Henryk Mikołaj Górecki 1933-2010: witness and warning

Visiting our new SOLI DEO GLORIA office near Chicago last month, an item in one of the display cabinets caught my eye with particular poignancy: a card advertising the Miserere of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (in the style of the legendary Polish ‘SOLIDARNOSC’ logo), who died in November in the cardiology ward of a hospital in Katowice, Poland at the age of 76. As you will discover if you look at the ‘completed projects’ section of our website, Górecki’s Miserere was SDG’s first recording back in 1994; his signature is etched into a table at the home of our chairman Dick Gieser.

My own first encounter with Górecki’s music dates back to 1989: I can vividly recall listening to his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs Op. 36 alone in a cell-like room in Cambridge after attending the Good Friday liturgy in King’s College Chapel, and being absolutely knocked flat by the visceral intensity of the musical and spiritual experience. The recording in question was that of Ernst Bour and Stefania Woytowicz, which had acquired a certain ‘cult’ status in New Music circles by the end of the 1980s; its dark, earthen quality remains integral to my aural image of the symphony to such an extent that I have never really been able to reconcile myself to the 1993 version with David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta which made the composer’s international reputation. Somehow I find it difficult to concur with Mark Swed’s judgement in an otherwise perceptive recent article [1] that it was Zinman’s ‘crisp orchestral textures’ rather than the ‘dark, heavy Polish affairs’ of the earlier recordings which allowed the symphony to rise ‘above tragedy to elevate the spirit’ rather than weighing the listener down. Positing such a polar opposition between tragedy and elevation seems to say more about Western society’s refusal to look the ‘nightmare of history’ (to quote Joyce) in the face than about Górecki’s music, which rather seems to seek elevation in the midst of the darkness of human experience which must be confronted if it is to be transfigured.

In retrospect the extraordinary commercial success of the Third Symphony can arguably be regarded as having proved something of a mixed blessing in respect of Górecki’s work more generally; it has to be said that for the vast majority of the musical public he remains a ‘one-hit wonder’, the publicity exclusively accorded to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs having obscured many other equally significant items in the composer’s catalogue. With his death, I fear somewhat it may be some while yet before monuments such as Górecki’s stunningly original Muzyka staropolska Op. 24, the granitic Beatus Vir Op. 38 or his wide-ranging Second Symphony (‘Copernican’) Op. 26 – perhaps his most comprehensive artistic statement – receive the general critical recognition they deserve.

If they did, then a picture quite different from that of a ‘holy minimalist’ might emerge; as with Arvo Pärt (whose contemporary retrieval of the distant past Górecki already anticipated in his Three Pieces in olden style of 1963), the word ‘meditation’ needs complementing with ‘concentration’ [2] if the character of Górecki’s music is to be properly appreciated. His scores are often as disturbing as they can be consoling, marked by a consciously Beethoven-like sense of struggle, frequently employing obsessive repetition in order to drive tension to almost unbearable extremes. His music is unmistakably ‘this-worldly’ in the sense that it is incomprehensible except in relation to a specific place and time, indelibly marked with the historic scars of twentieth-century Central Europe, a relationship between art and social context which links him with other key figures of the ex-Eastern Bloc such as Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli or Sofia Gubaidulina. One can also detect a certain kinship with Olivier Messiaen, whom Górecki heard play at the organ of La Trinité in Paris in 1961 (although, contrary to what can still be read in many articles and programme notes about him, he was never Messiaen’s pupil, having been too shy to make use of a letter of introduction in his possession during his stay in France); Górecki’s remarkable Lerchenmusik for piano, clarinet and ‘cello is unmistakably reminiscent of that other ‘Silesian’ work of spiritual chamber music, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time’, written in the Stalag VIIIa prison camp in Görlitz in 1940-1.

In Górecki’s work there is no glib affirmation of transcendence, no evading embodiment in a frequently unpalatable, indeed brutal social reality. Communism and martial law. Heavy industry and ecological devastation. The shadow of Auschwitz. In the face of all this Górecki’s music speaks a word of great inner strength – drawn in part from the timeless beauty and rich folk-culture of the Polish mountains, but principally from an authentic and humble faith in the Creator, knowing that chaos is ultimately held within cosmos [3] and that Cross is inseparable from Resurrection.

Górecki, 1993 (photograph ‘Studio’ magazine)

‘The materialization of the great mystery of existence’, testifying to the intimate connection of truth, goodness and beauty, was how Archbishop Damian Zimoń characterized Górecki’s works at his funeral in Katowice. [4] The composer’s special ability to convey that which is ‘eternally enduring, the realism and truth of life hidden in sounds’, [5] was noted in a letter read out at the end of the ceremony from Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, former private secretary of Pope John Paul II, who as Archbishop of Kraków commissioned Beatus Vir from Górecki in 1977. [6] The work was written for the commemoration of the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Stanislaus, an ‘illustrious witness of genuine freedom’ [7] as the newly-elected Pope described him in thinly-veiled terms on the day of the work’s first performance in June 1979. The politically explosive contemporary relevance of the work’s theme – Stanislaus was executed in 1079 for his rebellion against King Boleslaus II – was not lost on the Communist Party, who ostracized the composer and made his work as Rector of the Katowice Music Academy impossible. If the authorities sensed danger in the conjunction of Górecki’s music and the papal visit, history would of course prove them right, as it was in the wake of John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland that the Solidarity trade union was formed and the train of events set in motion which would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later. [8]

Pope John Paul II in Poland, June 1979

Intended by its composer as both a ‘witness and a warning’ [9], the fact that Górecki’s music is indissociably linked to its historical context does not deprive it of universality. Indeed, it might be said that it is precisely the authenticity of lived experience which lies at the heart of its broad appeal. As with other ‘Slavic chroniclers’ before him such as Mussorgsky or Shostakovich, his compositional voice frequently speaks in tragic tones; although Górecki was notorious for his reticence with regard to expressing himself in words, a passage from Salvifici Doloris, an Apostolic Letter of a rare existential depth and evangelical power written by John Paul II in 1984, could well serve as an inscription to many of his musical compatriot’s scores:

‘Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. […] I speak of the last two World Wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings. The second half of our century, in its turn, brings with it—as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization—such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity. In this way, that world of suffering which in brief has its subject in each human being, seems in our age to be transformed—perhaps more than at any other moment—into a special “world”: the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man’s work and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man’s mistakes and offences.’ [10]

It is precisely this ‘special world’ to which Górecki’s unique music continues to witness prophetically with an urgency that is no less palpable in the year of his death than at the time of the composition of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs back in 1976. ‘Special’ yet understandable to all; Interviewed on NPR in 1995 about the reaction which his Third Symphony had provoked throughout the world, Górecki read out a letter written from hospital by a Swedish 14 year-old burn victim [11] who had lost her parents in a fire and who claimed that only his music was keeping her alive. The fact that this letter carried more weight with the composer than any amount of critical acclaim should perhaps give pause for thought, as it points to a ‘therapeutic’, healing dimension of Górecki’s work of 1976. There is a striking parallel with similar reactions to Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (written a year after Górecki’s Third Symphony) as noted by Alex Ross in an article entitled ”Consolations’ penned for the New Yorker in 2002 (emphasis mine):

‘A few years ago, a man who faced a terminal diagnosis of cancer asked a friend to give him some compact disks so that he could have a little music to help him get through the night. Among the recordings that the friend sent was “Tabula Rasa,” on the ECM label, which contained three works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A day or two later, the man called to thank his friend for the disks, and, especially, for the Pärt. In the last weeks of his life, he listened to practically nothing else.

Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt—how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace. One or two such anecdotes seem sentimental; a series of them begins to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon. Patrick Giles, in an article for Salon, reported that when he worked as a volunteer for an AIDS organization, in the nineteen-eighties, he played “Tabula Rasa” for those facing the final onslaught of the disease, and they developed a peculiar, almost desperate attachment to it. Once, when Giles was away, the mother of one of the dying men called with an anxious query. “He keeps asking for ‘angel music,’ ” she said. “What the hell is that?” The music in question was the second movement of “Tabula Rasa,” in which a rustling arpeggio on a prepared piano leads into glacial chords of D minor.’ [12]

In apparent contrast to Pärt, the words ‘angel music’ may not be the first to come to mind when listening to Górecki’s frequently grim scores, yet this is perhaps to forget the existence of a long Christian tradition of sorrowful, compassionate spirituality to which the work of both composers can be related. In the case of the Eastern Orthodox Pärt one can think of the sorrowing angelic iconography of art such as Andrei Roublev’s icon of the Trinity, while in that of the Catholic Górecki the comparison that springs to my mind is with the carved wooden ‘Chrystus frasobliwy’ figures found in wayside shrines throughout his beloved Polish mountains:

Sorrowful Christ, Zakopane (photo: Dariusz Biegacz)

I have felt for a long time that there is indeed an ‘uncanny phenomenon’ going on here, not only in the way in which Górecki’s and Pärt’s music has touched people outside the confines of traditional venues for musical performance in the midst of life crises, but in the way that there seems to be a convergence of compositional thinking (and listener reception) in the case of two artists working wholly independently of one another. I use the word ‘convergence’ having in mind a concept used in a scientific context by the paleontologist and evolutionary Christian thinker Simon Conway Morris, whose recent work (such as Life’s Solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) has focused on the repeated incidence in the natural world of strikingly similar phenomena evolving independently of one another (such as the camera eye) at different points in history and organismic contexts. Morris infers from this that – contrary to appearances and to the theories of the scientific New Atheists – evolution is not a purely random, undirected process, but one in which, to quote Teilhard de Chardin’s famous phrase, ‘something is going on in the universe’ [‘il y a une affaire en train dans l’univers’]. I would argue that something similar can be said about human culture; I suspect that I am not the only one to find it extremely suggestive that two composers of deep spiritual convictions should independently find themselves compelled to write profoundly unfashionable music (in the sense that the prophetic tradition always has a counter-cultural aspect) which subsequently turns out to be endowed with an ‘uncanny’ reconciling and healing power.

I am aware that in interpreting this phenomenon as a sign of the promptings of the Holy Spirit working through artists to address the needs and pain of the contemporary world I may be taking a step too far for some, making a statement that is only credible from the perspective of faith. And yet from such a perspective the conclusion is almost irresistible. This is music which evidently speaks with a voice which does not merely seem to be that of the composer alone.

The question then is this: do we have ears to hear it?

An insightful introduction to Górecki’s work by his biographer Adrian Thomas can be found on-line at http://www.gresham.ac.uk/event.asp?PageId=45&EventId=815


[1] Mark Swed, An Appreciation: Henryk Górecki, LA Times (available on-line at http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-gorecki-appreciation-20101116,0,3150485.story). It should however be said that Swed concedes the ‘unimaginable depths of expression’ attained by the composer when conducting the ‘world’s slowest performance’ of the Third Symphony at the University of Southern California in 1997.
[2] ‘For me music is the result of religious concentration and meditation…Seeing clear water, green ground, healthy forests, breathing clean air. Seeing the Creator of all things – and writing for Him.’ (1988) [“dla mnie muzyka jest rezultatem religijnej koncentracji i medytacji… Zobaczyć czystą wodę, zieloną ziemię, zdrowe lasy, odetchnąć czystym powietrzem. Widzieć Stwórcę wszystkiego – i Jemu pisać” .]
[3] This sense of chaos and cosmos is especially present in the Second Symphony. The first movement is marked by terrifying orchestral hammer-blows and snarling atonal brass, while the second is affirmatively serene, closing with words from Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus: ‘For what is more beautiful than the heavens, which truly contains all things of beauty?’ [‘Quid autem caelo pulcrius, nempe quod continet pulcra omnia?’]
[4] ‘He was always marked by a desire for the highest values. Endowed with talent and industry, he testified to the close bond between truth, goodness and beauty’. [Towarzyszyła mu zawsze tęsknota za wartościami najwyższymi. Obdarzony talentem i pracowitością, świadczył o tym, że prawda, dobro i piękno są ze sobą ściśle powiązane.’]
[5] ‘The Divine spark […] made itself known through the language of sound. For throughout his particular, individual creative what was fascinating was the eternal, enduring character, the realism and truth of life hidden in sounds.’ [Boża iskra […] dawała znać o sobie poprzez mowę dźwięków. W całej bowiem jego twórczości, jako szczególnej indywidualnej drodze fascynowało wieczne trwanie, realizm i prawda życia ukryta w dźwiękach.] Video footage from the ceremony (Polish only) can be seen at http://www.dziennikzachodni.pl/slask/rybnik/333594,henryk-mikolaj-gorecki-pochowany-w-katowicach-wideo,id,t.html?cookie=1
[6] It is extremely striking to note the similarity of Górecki’s and Pärt’s dealings with the communist authorities (see the September 2010 article ‘Arvo Pärt at 75′ archived in this blog).
[7] Quoted in Adrian Thomas, Górecki (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 95.
[8] Górecki’s Miserere Op. 44 of 1981 contained an overtly political dedication to the city of Bydgoszcz, scene of violent repression of Solidarity union members by the state militia; its performance was only possible in 1987.
[9] ‘I wanted to express a great sorrow as a witness and a warning’ (DVD by Tony Palmer based on a 1993 TV documentary on Górecki’s Third Symphony for London Weekend Television).
[10] Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, §8. When accepting an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of America in 1995, Górecki chose to quote as ‘perfect’ John Paul II’s 1983 homily on creative artists in defining his own aesthetic:‘Each authentic work of art interprets the reality beyond sensory perception. It is born of silence, admiration, or the protest of an honest heart. It tries to bring closer the mystery of reality. So what constitutes the essence of art is found deep within each person. It is there where the aspiration to give meaning to one’s life is accompanied by the fleeting sense of beauty and the mysterious unison of things. Authentic and humble artists are perfectly well aware, no matter what kind of beauty characterizes their handiwork, that their paintings, sculptures or creations are nothing else but the reflection of God’s Beauty. No matter how strong the charm of their music and words, they know that their works are only a distant echo of God’s Word’ (quoted in Thomas, Górecki, 107).
[11] The interview can be heard at http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2010/11/12/131272415/henryk-gorecki-composer-of-symphony-of-sorrowful-songs-dies-at-age-76
[12] Alex Ross, http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/04/arvo_prt_1.html


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