Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: 1933-2010

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.

Górecki’s Second Symphony, ‘Copernican’, was the featured piece for 1972 in my ‘Music Since 1960‘ series.

24 thoughts on “Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: 1933-2010

  1. Sad news, but a brilliant musical talent.

    I’ve always thought his 3d Symphony was the ultimate comment on WWII and its aftermath in Eastern Europe – despite being written well after 1945…

  2. A lovely write-up for a composer that has moved many of us. Such a shame he never got to hear his 4th symphony performed, but you can be we will all listen with eager ears when it eventually does premier.

  3. @Frank: are you sure his 4th symphony has been completed? I’ve read that the conductor (Marin Aslop) who was due to perform the première in April said it was not finished and was afraid it wouild never be (HMG was very ill since several years and didn’ published new works since 2005, except SQ 3 written during the 90s)

  4. So are we ever going to hear his 4th symphony then? If i remember correctly, it was meant to premiere earlier this year in London but was cancelled due to illness.

    4th Symphonies are jinxed 😉

  5. Love your description of Gorecki’s deceptively “simple” way of building tension. I think his ability to use well-devised pauses to that end is quite extraordinary. Besides the examples you mentioned, Muzyczka IV and Refrain come to mind – those pauses are almost excruciating and very exciting.

    Come to think of it, Gorecki’s music may be where Pawel Szymanski picked up his idiomatic use of silence.

    Needless to say, I am very saddened by Gorecki’s passing away. Anielski orszak niech twą duszę przyjmie…

  6. I do agree with the evaluation of the symphonies. The Second (aka ‘Copernican’) was also the favourite of HMG himself and he always remained reluctant about the success of the Third.
    Among other pieces worth mentioning (and reviving) I would pick up Scontri, a subtle and powerful quasi-Varesian score for huge orchestra.

    1. Hi Rafal – thank you for your comment. It’s very nice to have a contribution from a Polish composer here.

      I would agree absolutely with your support for reviving Scontri. Perhaps programmed alongside Nono’s Incontri (to which is it a sort of response, I believe?).

  7. Wonderful article, but I must disagree with you at the outset; Gorecki’s music may have lost the blazing intensity of youth, yet I cannot think that it ever grew “weak” (as this article seems to suggest.) It may be cultural baggage that gives me different ears here, but the Third String Quartet strikes me as a keening, intensely focused, and (often) agonizingly morose piece. Having met him and his wife at their home in 2008, I asked him: “why did you wait so long to release it?” His reply, almost straight from the program notes, was: “well… it had to ripen a bit.” I could not help but think, when I heard it, that this was Gorecki’s epilogue, as the piece seems to — in a Mahlerian fashion — struggle to “let go.” Perhaps he knew as much, and therefore hesitated to release it?

    Otherwise, thanks for writing this article. You’re right – he does deserve remembrance (and more programming than he’s currently getting in North America, for one thing.)

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