• (2001) Górecki: Salve, sidus Polonorum

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Salve, sidus Polonorum
programme note written for BBC Symphony Chorus and ensemble, cond. Stephen Jackson
(UK premiere) BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 18 August 2001

1. Per merita sancti Adalberti
2. Święty Wojciechu Patronie nasz drogi
3. Salve, sidus Polonorum

Since the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) thrust Górecki into the public limelight in the early 1990s, very little has been heard from this prominent Polish composer.  His last major work was Little Requiem for a Polka (1993).  Since that time, Górecki has travelled widely for the first time and has been guarding his compositional output more carefully than hitherto; among works which are awaiting his final approval is a third string quartet for Kronos.  He has also been working on a large-scale oratorio on St. Wojciech, and it is from this work that this evening’s ‘cantata’ (1997-2000) has been extracted.

Górecki has had a lifelong fascination with choral music and with the musical traditions of the Polish catholic church in particular.  Several works draw on and move beyond these traditions: Euntes ibant et flebant (1972), Amen (1975), and Totus Tuus (1987).  Górecki has also made idiomatic arrangements of Polish folksongs and versions of over twenty Church Songs (1986), few of which have been released for performance.  All these pieces for unaccompanied choir rely on an uncomplicated modal or diatonic language and on extensive phrase repetitions, features which Górecki has also drawn directly from old Polish music.

Salve, sidus Polonorum is written for large choir and small instrumental ensemble.  It is his second vocal-instrumental work to celebrate a Polish patron saint:  the first, Beatus vir (1979), marked the 900th anniversary of the assassination of Bishop Stanislaus in 1079.  Salve, sidus Polonorum commemorates the 1000th anniversary of the death of Bishop Wojciech, who was murdered in 997.  Alternatively known as St. Adalbert, St. Wojciech is also the patron saint of Bohemia.  Bishop Wojciech’s life in Prague, Magdeburg, Rome, Gniezno and elsewhere in Europe has long been recognised as symbolising the potential for unity and friendship between nations.  Indeed, Salve, sidus Polonorum was originally intended to mark a meeting at Gniezno between Pope John Paul II and the presidents of Poland and Germany.

It draws together many strands of Górecki’s personal and compositional philosophy, ranging from the reflective to the joyous.  The outer movements, for example, reinforce his obsession with old Polish music by using texts and melodies from two 15th-century chants linked to St. Wojciech.  The first is an extended meditation on the melody of an ‘antyphona ad Magnificat’, while the third has a looser connection to its source, taking just the opening eight-note phrase as the starting point for a rumbustiously simple ‘Alleluja’.  The large chorus, the use of percussion and the patient musical evolution are also characteristic, as are the occasional moments of dissonance and surprise.

Salve, sidus Polonorum was premiered in the presence of the composer and the Polish Prime Minister in the Gartenkirche, Hanover, on 21 June 2000, as part of the Polish Day at Expo 2000.  It was performed by the Choir and Ensemble from the Warsaw Philharmonic, conducted by Henryk Wojnarowski.

© 2001 Adrian Thomas


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