Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

Many people associate the name of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki almost exclusively with one composition: his Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, which conquered the world of culture and entertainment in the mid 1990s, outdistancing many pop music hits in popularity. Górecki’s music is, of course, much more than this one piece. In the history of music, his entire output remains a unique and – in the words of musicologist Andrzej Chłopecki – a “nobly separate” phenomenon. The composer never followed current fashions, but consistently modelled his own musical world, transfixing listeners with its expressive power and powerfully affecting their emotions – often from the very first bars.

Marcin Tomalka/AG

Górecki was born on 6 December 1933 in Czernica near the city of Rybnik in southern Poland. He experienced suffering from his earliest years, both in the spiritual sense, growing up without his mother, who died on his second birthday, and physically, due to a severe hip joint trauma and a series of other health problems. In this context, the strength of his talent and early determination to learn music are even more admirable.

He had to overcome many additional obstacles. His father and stepmother originally did not let him take up musical education or receive piano lessons. Eventually, he started learning from a village fiddler and artist in his native Rydułtowy. While attending secondary music school in Rybnik, he worked as a teacher in a village school, and when he began composition studies with Bolesław Szabelski in Katowice’s State Higher School of Music, he commuted for many hours from home to school and back. When he eventually settled in Katowice, the capital of Upper Silesia his first lodgings were so small that there was no room for a table or a desk, so he would put a small board on the washbasin to write music. When he came to Szabelski’s class, this composer recognised Górecki’s outstanding talent, so strong and natural that one only needed to let it grow….

Górecki was the first composition student in the school’s history to have a concert dedicated entirely to his works. Held in Katowice on 27th February 1958, was also his official debut. In the same year, he was presented at the second Warsaw Autumn festival with the brief Epitafium for choir and instrumental ensemble. From that moment, he was ranked among the important composers mapping out new directions in Polish music. He shocked the audience of those early Warsaw Autumn festivals with the radically avant-garde, explosive orchestral works Symphony No. 1 “1959” and Scontri, and subsequently turned to smaller-scale forms in his sound explorations with the new sonoristic cycles of Genesis and the Musiquettes.

The first breakthrough came in the mid-1960s with his Refrain for orchestra, distinguished by the extremely peaceful, contemplative mood of its opening and closing sections. Soon the avant-garde audience was in for a genuine shock, which came with the Warsaw Autumn performance of Ad Matrem for soprano, choir and orchestra in 1972. Such powerful emotions contained in music, emphasising each word of the text – and a religious text, at that – combined with such radical limitation of musical material was something quite unusual at the time.

The topic of Ad Matrem is also highly significant. It is dedicated to the composer’s mother. With time, this composer, among the most original voices in Polish music, transformed his longing for motherly love and care into one of the finest inspirations for his music, fusing it with the devotion to the Madonna. This is probably why Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater and the Marian cult – symbolised in a sense by the figure of Pope John Paul II, to whom Górecki dedicated his choral Totus Tuus – were all so close to his heart.

The topic, so distinctly present in Ad Matrem, found even fuller expression several years later in Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”. The pain of losing loved ones and the exploration of the bond between mother and child endowed both compositions with extraordinary spiritual dimensions, which in the symphony took on the character of something close to prayer. It was that power of genuine spiritual experience in Symphony No. 3 that moved audiences all over the world.

Before that renown came, Górecki went through difficult times, especially in the 1980s when he practically withdrew from official musical life. This was related to unfavourable reviews after the Polish premiere of Symphony No. 3 in 1977 and the even less-favourable reaction to Beatus vir two years later, and to Górecki’s tenure as vice chancellor of Katowice’s State Higher School of Music (1975–1979). Reviewers, though admittedly not all of them, opposed the radical simplification of Górecki’s music, which they saw as a complete move away from ideals of the avant-garde. The composer resigned from the post of vice chancellor owing to constant clashes with the authorities, whose pressure made it impossible to direct the school in an independent way.

The composer’s already precarious position was threatened even further when he completed a commission from the Cardinal of Kraków’s, Karol Wojtyła, who had been elected pope by the time Górecki’s piece was finished. Beatus vir was premiered during the Pope’s first pilgrimage to his native country, in June 1979, after Górecki had given up his post in Katowice. Following these events, the composer avoided the public sphere for several years, dedicating himself to simple choral arrangements of folk and religious songs.

Fortunately, in the mid-1980s interest in his music began to grow. In 1984, he was invited to Denmark, in relation to his commission for the trio Recitativa e ariosa “Lerchenmusik”. Thanks to the efforts of the British publisher Boosey & Hawkes, his works started being performed in Great Britain in 1987. It was also at that time that Górecki came in contact with the Kronos Quartet in the U.S., for which he would write his three string quartets. Then the CD release of Symphony No. 3, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman (Elektra Nonesuch, 1992), became an enormous commercial success.

photograph: Carlos Vergara

Górecki received many awards and distinctions for his music, both at home and abroad. These included the Minister of Culture and Art Award three times – in 1965, 1969 and 1973 – the Award of the Polish Composers’ Union (1970), third prize at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris for Refrain for orchestra (1967), and first prize in the same competition for Ad Matrem for soprano, choir and orchestra (1973). Accolades were conferred on the composer in 2002 and 2003 including the Alexandre Tansman Award for outstanding musical individuality and uncompromising artistic attitude, the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Lux ex Silesia Award of the Metropolitan Bishop of Katowice. He was decorated with the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 2009 – the highest decoration bestowed by the Holy See – and with the Order of the White Eagle in 2010, Poland’s highest decoration. The composer was granted honorary doctorates by the University of Warsaw, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Montreal.

Górecki died on 12 November 2010 in Katowice and was buried there. The family’s musical traditions are continued by his daughter, Anna, a pianist, and his son, Mikołaj, who also became a composer.

Górecki was to a large extent an autodidact, but he often delighted people with his erudition and broad knowledge in many fields. He studied zealously all his life, researching his areas of extramusical interest on his own. He approached these tasks with earnestness and complete involvement. His main focus was, naturally, composition. There is no room for superficiality in Górecki’s music – every piece is as carefully thought out with regard to construction as it is deeply felt. The composer does not seduce his audience with shallow, pretty sound or with subtleties of form. In fact, he seems to be totally uninterested in the aesthetic dimension of music. Music is for him first of all of ethical and spiritual nature. In such music, the truth of sound comes to the fore: It affects the listeners, who feel a lump in their throats or are stunned by the sounds, without any “aesthetic anaesthetic”. This directness and concentrated expressive power constitutes the most important feature of Górecki’s art and is the deciding factor in its originality and independence.

The critic Krzysztof Droba has called Górecki’s music “aesthetically ultra-incorrect”. This label can refer to the historical context of the composer’s art, which paid no attention to current fashions and was not afraid of aesthetic independence, and to the authenticity of his musical statements, whether manifested in the aggressive sound of his early works, the contemplative mood of Symphony No. 3 or the charming simplicity of his choral works. In each case, the music can literally transfix the audience with its power, especially when it is performed by the best musicians.

Górecki spent nearly all his life in Poland, sharing his time between two beloved regions, his native Silesia in the southwest and Podhale, the Tatra Mountain highlands to which he was bound by his fascination with the works of Szymanowski and with the highlander folk music. The composer frequently expressed his attachment to his native land and Catholic faith, both in his music and his public statements. Arrangements of traditional religious songs, such as those from the Church Songbook or the Marian Songs, form an important part of his oeuvre, and he dedicated himself to this task with absolute humility. While preserving the simplicity of the originals, he bestowed upon those songs true artistic quality. Alongside works of such stature as Amen, Miserere or Totus Tuus, these arrangements testify to his genius, and are also a profession of his faith.

Górecki’s music is also an ideal reflection of the composer’s personality, marked by changing moods and sharp contrasts. The complexity and at the same time the incredible simplicity of that music substantially contributes to the panorama of Polish music in the 20th century, as well as – perhaps most of all - enriching our individual worlds of musical and emotional experience.

Beata Bolesławska-Lewandowska