Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
The great Polish composer Henryk Górecki has died in Katowice, aged 76.
Górecki had been ill for some time, and his musical output had been undergoing a sort of long fade-out, so characteristic of his soundworld, for many years now. The Third String Quartet, finally delivered in 2005 after a decade’s gestation, was sadly underwhelming, lacking that combination of dramatic bite and unabashed ecstasy that characterised his very best music.
Górecki will be remembered in many of the obituaries that are due to him in the coming days as the composer of The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, his 3rd symphony. Since being picked up by one enterprising film maker in the 1990s it has become the soundtrack to a thousand Holocaust documentaries, an emblem of approachable new music and a lightning rod for all who would defend new music against charges of ivory-towered elitism.
What is sad about this is that Górecki’s music was undeniably diminished in the process: the first Holocaust documentary made thematic sense, and was an astute piece of music research. But when the Third Symphony, or a generic derivative, is heard every time a cat is stuck up a tree, the music has been cheapened beyond recovery. And that is a shame, because the very best of Górecki’s music is exceptionally subtle; perhaps its only real flaw is that it is too subtle, not robust enough to defend itself against an encroaching commercialisation.
There are instances all over Górecki’s music that point to a composer with an acute ear: the blend of strings and piano used in the Third Symphony and elsewhere is a carefully judged mix of sustained and decaying tones that give even single notes a rich bloom. Likewise the tam-tams at the end of Good Night. The paradox of Górecki’s music – one that, for me, gives it its real allure – is that these extremely delicate, lush, even sentimental touches are coupled with an expressive vision that is relentlessly, rigidly, unbendingly focused. That focus is a more obvious surface aspect the earlier into Górecki’s worklist you explore – the simple to-and-fro of Old Polish Music, the brutalism of Genesis II: Canti strumentali – but it remained throughout his life.
This musical devotion to directly emotive blocks, slammed up against one another instead of developing or evolving, can attract accusations of monotony and naivety from Western European musical ideologies beholden to an organicist ideal. But they also betoken a startling commitment that is shared by several of Górecki’s Eastern European contemporaries, including not only Arvo Pärt and Sofia Gubaidulina but also Galina Ustvolskaya, Alexandre Knaifel and Horatiu Radulescu.
Let’s return to the third movement of Good Night for an example: there are pages and pages of just a single repeating piano chord. It pauses only after three and a half minutes of repeating crotchets … and then starts again, with nothing changed. It’s an extraordinary moment, an excruciating tension between seduction and sedation. There’s a similar effect at the end of the Second Symphony (the best of the three, for my money): a pentatonic chord grows, is held for an impossibly long time, fades, and … cadences onto a major triad, which again is held for an impossibly long time. Five minutes in all for just two chords, in a context that isn’t minimalism in La Monte Young’s Dream House, but is conventional concert hall symphonism. That’s courageous composition, and it’s emblematic of the fact that for all the easy listening, Classic FM baggage that Górecki’s music acquired over the years, he was rarely one to pull his punches, even if his gloves got more velvety over the years.
Something was lost from Górecki’s music as he grew old; perhaps age and ill health did quench the white hot focus of his youth and middle years. But for all the music of those earlier decades, and not just the snippets that will be on tonight’s news, Górecki deserves remembrance.