• (2014) Górecki & Penderecki

Górecki and Penderecki
programme note and biographies written for
Polish Radio Choir
Edinburgh Festival
Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 18 August 2014

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010)
Totus Tuus op.60 (1987)

Totus Tuus takes its inspiration from Polish religious traditions and was composed in honour of the Pope John Paul II’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 a religious ceremony (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, are all recognisable from Górecki’s concert music.  While placing his faith in the strength of the unadorned triad, the composer challenged expectations of musical content and articulation.  But then this is generally true of Górecki’s music since the 1980s: it prefers a steady rock to shifting sands.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933)
Missa Brevis (1992-2012)

Penderecki has composed some of his pieces over a span of years, notably his Polish Requiem (1980-84, 1993, 2005).  The same is true of the six movements of the Missa Brevis, which was completed to mark the 800th anniversary of the Thomaskirche Thomanerchor in Leipzig.  The first movement to be composed, ‘Benedicamus Domino’ (1992), is for male voices alone, while the next two ‘Benedictus’ (2002) and ‘Sanctus’ (2008) are for female/treble voices.  The remaining three movements – ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ (2012) – are for full choir.

In contrast to the Polish Requiem, the Missa Brevis is contemplative and intimate, its tonal language direct and transparent in a manner that often recalls that of Renaissance settings.  Occasionally other ghosts flit across, like that of Sibelius in the ‘Sanctus’.  The earliest movement, ‘Benedicamus Domino’, stands out for its chant-like character and use of canonic counterpoint.  Penderecki said after the premiere in 2013 that the ‘Agnus Dei’ – the most overtly expressive movement – was probably the most beautiful of his compositions.

‘Agnus Dei’ from Polish Requiem (1981)

To date, Penderecki has composed three settings of the ‘Agnus Dei’.  Prior to 2012, he wrote one for a multi-composer Requiem of Conciliation (1995), gathered together by the conductor Helmuth Rilling in memory of the victims of World War Two.  Penderecki’s first setting of the ‘Agnus Dei’ (1981) is the only a cappella section from the Polish Requiem.  (It has since achieved widespread appreciation through its arrangements for string orchestra and string octet.)

This ‘Agnus Dei’ was composed overnight following the death of the Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and was first performed at his funeral two days later.  In its heartfelt utterance – more dissonant than the 2012 version yet illuminated by shafts of diatonic harmony – it spoke for all those for whom Wyszyński had been a beacon of faith and light in the dark days of post-war Poland.

Marian Songs op.54, nos 2 & 3 (1985): ‘Matko najświętsza!’ (Most Holy Mother!) & 
‘Zdrowaś bądź, Maryja’ (Hail, Mary)

The first series of sacred choral pieces that Górecki composed during his convalescence in the mid-1980s was a set of five Marian Songs.  He took both melodies and texts for four of them (including no.2, ‘Matko najświętsza!’) from his well-thumbed copy of Śpiewnik kościelny, a church hymnal compiled by Father Jan Siedlecki.  Górecki had already found one melody in the hymnal that he had used in the first movement of his Third Symphony, and in 1986 he set another twenty or so.

Górecki’s approach is reverential, retaining the originals and colouring them with a few select phrase-repeats and harmonic shifts.  He therefore maintains their simple supplicatory nature, and his general fondness for meditative repetition is given voice in the hymns’ verse structure.  The third in the set, ‘Zdrowaś bądź, Maryja’, is the best-known and has been recorded on a number of occasions.

O gloriosa Virginum (2009)

Like the Missa Brevis, this short hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary has a quasi-liturgical character and a musical idiom that has become almost a lingua franca for sacred music in the past twenty years or so.  This may be traced in part to the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, especially in the passing dissonances within an otherwise diatonic or modal framework.  O gloriosa Virginum opens with female voices, antiphonally answered by tenors and basses.  The full choir then gathers itself for the final declamation, ‘et almo Spiritu, in sempiterna saecula’.  The piece is dedicated to the founder of the Venezuelan music-education project ‘El Sistema’, Antonio Abreu, for his 70th birthday.



The Polish composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki were born within two weeks of each other in 1933: Penderecki in Dębica, 125km east of Kraków, on 23 November; Górecki in Czernica, 65km south-west of Katowice, on 6 December. Górecki died in Katowice on 12 November 2010. Their lives and careers therefore run in parallel through several turbulent periods in Polish history and chart significant milestones in the history of Polish music since 1950.

They both went through the traumas of the Second World War, were teenagers during the oppressive socialist-realist climate of early 1950s Poland, and studied composition in their nearest cities, Kraków and Katowice, in the mid-to-late 1950s.  Their emergence as fledged composers coincided with a sudden explosion of cultural freedom that brought Polish music to international attention.

In 1959, Penderecki won all three top prizes in a competition run by the Polish Composers’ Union and his sonoristic Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for strings (1960) made headlines across the world.  Górecki too was breaking new ground, as in his orchestral Scontri (Collisions, also 1960) and Genesis I: Elementi for string trio (1962), but he was less in the public eye than either Penderecki or their compatriot Witold Lutosławski (1913-94).  Penderecki continued to create a stir during the 1960s, notably with the St Luke Passion (1966).

Penderecki continued to pursue his avant-garde explorations (combined with some references to Baroque practices), which included Dies Irae (1967), a violently expressionist commemoration of the victims of Auschwitz.  Meanwhile, Górecki started to reach further back in Poland’s past, specifically to its rich heritage of medieval and renaissance sacred music, which he referenced at the ends of pieces such as Old Polish Music (1969) and the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972).  Shortly after, he composed two short unaccompanied choral pieces, Euntes ibant et flebant (1972) and Amen (1975), in which his musical language became decidedly modal.  At this point, his near-contemporaries Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) and Zygmunt Krauze (b.1938) found new inspiration in Polish folk music.  Penderecki, however, had no interest in such sources, although his idiom was about to enter a neo-romantic phase with his First Violin Concerto (1977).

Such moves away from the avant-garde trends of the 1960s were reflected elsewhere as composers engaged with their audiences more directly.  Górecki’s Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976) was a major part of this shift, although it wasn’t fully recognised as such until it received extraordinary worldwide exposure in the early-to-mid 1990s.  The sacred element in his music grew, as in his Beatus vir (1979), commissioned by the future Pope John Paul II and dedicated to Poland’s patron saint.

Penderecki reinforced his position as the pre-eminent Polish composer of sacred memorial pieces with the Polish Requiem.  Several movements are dedicated to Polish martyrs, from the ‘Lacrimosa’ (1980) in memory of the Gdanśk riots of 1970 to the ‘Recordare’, composed to mark the beatification of Father Maksymilian Kolbe, who had given his life for another in Auschwitz in 1941.  The work underlined recent Polish history in a very public manner, something which Górecki tended to avoid.  Górecki did, however, write his unaccompanied choral Miserere (1981) as a tribute to the victims of police beatings that year in Bydgoszcz, but he preferred the quiet approach.  In 1982, he suffered from one of his many battles with ill-health and, during recuperation, turned his attention to chamber music and to simple arrangements, for unaccompanied choir, of Polish folksongs and hymns.

By the 1980s, Penderecki had reinforced his position as the foremost Polish composer of his generation and his music expanded to include large-scale symphonic compositions and oratorio-like works, such as Seven Gates of Jerusalem (also known as his Seventh Symphony, 1996) commissioned for the third millenium of the city.  He had also written three of his four operas and, like Górecki, returned to chamber music.  His idiom mellowed into a quasi-Brucknerian mode in the slow music, with more than a nod to Shostakovich in fast tempos.  He remains a highly productive composer and has used his not inconsiderable influence and earnings to promote festivals, competitions and opportunities for young musicians, as in his newly opened European Music Centre on his estate at Lusławice, near Kraków.

Górecki’s sudden exposure to the limelight in the 1990s substantially altered his recognition factor, and for a few years his star eclipsed Penderecki’s.  There is little doubt, however, that the calls on his time around the world led to a diminution in his output.  Among the works that did emerge were his Third String Quartet (1995), premiered ten years later, and his Fourth Symphony (2006), which was orchestrated by his son Mikołaj (also a composer) and given its posthumous premiere to great acclaim in London on 12 April this year.  Like Penderecki, although in quite different ways, Górecki’s music embraces several idioms: reflective movements (often modal) contrasted with lively, circus-like ideas that show his great sense of humour.  Nevertheless, it is for his meditative music that he will probably be best remembered.

© 2014 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: