• (2011) Górecki: a cappella choral music

Górecki: a cappella choral music
programme note written for
Polish Radio Choir, cond. Artur Siędzielarz
Durham Cathedral, King’s Place (London), St George’s (Bristol)
and St George’s Hall Concert Room (Liverpool), 5-8 November 2011

On 28 February 1995, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C..  Typically tongue-tied on such occasions, Górecki selected the words of another instead.  On this occasion, he reached for fragments of a homily delivered by Pope John-Paul II during a Mass for Artists in Brussels on 20 May 1985:

Each authentic work of art interprets the reality beyond sensory perception.  It is born of silence, admiration, or the protest of an honest heart.  It tries to bring closer the mystery of reality.  So what constitutes the essence of art is found deep within each person.  It is there where the aspiration to give meaning to one’s life is accompanied by the fleeting sense of beauty and the mysterious unison of things.  Authentic and humble artists are perfectly well aware, no matter what kind of beauty characterises their handiwork, that their paintings, sculptures or creations are nothing else but the reflection of God’s Beauty.  No matter how strong the charm of their music and words, they know that their works are only a distant echo of God’s Word.

Górecki added: “Those words are perfect: you can neither add to them nor take anything away.  Just think deeply about the sense of those words.”

Totus Tuus

Totus Tuus (1987) takes its inspiration from Polish religious traditions and was composed in honour of the Pope’s third pilgrimage to his native country in July 1987.  (Górecki had similarly completed Beatus Vir for the Pope’s first return to Poland, in 1979.)

What may take a Western listener by surprise in Totus Tuus is its unabashed simplicity and its undisguised roots in Polish Catholic chant.  Indeed, one might question whether it should ever be performed outside what would appear to be its natural habitat of the church (a parallel might be drawn here to Stravinsky’s short choral pieces such as Pater Noster and Ave Maria).  Yet its language, its slow repeated phrases and its bipartite structure, in which the second part is a varied version of the first, all are recognisable from Górecki’s concert music.  While placing his faith in the strength of the unadorned triad, the composer still challenges expectations of musical content and articulation.  But the, this is generally true of Górecki’s music since the 1980s: it prefers a steady rock to shifting sands.

Five Kurpian Songs

1.  Hej, z góry, z góry!  (Hey, down the hill, down the hill!)
2.  Ciemna nocka, ciemna  (Dark is the night, how dark)
3.  Wcoraj, dziwcyno, nie dzisiaj  (Yesterday, my girl, not today)
4.  Z Torunia ja parobecek  (I am a farm-hand from Toruń)
5.  Wysła burzycka, bandzie desc  (The storm is coming, it will rain)

In 1928, a Polish priest, Władysław Skierkowski, published a volume of music that was to inspire a number of Polish composers.  His Kurpian Forest in Song was immediately raided by Karol Szymanowski for his Six Songs from Kurpie (1929) and three-quarters of a century later górecki followed his example.  His Five Kurpian Songs is part of a long list of folksong realisations that began with Broad Waters (1979).

It is striking that the majority of Górecki’s folksong settings inhabit the same reflective, even reverential mood as his more overtly sacred choral choral music.  For him, these two strands were inextricable.  It is also true that this feature is particularly marked in Five Kurpian Songs (2003), which sound like church hymns.  The melody is normally given to the sopranos, the other parts providing support, often with telling little harmonic dissonances.  Górecki arrived at such textures by testing his material over and over at the keyboard.

The text of the first song might suggest a galloping pace, yet it is marked Largo, as is no.2, a love song in which the singer will wake his beloved with beautiful words if she’s asleep in the dark night.  No.4, continuing the theme of courtship and flirtation of its predecessors, is more bucolic in tone, yet marked Lento moderato.  The surprises come in no.5, which changes topic to that of a conversation with a bird caught in the rain.  Partway through, the sopranos intone an upper pedal-note under which the altos sing the melody.  This hypnotic music gives way to a return of the opening setting before it opens out in an unexpected and magical way.

Three Lullabies

1.  Uśnijże mi, uśnij  (Go to sleep, go to sleep)
2.  Kołyszże się kołysz  (Rock, rock)
3.  Nie piej, kurku, nie piej  (Don’t crow, cock, don’t crow)

The lullaby has been at the core of Górecki’s musical personality since his student days.  This often reveals itself in song texts and/or the rocking motion between two alternating notes or chords, as heard in Five Kurpian Songs.  This ‘to and fro’ may have had a symbolic or a more fundamental meaning for Górecki, but its musical origins lie in the Polish vernacular traditions.

The first lullaby of the three (which date from 2004), which Górecki found along with the third in a collection, There goes the Imp across the Walls, made by Hanna Kostyrko in 1958, follows the hymnic route.  So too does the central lullaby, whose text comes from a volume of songs from Mazowsze, in Oskar Kolberg’s nineteenth-century collection.  The third lullaby is something of a rarity in Górecki’s songs.  Its melody is sung like that of a chorale, with a faster patter in the lower parts.  It reverts to the hymnic style for the conclusion.

Song of the Katyń Families

Song of the Katyń Families (2004) relates closely to the hymnic qualities of Totus Tuus and other intervening choral works, although it is one of Górecki’s simplest settings.  Its subject matter is more overtly patriotic, even political with a small ‘p’, than his other pieces, with the exception of the large-scale Miserere (1981) which commemorates the victims of a vicious militia action against the Solidarity trades union.

The story of the cold-blooded massacre of thousands of Polish army officers in the Soviet forest near Katyń in 1940 was for decades a matter which could not be discussed openly in Poland.  The USSR accused the Nazis of the atrocities and, although everyone knew that the Soviets were culpable, the Polish authorities, from the end of World War II until the re-establishment of democracy over four decades later, toed the Soviet line.  Nevertheless, shrines to the victims would spring up in cemeteries, especially during the early 1980s, only to be torn down by the authorities.

Katyń has been the subject of a number of Polish compositions, notably Katyń Epitaph (1967) by Andrzej Panufnik and the ‘Libera Me’ (1984) in the Polish Requiem by Krzysztof Penderecki.  Górecki’s Song is comparatively modest and takes as its text a poem by Tadeusz Lutoborski.  The poet starts with the opening words of the Polish national anthem, but then turns them deftly towards Katyń: ‘Poland has not yet perished as long as Katyń lives’.  Lutoborski exhorts Poles to remember the fate of their fathers in their hearts, strengthened by the enriching love of the ‘Polish Holy Father’.  At this point, the music rises fro its low register and minor modality for the only time, bringing a clear ray of warmth as the harmony shifts into brighter realms before coming to rest on a consonant E flat major chord.  At the very end, Górecki recapitulates the words from the Polish national anthem.

Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit (1988) is one of Górecki’s most luminous scores, sometimes dividing into seven parts.  Its amalgam of chant-like utterance and harmonic shifts underlines his deep sense of connection with Szymanowski, especially with the latter’s Stabat Mater (1926).  The rich dominant ninth chord, which is sparingly used to great effect here and had appeared in his first overtly religious piece, Ad Matrem (1971), has been exploited in choral sonorities by other composers, such as Sibelius (Rakastava, 1894) and Stockhausen (Stimmung, 1968).

The reiteration of the additional words ‘Amen, Alleluja’ in the coda reflects Górecki’s admiration for the poet Jan Kasprowicz (1860-1926), one of whose final poems (Lord Jesus is risen from the dead) is an Easter hymn whose verses each end with ‘Aleluję’.  There are, in fact, facets of character, temperament, and background in and love of Poland’s Tatra mountain region which unite the composer and the poet.  As Czesław Miłosz wrote of Kasprowicz:

If the term ‘expressionism’ has any meaning it can designate a will to find artistic means for violent emotions, and in this sense Kasprowicz’s hymns could be called expressionistic.  At the same time, they are rooted in a typically Polish, religious, peasant sensibility.

 The same holds true for Górecki, even when he is at his most prayerful.


Amen is the earliest piece in this programme – it was composed in 1975, just as Górecki was getting into his stride as a composer of reflective vocal works (the Third Symphony followed just a year later).  The text is distinguished by its use of just a single word, ‘Amen’.  It begins very gently in a distinctly modal style.  Long, meandering phrases build up both in volume and in the thickness of their texture and the intensity of their discords.  A mighty climax is reached when the piece lands firmly in A major.  This key is maintained until just before the end, when a short coda reminds us of the modal beginning.

© 2011 Adrian Thomas


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