insistent that this was a crucial part of the musical and symbolic design.  He does not stick rigidly to one reiterated melodic line for each voice but moulds the lower voices to each new upper voice as the musical need arises.  This flexibility pays many expressive dividends.  The second basses (first entry) start off with a line very closely related in contour and intervals to the choral works of the 1970s and, like many of the subsequent entries, their line is marked ‘Błagalnie’ (‘imploringly’).  The second tenors (third entry) open up the intervals and the melodic range, while the two alto entries (marked respectively ‘imploringly – tenderly’ and ‘imploringly – somewhat plaintively’) are more melodically restricted.  The main entry of the second sopranos is the occasion for a glorious change in sonority.

With the entry of the first sopranos, Górecki picks up the pace and dynamics.  He then briefly meditates in a simple four-part texture ‘dolcissimo cantabilissimo i bardzo czule’ (and very tenderly)’ before striding forward to the dynamic climax of the piece, where the choir sings in ten parts.  Another composer might have been tempted to change harmony at this point, to emphasise what seems to be the culmination.  But the resolution of the cumulative tension built up over the previous half hour is saved for the final supplication ‘Miserere nobis’.  It is a moving moment.  Miserere demands concentration and thoughtful consideration, and it is a heartfelt plea for peace and understanding from a composer who believes in the values of personal individuality and compassionate responsibility.

Euntes ibant et flebant

Górecki’s first unaccompanied choral work was Euntes ibant et flebant.  Much if it is typical of Górecki: its slow tempo, sustained textures and modality.  But it also has several features that relate more specifically to the two symphonies which surround it: texts from Górecki’s beloved Book of Psalms – he had used psalm verses in his previous work, the Second Symphony – and an anticipation of the first movement of the Third Symphony in the pervasive reiteration of a melodic fragment (on the notes D-E-F-).  The melodic line has what may be described as its own harmonic halo, giving it a magically disembodied presence, as if creating a chant in a church acoustic.

The single-minded concentration on D-E-F leads to a section where chanting proper (most unusual in Górecki’s music) is sung by the basses against a resonant choral backdrop.  Curiously, Górecki interrupts the flow of Psalm 126 at this point to interpolate a verse from Psalm 95, putting this passage of near-monastic chant as if in parentheses.  And yet it remains an integral part of the musical flow as Górecki returns to the opening motif and texture in a newly strengthened version.  There follows an harmonic shift onto the chord of B flat, against which the motif’s E natural acquires a folk-like colouring as a sharpened 4th.  Górecki now returns to the remaining text of the sixth verse of Psalm 126 (‘mittentes semina sua …’).  The conclusion of Euntes ibant et flebant has a few surprises too, including small but significant inflections such as a solitary E flat in the melodic line.  The juxtaposition of weeping and adoration which Górecki has fashioned out of these two psalm fragments is encapsulated by the very closing bars: a shaft of sunlight on there chords of D major, a brief recall of B flat, and a final resting point in the modality with which the work began.


Górecki has commented that he likes short texts.   And Amen, with its total absorption in just the one word of its title, is the shortest text that Górecki has ever used.  The slowly unfurling melodic line again looks forward to the first movement of the Third Symphony, but its initial harmonic underpinning is distinguished by contrary motion, like slow breathing.  Parallel motion takes over as the music moves inexorably towards its climactic A major chord.  There is, as so often in Górecki’s music, a moment of quiet reflection at the end.

Szeroka woda and Wisło moja, Wisła szara

In 1979, Górecki turned directly for the first time to songs known by generations of Poles.  Szeroka woda (Broad Waters) ushered in a decade of works for unaccompanied chorus which number over 40 individual church and folk songs, most of them still unpublished and unperformed.

Broad Waters is a collection of five folk songs whose traditional words and melodies are drawn from two illustrated story books for children.  Górecki’s selection emphasises the fascination of streams and rivers – the flooding Narew and Vistula rivers in the first two songs, a garland of field roses cast on the waters in the fourth, a brief ode to the Vistula in the final song.  The only watery element in the central folk song is dew!  The Vistula also appears in the familiar folk song Wisło moja, Wisło szara (My Vistula, Grey Vistula).

Górecki’s approach in his settings is always of the utmost subtlety.  He gives an almost imperceptible new aura to the tunes – nothing elaborate, nothing that could take away from the charm and delicacy of the originals.

© 1994 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

2 Responses to • Górecki: Miserere (Nonesuch, 1994)

  1. Pingback: MISSCHIEN (Se Non è Vero, è Ben Trovato)(video-installation)2013 | wilfriedpulinckx

    • An interesting idea! And some intriguing videos elsewhere on your site.

      The second sentence is definitely mine from the Nonesuch CD of 1994, but I can’t work out where the first sentence comes from. It doesn’t feel like mine (I’d have written – I hope! – ‘is comprised of only five’). So could you somehow – by layout space-bar separation perhaps and having the first sentence non-italicised – make it clear that only the second sentence is by me?

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