Henryk Górecki

1933 2010

Henryk Górecki



Henryk Górecki was a 20th century Polish composer and teacher whose fame came late in life. His music is rooted strongly in Slavic tradition with influences from all around Europe.

Górecki was born in Czernica in 1933 and studied composition with Szabelski at the Music Academy in Katowice from 1955-60. Later he also taught there and became director in 1975; after four years he resigned due to the turbulent political situation. Górecki’s students from the Academy include Augustyn, Knapik, Krzanowski and his own son, Mikołaj.

While he was still a student, Górecki’s works became well-known in Poland and he was recognized as one of the leading avant-garde composers of the young generation. His music saw premieres at the early Warsaw Autumn Festivals, which resulted in theSuccès de scandale of Scontri in 1960. Just after graduating, he won the first prize at the 1961 UNESCO Youth Biennale for his First Symphony (1959) and later in 1973, the first prize at the UNESCO Composers’ Rostrum for Do matki(1971).

Górecki received his first international commission for his Refren (1965), which is one of the most spectacular works of the time. Thereafter, he received two more international commissions, both from the West German radio, for Canticum gradum (1969) and the Third Symphony (1976), which would later bring him much fame. Despite these commissions, Górecki remained known only in Poland until the mid-1980s after commissions by the Lerchenborg Festival and the Kronos Quartet.

The 1990s brought about a surge in fame, resulting from the fourth commercial recording of the Third Symphony (1976), performed by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta and directed by David Zinman. Record sales skyrocketed, and more than one million copies have sold since its release in 1992. Since then, many more recordings and performances have taken place. The success of the symphony has been attributed to its fresh character and its abundance of airtime on the radio. To listeners who didn’t specialise in modern or classical music, it still touched a nerve, with its subtle sense of reflective mourning.

After the success of the Third Symphony, Górecki was able to establish a strong, yet distinct, musical presence and as Poland began to accept more Western influences, he toyed around with new techniques and aesthetics, such as serialism, despite his scepticism for inflexible compositional systems. The following period represents a hodgepodge of styles, which together form Górecki’s unique language.

The Sonata for Two Violins (1957) represents his extremes in temperament. In this highly ambitious work, folk songs are employed along with a warped sense of neo-classicism and extreme dynamic and rhythmic contrasts. Features from this work reappear nearly thirty years later.

The Epitafium (1958) is the first of many works to dictate spatial settings. While this work shows a distinct influence fromWebern, his Monologhi (1960) is filled with sounds reminiscent ofPierre Boulez. His Scontri for orchestra (1960) utilizes serialism of pitch, dynamics and durations of notes. The score includes a blend of massed sounds and pointillism, in which clusters of sound collide with individual lines. Though the work is defined by serialism, the technique remains a means for expression. The three-part chamber music cycle Genesis (1962-3), is also serial and uses indeterminate pitch at times, with the instruments detuned for the ending.

Around this time, a sense of clarity emerged for Górecki, in terms of formal and technical elements in combination with cultural ideas from the past. His work,Refren (1965) abandons serialism and instead features sustained pitch schemes based on whole-tone harmonies. Elements from previous works are also included, but within a specific framework.Three Pieces in Old Style (1963) also emerged from this clarity. In this composition, Górecki makes use of a modal harmonic language during a period dominated by dissonance. This is one of his first instances of using pre-existing music, in this case a Polish Renaissance wedding song.

The following work Muzyka staropolska (1969) evokes images of the past with repetitive motifs derived from a medieval organum in the brass, between a serially manipulated and layered version of a Renaissance him, which appears again later. 

The Muzyzcka (1967) series is the successor to the Genesis cycle. In this work, Górecki redefines his sense of structure with the use of a binary form that he continued to use, most notably in the Second Symphony (1972). With this work, reflective codas became a standard feature.

Vocal music dominates Górecki’s output between 1970-86, perhaps an attempt to humanize the new language of the 1960s. Of particular importance isDo matki, (1971) which makes very sparse use of the voices, with the choir only making an appearance twice and the solo soprano appearing only in the coda.

The Second Symphony (1972), Górecki’s most tremendous score, was written to celebrate the 500th birthday of the Polish astronomer Copernicus. The symphony opens with a thunderous first movement filled with cosmic visions which slowly resolve in the expanded second movement. The harmonic language is extremely diverse and includes diatonic triads, 12-note-bi-modaility and even  ‘black-note’ pentatonic chords which symbolize Copernicus’ view that heaven contains all things of beauty. The second movement is notable as it marks the transition to a more consonant language, as can be heard in several choral pieces and the Third Symphony:Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976).

Though the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs has been dismissed by many music critics, especially in Western Europe, for its lack of musical and intellectual substance, it is simply misunderstood. The composition is rooted in the secular and sacred music traditions of Eastern Europe with a sense of emotional and technical directness, and is in fact a remarkable work influenced also by Szymanowski, Polish hymns and folksongs and political events such as the Silesian Uprisings and World War II. Górecki makes references to bothBeethoven <> and Chopin in this powerful tribute to the power of prayer in the face of inhumanity.

Other important works by Górecki include his large-scale choral works Beatrus vir (1979) and Miserere (1981) which are also politically charged. His string quartets, written late in life, show a reconnection with the classical genre and form, one that he had neglected since his youth. Parallels withSchubert andSibelius can also be observed in the concentration of longwinded basic motifs with an aggression reminiscent of Beethoven. Other influences, in general, on Gorecki’s work include the 20th century composers Ives, Syzmanowski andMessiaen. Due to his lack of recognition until late in life, and the relative isolation of Poland to Western Europe early in his life, Górecki’s music maintains its own unique though constantly changing voice with a sense of Slavic directness.

Images courtesy of classical.net, Bieganski the Blog, culture.pl and Communio STBlogs