• Górecki: ‘On Reflection’ (Nonesuch, 2016)
This essay was written as a foreword to the 7-CD ‘Nonesuch Retrospective’ of Górecki’s music (January, 2016). Nonesuch included the notes from the original CD issues (including three of my own: String Quartet no.2, Miserere and String Quartet no.3), so on this celebratory occasion I was asked to present an overview. I have not concentrated solely on those works that have re-emerged from Nonesuch’s back catalogue (plus the new recording of Symphony no.4) but I have attempted to place this repertoire within the wider context of Górecki’s life and career.
The essay was republished on 8 March 2016 on the (largely Polish-language) resources site, meakultura.pl, alongside my Nonesuch video interview: http://www.meakultura.pl/aktualnosci/gorecki-on-reflection-blogosfera-1460
• CD 1: Lerchenmusik
• CD 2: Symphony no.3
• CD 3: String Quartet no.1; String Quartet no.2
• CD 4: Miserere; Amen; Euntes ibant et flebant; My Vistula, Grey Vistula; Broad Waters
• CD 5: Little Requiem; Harpsichord Concerto; Good Night
• CD 6: String Quartet no.3
• CD 7: Symphony no.4
When Henryk Mikołaj Górecki died in 2010, at the age of 76, he left a remarkable musical legacy. Even though he was never one to rush things, taking his time to work on each composition until he was sure that it was ready to be heard outside his own four walls, he completed over 80 works ranging from single songs to works for chamber, choral and orchestral forces. He knew, as did his publishers and his family, that there were unreleased compositions that were part-finished, some requiring only the dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s, some needing closer attention and completion. Few believed that anything would come of this treasure trove, yet he and his son Mikołaj – a composer in his own right – together brought the Fourth Symphony ‘Tansman Episodes’ (2006) to the ears of the public when it was premiered in London on 12 April 2014.
I had been privileged to see the score, write the programme note, attend rehearsals with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrey Boreyko and witness the standing ovation at the premiere in London’s Royal Festival Hall. The thoughts in my mind were no doubt shared by many others who were present: how would the new symphony compare not only with its famous predecessor, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, which had been premiered almost 40 years earlier, but also with the rest of Górecki’s output? For the first time, with the contents of this box set of his music, listeners will be able to make direct comparisons and draw perhaps new conclusions about Górecki’s compositional life and work.
The earliest work in this collection dates from 1972. At the time, Górecki was almost completely unknown outside Poland, and then only in concerts and festivals of new music. It had taken four years for the First Symphony ‘1959’ to be performed complete (Darmstadt, 1963) and eight years before Monologhi for soprano and three ensembles was heard (West Berlin, 1968). Matters began to improve when Refren (Refrain) for orchestra was premiered in the year of its composition (Geneva, 1965), and likewise Canticum graduum for orchestra (Düsseldorf, 1969).
Although most of Górecki’s music from before 1972 still has no widespread acceptance, it would be a grave mistake to ignore its significance. Works such as the orchestral Scontri (Collisions, 1960), Elementi for string trio (1962), Refren, the orchestral Muzyka staropolska (Old Polish Music, 1969) and Muzyczka IV (Little Music IV) for clarinet, trombone, cello and piano (1970) provide a vital context for his later, better-known works. They are more avant-garde, even shocking, but their uncompromising character is quintessentially Góreckian.
Górecki was a fighter throughout his life. He battled a succession of illnesses and health problems that would have felled a lesser man. He was an explorer into musical materials, examining them tirelessly until they matched his imagined sounds. He was a groundbreaker. His diaries and sketchbooks reveal his eye for detail, structures and patterns that sit cheek-by-jowl on the page with philosophical ideas on music. He maintained his passion for directness of expression and structural order for the rest of his life, regardless of changes in style and content.
A key turning point was the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972). It contrasts violent dissonance familiar from earlier works with the gentle modal harmony of future pieces and combines Polish history with a fragment of sacred Polish music. Above all, it highlights the importance of transcending the material world. This last element is perhaps the most telling, as it informs so much of the ensuing music that has now reached a worldwide audience. But make no mistake: the music from 1972 onwards was not intended to be an easy listen, no soft option. It maintains the composer’s determined, granitic character, demanding concentrated attention and aesthetic openness.
This is evident in the works that immediately followed the Second Symphony: the unaccompanied choral piece, Euntes ibant et flebant (1972), its unofficial companion, Amen (1975), and the Third Symphony (1976). The role of chant in shaping Euntes ibant et flebant was later transferred to non-choral works such as Lerchenmusik for clarinet, cello and piano (1984-6) and the string quartets. The meditative character was carried over into Amen, which has just the one-word title for its text. Together they formed an isolated tribute to the tradition of the Polish hymn, or ‘church song’, which went on to become central to Górecki’s composing in the mid-1980s.
Much has been written about the Third Symphony and its extraordinary impact on the musical worlds of the 1990s. It touched the zeitgeist of that decade. Yet it did not chime with the late 1970s, not least because it remained in obscurity outside Poland and would have continued to do so were it not for the advocacy of a few commentators, conductors, performers and promoters. It was a controversial piece: slow, consonant, reflective. Once again, Górecki was showing his avant-garde credentials, but in a new language and with a compositional craft that made it stand out from the crowd. There is the exquisite yet simple canonic texture of the opening movement, the harmonic motif of the second movement, and his typically iconic quotation of both Chopin and Beethoven in the finale. The symphony has an exceptional purity of intent and execution. Sadly, but inevitably, once the media appropriated it in the 1990s it became associated with tragedies and cruelties beyond the very specific focuses within the symphony. This was never Górecki’s purpose. It had nothing to do with Auschwitz or the holocaust, for example – that was never Górecki’s purpose and is a palimpsest imagined by others. Rather, the Third Symphony emphasised the emotional and philosophical issue of transcendence that was at the core of his being.
One might be forgiven, from these three works from the 1970s, for thinking that Górecki was all about sustained contemplation. Far from it. Much of his music from the 1950s and 1960s was aggressive and boisterous, as in the early instrumental work Songs of Joy and Rhythm (1956, rev. 1960). In 1980, he produced one of his shortest and liveliest compositions, the Harpsichord Concerto. Its two movements, lasting just nine minutes, are effervescent miniatures, perfectly contrasted (contrapuntal/chordal, minor/major), and they reveal an underrated aspect of his musical and individual personality. He was dynamic company, ready to laugh uproariously, argue fiercely, join in celebrations or stomp off. Within his family and close circle of friends and colleagues he was the life and soul of any gathering, but when he had serious work to do he was ruthless in his focus.
The object of his attention could be the choral arrangements of Polish folk songs close to his heart, as in Broad Waters (1979) and My Vistula, Grey Vistula (1981), where his deft retouches enhanced the originals. These he did essentially for his own pleasure. A different level of compulsion lay behind the choral work that he composed between these folk settings, Miserere (1981). Poland was in a state of insurrection, with the Solidarity trade union confronting the one-party system. There were ugly incidents, including the deaths of Solidarity activists at the hands of the state militia in the town of Bydgoszcz. Although Górecki was trenchantly anti-communist, he generally held back from entering the public arena. But such was his anger at the incident in Bydgoszcz that he rapidly completed a work that he had started a few weeks earlier and dedicated it to the town. Because of the imposition of martial law at the end of 1981, Miserere was not premiered for another six years. It is one of his most testing works, for the singers as well as the audience, because its sustained counterpoint and restricted modal palette require an inner strength on everyone’s part to match the seriousness of the subject of this lament. There is no showiness, no comforting reference to existing music, just a heartfelt, painful prayer.
The first half of the 1980s was also a period of seriously poor health for Górecki. In December 1983, he was restimulated by an unexpected request from Denmark for a piece of chamber music, a genre with which he had not engaged for many years. It took a number of revisions, but when Lerchenmusik emerged in its final form it revealed a new Górecki. Many of the components were familiar, but the tensile, developmental aspect of the work was new. It was as if he was engaging afresh with musical traditions that he held dear. Not for nothing is there a clear reference to Beethoven in the finale. A few years later, in the Second String Quartet ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (1991), there is a chordal sequence that he described as ‘Beethovenian’. In 1994 he underlined this link by telling me: “It is thanks to Beethoven that I was able to write these quartets”.
Lerchenmusik initiated a rich vein of chamber pieces, notably the three extant quartets. The First String Quartet ‘Already It Is Dusk’ (1988) combines a number of strands: a dissonant canon (the theme is the tenor line from a Polish Renaissance children’s prayer that he had used in two earlier pieces) is intercut with strident open fifths. These eventually erupt into the central allegro, which conjures up the wild folk music-making that Górecki knew from the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. There is balm in the concluding ‘ARMONIA’ section, although it is the rough and strange music before it that stays in the mind.
The Second String Quartet’s subtitle ‘Quasi una fantasia’ seems to doff its cap at Beethoven, and indeed it is more developed than the First. It also is more extreme in its contrasts and interlockings, not to mention the enigmatic allusion to the carol ‘Silent Night’ towards the end. Rather than fixing on a single expressive mode (slow in the Third Symphony, fast in the Harpsichord Concerto), Górecki was now creating more complex, quasi-symphonic narratives that in some cases made contact with classical precedents. The subdued was set against the exuberant, the anguished against the light-hearted. And yet, underneath the confident surface, darker currents usually ran. The circus music episodes in Concerto-Cantata for flute and orchestra (1992) and Little Requiem (1993) introduced the ambivalent figure of the clown. And the very title of Little Requiem – never properly explained by the composer – alongside its apparent reference to the motif of the ‘Dies Irae’, drew attention to this undercurrent.
Death was never far away from Górecki. From that of his mother when he was just two to his many brushes with mortality, he was all too aware of what lay ahead. Good Night (1990), composed between the first two string quartets, was a tribute to Michael Vyner, the manager of the London Sinfonietta who had promoted Górecki’s music the previous year. The third movement eloquently sets a few Shakespearean words from Horatio’s eulogy to Hamlet. Górecki also makes use here of a device that occurs in a few other pieces, including the Fourth Symphony. He devises a musical cipher from the letters of the dedicatee’s name. This procedure, not of itself musical, produces a thematic cell that parallels the function of the iconic quotation of pre-existing music that Górecki utilised over his career. For him, such elements had a profoundly devotional air.
The citation in the Third String Quartet ‘… songs are sung’ is from Karol Szymanowski, whose Stabat mater is referenced in both the Third and the Fourth Symphony. Górecki once commented: “Where Szymanowski went, I followed”. In the Third Quartet, the quote from Szymanowski’s Second String Quartet is so brief that it might pass unnoticed. More particularly, the funereal atmosphere of the brief text that inspired the quartet and of the intimations of mortality in much of the work is not balanced by the attempts at dance-like music in the third movement. The hesitant inability to sustain the momentum, combined with symphonic cross-references to earlier movements, speaks of uncertainty, even of fear. The fourth movement includes the unusual marking ‘MORBIDO’, while the finale seeks to find solace from the disruption. Górecki invites the listener to contemplate the nature of existence, and I remember the utterly rapt attention paid by the audience at the world premiere – in his presence – by the Kronos Quartet in Poland in 2005. If we, as listeners to these CDs, can enter such a world – ten years after that special evening and five years after the composer’s death – we will come close to appreciating what a distinctive, challenging and communicative legacy Górecki has bequeathed us.
© 2015 Adrian Thomas