Profiles: Henryk Górecki

Henryk Górecki

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) was a Polish composer who, like many composers of his generation, began influenced by the expressionists – disillusioned post-war figures who captured the ugly side of the 20th century through heavily controlled, over-processed, and overwrought music.  As he grew older he rebelled against these bitter sounds for more romantic expressions, often using religion as inspiration.  For this, he has been labeled a “holy minimalist” and compared to other figures Arvo Pärt and John Tavener despite each other’s lack of common influences.  He died 10 days ago.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs: Movement III (Lento – Cantabile-Semplice) (1976)

Górecki (pronounced like Wayne Gretzky, but with “go” at the beginning), held a humble approach to composition.  As a teacher, he remembered “my students would ask me many, many things, including how to write and what to write. I always answered this way: If you can live without music for 2 or 3 days, then don’t write…It might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer…If you cannot live without music, then write.”  Even after a recording of his Symphony No.3 (better known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) became one of the highest selling albums of a 20th century living composer – overtaking albums by Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Mick Jagger on British pop charts at the time – Górecki maintained clarity in his creative process claiming,

I do not choose my listeners. What I mean is, I never write for my listeners. I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them. I have something to tell them, but the audience must also put a certain effort into it. But I never wrote for an audience and never will write for them because you have to give the listener something and he has to make an effort in order to understand certain things. If I were thinking of my audience and one likes this, one likes that, one likes another thing, I would never know what to write. Let every listener choose that which interests him. I have nothing against one person liking Mozart or Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein, but doesn’t like Górecki. That’s fine with me. I, too, like certain things.

Featuring a soprano vocalist, Górecki used three separate texts from which he set the three movements of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs: a Polish lament on the Virgin Mary dating to the 15th century, an inscription found on a Gestapo prisoner’s cell wall, and the text of a Polish folk song.  Despite drawing from disparate sources, Górecki found common ground to the post-war frame of mind by elucidating the intimate connection between a mother and her child. With the outer movements of the work being messages from mother to child and the middle movement being a child to her mother, the work presents two lines of communication and their disconnect as a result of war.

As with the first and second movements (absent for this post), the third movement in the symphony is very slow, bobbing back and forth between two chords and seeming to go nowhere.  However, after several minutes of music, a new chord finally emerges – an ecstatic A Major – signaling hope.  Whereas the sentiment captured by the expressionists was often violent and aggressive, Górecki instead casted darkness in a mood withdrawn and forlorn.  Perhaps this was the psychological effect disposed to a post-WWI generation of European composers born into worlds rich with history but overrun by other nations and battered by war.  Still, in the case of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, our mother finds peace when the vocalist concludes, “And you, God’s little flowers / May you blossom all around / So that my son / May sleep happily.”

One of the things most intriguing to me about this work has been its curious reception. Upon its release, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was a best seller and an “instant classic.” For a classically labeled recording to achieve not only critical but commercial success is virtually unheard of.  But this was not really an overnight success.  The work had long been composed.  It was 16 years old by then.  A teenager.  If it was to be an instant classic, why wasn’t it so in 1976?  What changed?  As the work now approaches middle age and its father has died, I find myself fascinated by the phenomenon of music’s aging and eminent re-contextualization.

I remember very clearly the last time I listened to this piece.  I was at my friend John’s 2nd floor apartment on State Street.  It was real late.  The living room was dark and the only light came emitted from multi-colored holiday lights adorned throughout the room. This room was full of couches.  Something like 4 or 5 couches, leftovers from past tenants. Pure college.

I was coming to the end of my time at school.  I decided I didn’t want to sleep as much. Or maybe it was that I couldn’t sleep.  It was a week night.  I called John and he’d said that he was having some people over.

The group was mellow; having tread for weeks in the deep end of spring semester.  I brought my iPod to create a soundtrack for the evening.  As everyone began to sink further and further into their couches I feverishly imagined the perfect playlist.

Over the course of 2 hours, I wove a tranquil web of dream pop, electronica, drone, and contemporary art music, gauging my success on how quiet my audience was.  In my most successful, my patients would open their eyes as if roused from a gentle sleep and not say a word.  I sensed failure when they spoke over me.  The third movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorroful Songs was my last decision that evening.  Not one made a sound.

Music credit: Symphony No. 3:Movement III (Lento – Cantabile-Semplice) as performed by The London Sinfonietta; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; David Zinman, conductor; from Górecki: Symphony No. 3 [Nonesuch, 1992]

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