• Górecki: String Quartet no.3 (Nonesuch, 2007)


Henryk Górecki: String Quartet no.3 ‘… songs are sung’
Nonesuch 79993 (2007)
Kronos Quartet

• String Quartet no.3 ‘… songs are sung’ (1995/2005)



The Kronos Quartet has played an enormous part in the promotion and dissemination of the music of the Polish composer, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.  It commissioned and premiered his first two quartets – No.1 ‘Already it is Dusk’ op.62 (1989) and No.2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’, op.64 (1991) – and asked Górecki for a third.  He composed the new quartet methodically and rapidly, finishing it in January 1995, but no one could have foreseen that it would be over ten years before he delivered the new score.  The dedication reads: ‘To the KRONOS Quartet, which has waited patiently for this quartet for so many years (May, 2005)’.

In a commentary attached to the end of the manuscript, Górecki confesses: ‘Only now, in 2005, have I amended it here and there and written it out neatly.  In the intervening years there were several dates set for the work’s premiere by the KRONOS Quartet, who also commissioned this quartet—but I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world.  I don’t know why’.  The world premiere was given by Kronos in Bielsko-Biała in southern Poland on 15 October 2005.

Speculating on reasons for this delay is an idle task.  It cannot pass unnoticed, however, that Górecki’s output has been fairly lean since the phenomenal world-wide success of Elektra-Nonesuch’s recording of the Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, in 1992-93 (with Dawn Upshaw, the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman). Indeed, apart from some relatively small-scale choral music, there has been nothing of instrumental substance since Little Requiem (1993).  The Third Quartet therefore occupies a key position in understanding the composer’s perception of his creative path.

String Quartet no.3

Like its predecessors, the Third Quartet has a subtitle.  On this occasion, and reinforcing Górecki’s longstanding fascination with ‘song’ in instrumental works as varied as Songs of Joy and Rhythm (1956/60), Genesis II: Canti strumentali (1962) and Lerchenmusik: Recitatives and Ariosos (1986), his eye was caught by the last words of a Polish translation of a four-line poem by the Russian writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922).  The customary English translation reads:

When horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

According to his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, Górecki preferred the sense of a more oblique translation of the final phrase, ‘When people die, songs are sung’.  In any case, Górecki is insistent that ‘… songs are sung’ is in no way a musical interpretation of any of Khlebnikov’s poem and that the verse’s last line was just an inspirational starting point.

The lyricism underlying much of Górecki’s output is foregrounded in the Third Quartet.  The slowly rocking melodic ideas and accompanying harmonies at the opening are a familiar trait – from his earliest works, Górecki has been fond of what might be termed his ‘lullaby’ idiom and it forms an integral strand again in this quartet.  The combination of keening dissonance (often based on pairs of minor thirds that are a major seventh or minor ninth apart) and gentle but pervasive melancholy gives the work its essential character, whether or not this is derived from Khlebnikov’s poem.  The opening movement also displays Górecki’s fondness for repeating phrases or larger subsections to create his musical architecture.  After ratchetting up the tension (partly through shifting metric accents), Górecki briefly recalls the opening idea (a low Eb-Gb minor third) before coming to an uneasy rest.

One of fascinating aspects of Górecki’s language is his ability to embrace expressive dissonance and, as at the start of the second movement, more familiar triadic sequences (the Second Quartet has notable instances of this).  The movement begins with a chord sequence – C minor, Ab and an augmented triad (all with C natural in the bass) – and the augmented chord underpins much of what follows.  The melodic interest lies in a slowly flowering idea in thirds, elements of which reappear later in the quartet.  The central portion of the movement, which comes quite late in the structure, clarifies the folk origins of the material, with its shift to a D major tonality, open tonic and subdominant fifths in the bass, and a subsequent tartness in the melodic-harmonic language that is reminiscent of the folk traditions to be heard in the traditional Podhalian music of Górecki’s (and Szymanowski’s) beloved Tatra mountains.  As the end of the movement approaches, Górecki reverts to musing on diatonic harmonies, moving from C minor to G and finally to Eb major.

Górecki began the composition of the third movement on his 61st birthday, St Nicholas’s Day (6 December, 1994), a feast-day in Poland when children are treated to presents and special activities.  Whether that explains its faster tempo and more joyous mood is hard to say.  The third movement is certainly striking in being the only fast movement out of the five, although it counts for less than 10% of the work’s duration.  Furthermore, its first two themes are evidently related thematically to early ideas in the two previous movements, and this quasi-symphonic integration proves to be a crucial element as the following movements unfold.  The solemn idea in thirds from the second movement, for example, is translated here into a lilting, dance-like theme.  At its climax, the music pauses momentarily then plunges into one of those resonant chordal sequences that characterise Górecki’s music of the 1980s and 90s.  If that was not unexpected in itself, what follows is a further surprise, at the same time evincing another Góreckian trait, that of iconic citation.  In this instance, it is the direct quotation, albeit in a different tempo and expressive shading, of fig.2 from the first movement of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet (1927).  Here, instead of being limpid and dolcissimo, it is forthright and molto espressivo e ben tenuto.  It vanishes immediately, like a brief and sudden recollection that has intruded and been dismissed.  Its effect may be judged, however, by the way in which the return to the earlier themes of the movement becomes increasingly halting and the attempts of the lilting thirds to re-establish their dance-like idea become progressively hesitant.  The movement falters and peters out and its closing cadence barely registers.

The final two movements, both of them slow, gradually bring the ideas and expressive world of the quartet to a closure.  The fourth movement initially seems intent on an unexpected reprise of the espressivo e ben tenuto idea, including the Szymanowski quote, from the middle of the preceding movement, followed by a minore version of the ‘thirds’ motif.  It abandons this in favour of a new idea introduced by repeated G major chords.  The apparent disjunction between violins in thirds harmonically at odds with viola and cello in triadic formation returns to one of Górecki’s favourite expressive devices.  This extensive section has the unusual marking Tranquillo-Dolce-Cantabile-MORBIDO.  Eventually, the music resolves onto a plagal cadence, Bb – F major.

The finale, too, recalls earlier movements and like the fourth seems intent on finding comfort from inner turmoil in triadic consonance.  It begins, however, with a melodically wide-ranging incipit for solo cello.  The whole quartet responds with a subdued quasi-chorale of alternating chordal patterns based on minor thirds, as if trying to gather together the essence of what has gone before.  It also produces another chordal sequence, this time almost Debussyian in its modal-tonal added chords, before again alighting on an Eb triad.  Górecki repeats this sequence of events (minus incipit) more extensively before edging his way back to a reprise of the Quartet’s opening idea.  At this moment, if not before, it becomes apparent that the ultimate destination of the Quartet’s initial Eb-Gb pairing is the resolution onto the concluding Eb triad, and that the intervening attempts at triadic closure have been staging posts along the way.

The Third Quartet as a whole seems preoccupied with the elusiveness of memory, with the mind’s ability to repeat ideas but to lose itself in them through that very repetition, through its periodic development and both exact and inexact recall.  On the one hand there is the iconic quotation from Szymanowski, which intensifies the qualities of memory and recall on an external level.   The Szymanowski citation apart, the striking features of the Third Quartet include its insistence on melodic thirds, both minor and major, chordal patterns with strong diatonic and sometimes cadential features, and keening dissonances between melody and harmony.  Górecki’s cradled harmonies and slow tempi are also foregrounded.  There are moments of genuine repose and resolution, of light illuminating the meditative introspection, but for the most part the work is characterised by an underlying restlessness.

At the premiere, the audience was rapt, the music seeming to provoke an uncommon sense of identity with its expressive world, taking the listeners beyond accounting for musical content.  It seemed to transport them onto a more metaphysical plane, recalling the transcendental qualities of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Lerchenmusik: Recitatives and Ariosos, the works to which, along with the first two string quartets, the Third Quartet is most closely drawn.

© 2007 Adrian Thomas


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