Refrain op. 21
This idea is also highlighted by the narrow melodic ambitus (encompassing only a minor third in the work’s whole movement) and allowed the composer to create a kind of musical drama of withholding that was characterized at the same time by high expressive tension. The expression becomes even more intense in the middle section, where the whole-tone scale is replaced with full 12-tone chromaticism, and with the calmly unfolding chordal texture giving way to fast, short, sharp-sounding phrases in the brass set against lively chords in the strings. The whole-tone cluster returns in the end, leading gradually to a restoration of the first movement’s “refrain” structure, now appearing in the opposite order: the full version, its gradual reduction, then silence at the close of the piece.
The application of the whole-tone scale meant the composer was moving away from the chromatic, serial material of his earlier works. But the most original element of Refrain is the use of a slowly unfolding, continuously transformed chordal structure. This kind of symphonic construction, which we could call “held-back symphonism”, was something new at that time in Górecki’s composition and in new music in Poland and the world. For listeners and for commentators including Thomas, Krzysztof Droba and Eugeniusz Knapik, their first contact with Refrain was a tremendous shock and the discovery of a new and different musical world.The technique Górecki used in Refrain was developed in his later pieces, which continued the reduction of musical material while increasing the expressive tension, usually combined with an element of contemplation. In this sense, Refrain anticipated Canticum graduum and Old Polish Music, and also and most importantly Górecki’s symphonies: No. 2 “Copernican” and, even more so, No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.