Henryk Mikołaj Górecki
- Ad Matrem A breakthrough and a critical point in Górecki’s art. During his work on this piece, the composer gave up avant-garde techniques, turning towards the sacrum and sacred music. References to the topos of a Mother have a strong autobiographical streak related to Górecki’s having been orphaned in early childhood. The apostrophe to the Mother of God is an expression of the composer’s deep faith and piety.
- Authority As a professor at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, now the Academy of Music, Górecki “brought up” composers who are well known today such as Eugeniusz Knapik, Andrzej Krzanowski and Rafał Augustyn. For many of his pupils, he was a master and teacher, and also a moral authority.
The Genesis cycle is a good example of how innovative and uncompromising Górecki’s attitude to musical sound once was. His compositions from the early 1960s can still surprise audiences, with their boldness and wealth of techniques. They combine an emancipated sound, sonoristic ”bruitism” and a powerful type of expression. Some might even call that expression “anti-musical”, but it was musical in a primeval, primordial sense.
Remarkably, composers who in that period shocked audiences with their experimental treatment of musical material – Górecki, Penderecki and Wojciech Kilar – later abandoned avant-garde ideals and turned to tradition.
- Childhood Górecki spent his early years in Rydułtowy in Silesia, orphaned when his mother died when he was only 2. His childhood was marked by illness – a hip complaint, osseous tuberculosis, problems with walking, numerous surgeries – and by the cruelty of war (his grandfather was interred then murdered in Dachau). His desire to learn music was constantly thwarted by his father and stepmother, who even forbade him to touch the piano keys.
- Contrasts Contrasts in Górecki’s music are a vehicle of expression and, in some cases, a catalyst for the musical action. This is the case in the work that was a quintessence of the use of musical contrasts, Scontri (Collisions) of 1960, where the composer brought together diversified blocks or masses of sound, clashing huge clusters with solo instrumental parts and producing the unusual effect of two musical worlds colliding. With this composition, Górecki won a place in the annals of sonorism, the Polish avant-garde movement. However, he soon gave up this kind of experimentation.
- Dynamism Expressive dynamism characterises many Górecki compositions. It can manifest itself for example in a strong pulse and motoric energy, distinct accents, the versatile role of percussion and the use of sharp contrasts. Though at times dynamism gives way to static form, especially in the composer’s later works, it remains an important feature of his individual musical language.
- Education Despite his enthusiasm for music and desire to learn, the child who would one day compose Scontri began to take violin lessons only at age 10, with Paweł Hajduga, a musician and instrument maker from his hometown. Soon he took up piano and began to compose his first brief pieces. It is a paradox that for a long time the future composer who became one of Poland’s greatest was refused admission to music school, considered too old for musical education. Only in the Secondary Music School in Rybnik, founded by the Szafranek brothers, could he begin to acquire knowledge and skills in a systematic, professional way.
- Family The composer’s family is very musical, also in professional terms. Górecki married the pianist Jadwiga Rurańska in 1959. Their daughter, Anna, followed in her mother’s footsteps, whereas Mikołaj, their son, became a composer. He developed his abilities under his father’s guidance, and in Canada at the Banff Centre for the Arts and the U.S., where he obtained a doctorate from the University of Bloomington. A CD with compositions by father and son, with Anna Górecka as soloist, was released by the DUX label in 2013. It seems likely that the next generation will uphold family traditions and that the Górecki family will be remembered in Polish musical history as an important clan of musicians.
In his creative use of folklore, Górecki drew on models of national universalism. He absorbed and transformed patterns of Polish folk music, creating a new stylistic quality in which, as in the music of Chopin and Szymanowski, an eminently Polish character was coupled with a sense of belonging to the western cultural community.
- Katowice Górecki studied composition with Bolesław Szabelski in Katowice’s State Higher School of Music. He made his debut as a composer in 1958 in the Katowice Philharmonic with a concert dedicated to his work that was attended by Lutosławski. He eventually took permanent residence in the city and worked as a lecturer at his alma mater, and later as its vice chancellor. In recognition of Górecki’s great contribution to the city’s life, the Silesian Philharmonic chose him as its patron in 2011.
- Kronos Quartet Górecki composed three string quartets, all of which were commissioned by the famous American ensemble. The first took a mere six months to complete, while the final was over ten years in the making. Górecki’s “friends from California” were the first performers of this deep and personal music, and today they describe their collaboration with the composer as an extraordinary experience. On the date of Górecki’s death, the quartet honored his memory with an arrangement of one of the Kurpian Songs at a performance in Łódź.
At once a name and a place. In 1983, Countess Louise Lerche-Lerchenborg phoned Henryk Górecki to invite him to the music festival held at her family estate in Lerchenborg, on the west coast of Zealand in Denmark. The commissioning of a new piece came at just the right time for the composer, who had been suffering a deep personal and artistic crisis, and filled him with renewed creative energy. Górecki came to Lerchenborg Musikdage in 1984 with the incomplete score of the trio Lerchenmusik, and later composed the Intermezzo for piano for Lerchenborg and For you, Anne-Lill for flute and piano. Countess Louise, whom he referred to as “his skylark,” remained a close friend until the end of his days.
- Lerche, Lerchenborg
- Minimalism This term is frequently applied to Górecki’s music after his departure from avant-garde models because of the way he simplified his musical language and reduced the material. It should be remembered that, rather than indicating an analogy to the minimalism of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley in the U.S., in Górecki’s case the term describes his aesthetic affinity to such composers as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. By introducing a spiritual dimension in his music, the composer invites his audience to contemplation, meditation and reflection.
- Musical past Górecki’s fondness for medieval and Renaissance music is evident in the titles of his works, first of all in references to early musical forms. Movements of his Symphony No. 1, for example, bear the titles Invocation, Antiphon, Chorale and Lauda. Many compositions including Old Polish Music contain quotations from early music or liturgical chant. Sometimes the composer consciously uses archaizing techniques, imitating elements characteristic of early musical styles and creating a peculiar combination of the old and new in music. Direct or indirect references to early Polish culture are very frequent in his music, for instance when he weaves motifs from the medieval Polish hymn Bogurodzica into the texture of his compositions.
- Podhale (the Tatra Mountain foothills) As with composer Karol Szymanowski, Górecki found his artistic sanctuary at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, the chain of the Carpathians on Poland’s southern border. For years, he rented a cottage in Chochołów, to which he used to retire from the world’s hustle and bustle. It was there that he learned to forecast the weather and live in harmony with untamed nature. In his work, he was inspired by the music, dialect and culture of the Tatra highlands, known as the Podhale. His love for the mountainous region was symbolically commemorated after his death by placing a rock from the landmark Mickiewicz Waterfall on his grave in Katowice.
- Polish Early Music A source of numerous inspirations and ideas appearing in Górecki’s music. In his works, he used quotations, “literal” borrowings from early music, and stylisation or, more precisely, archaising. The song Bogurodzica (Mother of God) was an important point of reference for the composer. He also wrote the orchestral piece Old Polish Music with motifs borrowed from well-known masterworks of Poland's early music: the organum Benedicamus Domino from the Poor Clares’ Antiphonary from Stary Sącz, and the song Already It Is Dusk by Wacław of Szamotuły.
- Politics In communist Poland, Górecki, then vice chancellor of Katowice’s Academy of Music (1975–1979), was constantly under surveillance and faced political pressure that led him to give up his post and, as a consequence, into conflict with local authorities. As a composer, he made important gestures testifying to his opposition to and protest against the situation in Poland, such as the dedication of his Miserere to the city of Bydgoszcz to commemorate events of March 1981, when Solidarity activists were assaulted there.
After his avant-garde phase, Górecki turned to tradition, which led to the composition of choral and vocal-instrumental works steeped in religious spirit. Faith and spirituality found their expression in both his subtle, personal chamber music and in monumental works for large performing forces. The composer drew on local and also on universal religious traditions. Many works refer to the Marian cult devoted to the Virgin Mary, for example Ad Matrem. His music on religious subjects is characterised by a musical language radically different from that of the avant-garde.
- Serialism As with most Polish composers in the 1960s, serialism as a way of organising musical structure inspired Górecki in his individual explorations. While Lutosławski and Penderecki used serial principles mainly to organise pitches, in the technique called dodecaphony or 12-tone music, Górecki applied serial procedures to other musical components such as rhythm and dynamics. With time, however, his style diverged more and more from those modern techniques in favour of musical simplicity.
- Success Fame and success came for Górecki at an unexpected moment – post factum, in a sense. A recording of his Symphony No. 3 featuring the excellent soprano Dawn Upshaw had spectacular success on Elektra Records, 16 years after he had composed the piece. Suddenly Górecki’s work was at the top of music charts and was even listened to by truck drivers, as many sources emphasise. It is suggested frequently that the success of Górecki’s work is largely due to the label’s extensive promotional campaign. Regardless of the commercial aspect, the popularity of Symphony No. 3 drew world audiences to Górecki’s other compositions. Still, it is the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs that remains his absolute “hit”.
- Szymanowski, Karol Górecki’s artistic links with the composer of Harnasie, a ballet score richly influenced by highlander traditions in the Podhale region (see above), are undeniable. His professor of composition, Bolesław Szabelski, had been Szymanowski’s pupil. Both composers loved the Tatra Mountain range and its foothills in Podhale, and both expressed this love by drawing on the musical traditions of the region. We can therefore venture a thesis that, in this aspect, Górecki is Szymanowski’s heir and extended his musical legacy.
- Sacrum After his avant-garde phase, Górecki turned to tradition, which led to the composition of choral and vocal-instrumental works steeped in religious spirit. Faith and spirituality found their expression in both his subtle, personal chamber music and in monumental works for large performing forces. The composer drew on local and also on universal religious traditions. Many works refer to the Marian cult devoted to the Virgin Mary, for example Ad Matrem. His music on religious subjects is characterised by a musical language radically different from that of the avant-garde.
- Topophony In many compositions such as Epitafium, Symphony No. 1, Monologhi, Scontri, Genesis and Choros I, Górecki paid attention to spatial arrangement among the performers on stage and included detailed drawings in the scores. In this way, the composer consciously took advantage of original sound effects possible with unconventional use of the concert space.