The obituaries for Henryk Górecki, who died on Friday, are rolling in now. Predictably, the Third Symphony dominates, Rob Cowan in Gramophone going so far as to suggest that Górecki ‘was almost a “one work composer”‘. Cowan’s obit is worth reading, however, for the interesting tidbits he provides on the Third’s rediscovery in 1992:
A month before Classic FM hit the airwaves I appeared on Frank Bough’s LBC show with a small pile of classical CDs to review. The Górecki CD had just dropped onto my mat and I decided to play an excerpt from it. As I left the building, a telephonist ran up to me asking what I’d just played. “The phone lines are crammed,” she said, “crammed with people who want to know [what] it was.”
Matt Schudel in the Washington Post gives some additional coverage to the Symphony’s pre-1992 reception:
When the symphony was first performed in 1977, it received unfavorable reviews. Critics complained that Mr. Gorecki, whose music had been aggressively dissonant in his youth, was no longer a serious composer. […]
His Third Symphony had been recorded twice in Eastern Europe and was used in the credits of Maurice Pialat’s 1985 film “Police,” but it didn’t take off until 1992, when the Nonesuch label released a new recording featuring the limpid voice of the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Allan Kozinn’s obituary for the New York Times is full of several interesting perspectives, including the following comment on Górecki’s political engagement:
Mr. Gorecki left his post at the Music Academy in 1979 to protest the Polish government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He also composed his Miserere (1981) as a protest, in this case against the government’s crackdown on members of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz. But he always insisted on a distinction between his music and his politics.
“My dear, it would be a terrible poverty of life if music were political,” he told Bruce Duffie, a radio producer, in a 1994 interview. “I cannot imagine it, because what does this mean — ‘political music?’ That is why I ignore questions about political music, because music is music. Painting is painting. I can be involved in some political ideals. That would be my personal life.”
Rudolf Barshai in the Telegraph provides some of the most thorough analysis of the means by which Górecki’s music came to the UK, as well as a hint at his entanglement in the history of late-1980s Eastern and Western Europe:
In 1985, however, David Drew, from the British music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, was sitting in the crowded bar of the Europeiski Hotel in Warsaw when he overheard an animated conversation about the political state of the country. He soon realised that the chief protagonist was Górecki and immediately began to try to persuade him to visit Britain. Months of negotiation with the communist authorities followed. Górecki himself proved hard to engage on the matter, stating that he was only interested in visiting Germany and Austria, where he spoke the language.
Meanwhile, in 1987 the conductor David Atherton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, using a score brought back by Drew, gave the British premiere of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs at the Maida Vale studios. Word was soon out that this was a most unusual and interesting work, not dissimilar to music by Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.
In April 1989 a celebration of Górecki’s music (and that of the similarly-minded Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke) by the modernist ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, proved a turning point in British understanding of the Eastern post-Shostakovich musical landscape. It confirmed the composer’s importance as an original voice, which found even greater resonance when, within months, popular revolution swept across Eastern Europe.
On the subject of Górecki’s early years, and the role of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in the nurturing of a Polish musical avant garde, I love this quotation in David Revill’s obituary for the Independent:
“I remember these times with pleasure because they were a great reawakening for Polish music. I don’t know how we got away with it year after year.”
According to the Associated Press story, Krzysztof Penderecki, Górecki’s contemporary and former comrade-in-arms in the Polish avant garde, visited him in hospital in his last days:
“Penderecki insisted on seeing him,” [Joanna] Wnuk-Nazarowa [director of the Polish Radio Orchestra] said. “We tried to joke, make plans for the future. Penderecki promised he would direct (Gorecki’s) ‘Beatus vir’ for the 80th birthday” that both would celebrate in 2013.
Boosey and Hawkes, Górecki’s publishers, give a detailed overview of the composer’s output, as well as the final word on that Fourth Symphony that is mentioned in conflicting accounts in several obits:
His death leaves an incomplete Symphony No.4, commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Southbank Centre, London, The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association: Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director, and the ZaterdagMatinee, Dutch radio’s classical music concert series in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.
To conclude, here’s Maev Kennedy in the Guardian, with an amusing insight into Górecki’s pedagogical style:
His students regarded him as brilliant but extremely demanding. When they asked him what and how to write, he later recalled, his reply invariably was: “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.”