• (2015) Mykietyn**, Karłowicz & Górecki**

henryk-mikolaj-gorecki-sanctus-adalbertus-ice-krakow-2015-10-081-530x685Mykietyn**, Karłowicz & Górecki**
programme note written for
the concert celebrating the 70th anniversary of
the founding of PWM Music Publishers
Wioletta Chodowicz, Artur Ruciński, Polish Radio Choir,
Kraków Philharmonic Choir and NOSPR, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk
ICE Congress Centre, Kraków, 4 November 2015
NOSPR Concert Hall, Katowice, 11 November 2015

• Paweł Mykietyn: Fanfare (2015)**
• Mieczysław Karłowicz: Eternal Songs (1904-06)
• Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Sanctus Adalbertus (1997)**

Looking back from the vantage point of this landmark year for PWM, I am reminded of its astonishing achievements since 1945 and the extraordinary roster of Polish composers that it has nurtured and developed.   As an exchange student in Kraków in 1971-72, with my knowledge of twentieth-century Polish music limited to just a few figures, one of my great joys was to visit the music shop in the Rynek (it was then on the south side) and be allowed to go behind the heavy curtain at the back to browse its stock of PWM scores.  This evening is a bit like that treasure hunt. On the one hand, there is a work from the start of the twentieth century by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909), a composer who is still not that well-known abroad.  Then there are two premieres, one of a work written over 15 years ago by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) but only now receiving its world premiere, and the other of a fanfare so hot off the press that I am unable to say anything about it (I am writing this note in late September) except that Paweł Mykietyn (b. 1971) is one of the most outstanding Polish composers working today.


Karłowicz was one of the composers whom I did not know when I arrived in Kraków in 1971.  His Eternal Songs, op.10 (1904-06), published by PWM in 1949 in its then familiar brown covers, was however one of the scores that I discovered in the Rynek.  Gradually, the contents between these plain covers were illuminated by recordings, by articles and books (by Leszek Polony and Alistair Wightman, among others), and by a number of studies emanating from Zakopane, not least a volume of photographs of the Tatra Mountains, published in 2003, that included shots taken by Karłowicz.  This gradual sunrise on Karłowicz’s life and works outside Poland has been hugely important in repopulating and recontextualising the history of Polish music as it is understood to have unfolded between Chopin and Szymanowski, and so it seems to me highly appropriate that his music should feature in tonight’s celebratory concert.

I imagine that everyone in this hall tonight has walked in, on or over the Tatras.  We have at least survived (although I almost came to a sticky end during the storms and floods of July 1997, walking within two metres of the cross on Giewont as it was struck by a bolt of lightning).  What music lost when Karłowicz died in that avalanche in February 1909 is incalculable, but what he left in Eternal Songs was an evocation of the mountains as another world of experience, away from the trials and torments of everyday life below.  His own words, familiar to many, are peerless:

And when I find myself alone on a precipitous summit, having only the azure cupola of the heavens above, and below and around me frozen waves of peaks sinking into the sea of the plains – then I begin to dissolve into the surrounding spaces, I cease to feel like a separate individual, and am covered by the powerful, everlasting breath of eternity.  This breath runs through all the fibres of my soul, […]
Przewodnik koncertowy (Kraków: PWM, 1980), p.467

This vision – not quite the same as the Byronic pose of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (1818) – took Karłowicz into a zone akin to transcendence, nirvana, buddhist enlightenment.  Today, it seems to be very much of its time, of Schopenhauer’s time, and it is hard to imagination later composers reacting to the Tatras in quite the same way.  Indeed, there is musical proof that they did not, although the concept of transcendence was very close to the heart of Górecki.

Karłowicz was fortunate in that the musical language and orchestral apparatus that he inherited from Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss lent themselves to the heightened expression that embodied his profound sense of sublimation:

I have behind me a long series of solitary wanderings, and these wanderings are suffused in my memory by some sort of special, pure radiance.  These memories are undisturbed by dissonance; they concern a series of very strange meetings with the eternal spirit of the mountains, a series of hymns sung in rapture in praise of the universe.
Mieczysław Karłowicz w listach i wspomnieniach (Kraków: PWM, 1960), p.169

The three ‘songs’ of this purely orchestral work are in effect hymns, and these hymns are pervaded by inter-related themes whose character Karłowicz himself inscribed on the autograph manuscript that was destroyed in World War II: themes now identified as being of everlasting yearning, eternity and death (introduced in the first movement), love (second movement) and eternal being (third movement).

Rarely has the cor anglais sounded so plangent as when it plays the Theme of Everlasting Yearning, nor the violas so eloquently fragile in their response.  As the first movement develops, it becomes clear that this is no innocent yearning but one that is dark-hued and melancholic, if not lugubrious, pained by suspensions and eased by passing resolutions. It even seems to anticipate Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem From the Isle of the Dead, completed two years later in 1908.  At the high point, the trombones and tuba introduce two rising themes: the striding Theme of Eternity followed, with the addition of trumpets, by the stepwise Theme of Death.

The second movement is one of the most compelling pieces of late-Romantic music.  The opening Theme of Love, lilting in 3/4, has a befittingly gentle, sweet rapture that merely hints at the passion it will acquire.  All too soon, the first wave subsides and a chromatically descending texture unsettles the mood and emotional restraint is abandoned, only to be confronted by the roar of Eternity and, in a while, by the soothing tones (flutes) of Death soon united with Love (violins).  And that, one might think, would be that.  Far from it.  Karłowicz now embarks on an intense unification of Eternity and Death, a climax involving all three themes and a coda that is Wagnerian in its delicacy.

Wagner and Bruckner soon come to mind in the last, shortest and most enigmatic movement.  Its Theme of Eternal Being bears a striking resemble to that of Eternity and is followed by music that floats free of its anchor until brought back to earth by a chorale of unexpected and uplifting grandeur.


All of us have at one stage or another wondered what it would have been like to meet some of our predecessors. What was Karłowicz really like as a person, as a walking companion or mountain guide?  We can all recount tales of people we have known and who have had an impact on our lives.  In my time, I have met quite a few Polish composers, but the one whom I got to know most closely was Górecki.  We were as alike as chalk and cheese (to use the English expression), but somehow we clicked and, over the years, I stayed with him and his family in Katowice and Chochołów, where we did indeed walk together in the Tatras and do some path-climbing (although none of us was always absolutely sure where we were – we needed Karłowicz to come over the brow of the hill and guide us).

Henryk’s interior guide was his unwavering sense of mission as a composer and his faith.  Such a combination can lead in several directions. Not for Górecki the path of piety or of fire and brimstone.  His sacred music may have a quiet, private quality (Church Songs, 1986) or a more monumental, searching aspect (Beatus vir, 1979), or may indeed be represented in apparently secular pieces by drawing on and/or quoting pre-existing sacred music (Old Polish Music, 1969; Symphony no.2, 1972; String Quartet no.2, 1991).  Apart from the works of the 1970s, there is a marked divide in the nature and treatment of Górecki’s material.  It therefore was no surprise, when several works were discovered after his death in various stages of completeness, that the secular Fourth Symphony ‘Tansman Episodes’ (2006) was different from the sacred vocal-instrumental works Kyrie (2005) and Sanctus Adalbertus (1997).

The first to be performed was the Fourth Symphony, in London in April 2014, followed barely a week later by the premiere of Kyrie in Warsaw.  Where the Symphony – whose orchestration was carried out with such aplomb and finesse by his son Mikołaj – evoked Mussorgsky and Stravinsky and cited Wagner, and where its climate linked to earlier works such as the string quartets or Little Requiem (1993), Kyrie had no such connections.  Even if its opening paragraph seems to refer back to its counterpart in Ad matrem (1971), its much simpler and generally restrained character is typical of his religious output.  The same may be said – with some qualifications – of Sanctus Adalbertus, which, with small touches from Mikołaj Górecki, is receiving its world premiere tonight.

Sanctus Adalbertus is the successor to Beatus vir, which Górecki wrote at the behest of the then Bishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła.  Written in praise of St Stanislaus, it was the first in what he thought would be a cycle of large-scale works called Sancti Tui Domine florebunt sicut lilium.  When I talked with him in 1984, he mentioned that the next piece in the cycle would be Offertorium, dedicated to Saint Maksymilian Kolbe.  This appears not to have materialised, and Górecki moved on to other projects, returning to his idea of celebrating Polish sainthood with Sanctus Adalbertus (which adds a solo soprano to the vocal forces used in Beatus vir).  He drafted his score for the millennial commemorations of Adalbert’s martyrdom in 997, but the proposed performance fell through and he did not write out the fourth movement until 1998.  The texts are by the composer, with the exception of that in the first movement, which comes from the Book of Psalms (Vulgate 115:6).

The four movements have distinctive headings, curiously recalling the sacred headings given to the otherwise secular First Symphony (1959): ‘Psalm’, ‘Lauda’, ‘Hymnus’ and ‘Gloria’.  Górecki’s habitual reticence in his deployment of what is a very large orchestra is evident from the start of ‘Psalm’, and the tubular bells are a key part of his timbral palette later on.  His melodic-harmonic palette is also severely pared back, first to a motif of a diminished triad, and then the choral intonation on E flat.  The vocal and instrumental range does expand slightly, but the music lifts only with ALLELUIA (how typical of Górecki to capitalise the entire word) and the entry of the solo soprano, joined briefly by the solo baritone.

‘Lauda’ opens with the same motif as ‘Psalm’, but this time it is seized by the full choral and orchestral forces to acclaim the saint.  There then follows an extended paragraph, first for the unison male chorus, bassoons and low strings and then for the female chorus with slightly different orchestration, reaching its tutti climax just before the end of the movement.

At this point, Górecki’s sometimes convoluted compositional history intervenes.  When the original plans for Sanctus Adalbertus fell through, Górecki shelved the piece.  However, a new opportunity to celebrate the saint came up in 2000, so he dusted off the score and slightly refashioned most of its third movement, ‘Hymnus’, so do not be surprised if you recognise the music of the joyful third section of Salve, sidus Polonorum (2000).  Introducing this central portion of ‘Hymnus’ is a strange series of ideas.  First comes a cello line that both hints at the theme of the central section and encloses, at the same pitch, the notes from Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius where Gerontius sings ‘I am near to death’.  This latter observation may be pure coincidence, but I did send this score to Górecki at his request in the mid-1990s.  Then there is the prayerful choral entry, like a church song, which is hijacked by an unexpected tonal shift and ensuing dissonances between the pedal D natural in the double basses and the string chording above.  The peaceable entry of the ‘Salve, sidus Polonorum’ section, to the words ‘Święty Wojciechu Patronie nasz drogi’ brings a shaft of pure light, and the developing sense of rejoicing is palpable (tubular bells again, with piano).  ‘Hymnus’ ends with a recall of the solo soprano line from ‘Psalm’ and reiterated choral Alleluias.

The final movement, ‘Gloria’, is underpinned almost exclusively by a radiant chord of E major.  Against this backdrop, the opening phrase of Bogurodzica inspires the increasingly ecstatic refrain ‘GLORIA in excelsis’ until the music reduces to the choral basses who intone, on a low E natural, the final phrase ‘SANCTUS ADALBERTUS’.

© 2015 Adrian Thomas

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