Kleines Requiem für eine Polka op. 66
The premiere of Little Requiem for a Certain Polka in 1993 coincided with the peak of interest in Górecki’s music after the worldwide success of Elektra Nonesuch’s release of his Symphony No. 3 with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman. The first performance of the new composition, commissioned by the Schönberg Ensemble, a leading new-music ensemble, and the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, consequently attracted great interest. Preparations for the premiere became the subject of an hour-long documentary by the Dutch company VPRO, Toonmeesters: Henryk Górecki (1994). The rehearsals were also filmed by Polish television for the 1993 documentary Self-Portrait. Henryk Mikołaj Górecki directed by Krzysztof Bukowski.Little Requiem for a Certain Polka consists of four parts, of which the first and last are mournful, pensive and deeply reflective, which is stressed by the sound of tubular bells imitating church bells and by delicate piano phrases. In the first part, the composer introduces a highly lyrical passage of extraordinary musical beauty, tainted by sadness and melancholy. This duet of violin and piano is regarded as one of the finest in Górecki’s music. The second part is more expressive, characterised by harsh and distinctive sound, whereas third part is a rather surprising grotesque, frantic dance bearing distinct resemblance to a popular, circus-like polka. The piece ends with a reflective, spiritual finale in which piano and tubular bells echo elements from the opening section, thus rounding off the composition’s emotional framework.
Today Little Requiem for a Certain Polka is one of Górecki’s most popular, most frequently performed compositions. Its title holds a mystery that the composer never fully explained: The “polka” can be a reference to the Czech dance, as Górecki usually suggested, but also to a Polish woman. The ambiguity is also caused by the fact that in German – the original language of the title – the word “Polka”, like every noun, is spelled with a capital letter – Kleines Requiem für eine Polka.
When asked about the origins of the piece, the composer would usually
claim that it was an expression of regret after the break-up of Czechoslovakia,
which he saw as a symbol of the end of a certain era, related to globalisation,
the disappearance of regional differences and the decline of local cultural
traditions. Hence the Czech dance – the polka – which appears in the title and
whose rhythms can be heard in the third part of the composition. All the same,
the distinctly lamentational, intimate character of the first and last parts
might suggest other hidden inspirations of a more personal nature. These,
however, remain a mystery that analysts and commentators will no doubt attempt
to solve in the future.