HENRYK GORECKI (b.
This Polish composer
came to international prominence as
a result of his third Symphony, "a Symphony
of Sorrowful Songs". Written in 1976,
it was conceived whilst walking in the
Tatra mountains: a region of outstanding
beauty and rich cultural traditions
on the Polish-Slovak border but close
also to the site of Auschwitz. Its aim
is to draw together the emotional history
of the country in one work.
The Symphony has three
movements, all marked "lento". It uses
an arch structure with the 15th century
"Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery"
at its apex. This is a lament by the
Mother of Christ at the foot of the
Cross. It pays a nod of cultural reference
to the "Stabat Mater" by his fellow
Pole Szymanowski - one of that composer's
better-known works, and one rooted in
a study of Polish church music.
The first movement
builds very gradually through the string
register in a simple canon, giving a
sense of uplift. After the setting of
the chant, it unwinds slowly in reverse;
returning whence it began - with a simple
melodic line, the cantus firmus.
The second movement
sets a prayer scratched onto the wall
of a Gestapo cell by an 18-year-old
girl held prisoner there. The lyrical
and soft beauty of the music contrasts
with the horror of its origins. The
main theme of the first movement continues
here. The lowest strings outline a variation
on the "Hail Mary", in which she implores
the help of the Queen of Heaven.
In the most popular
recordings of the work (Elektra Nonesuch
79282-2), the solo is sung powerfully
by Dawn Upshaw. However there is also
a very good budget disc on Naxos 8 .550822
with an entirely Polish cast of performers.
The third and final
movement draws on another source of
inspiration dear to the composer: his
country's folk music. This echoes the
first movement thematically, hence giving
symmetry to the work. We hear the lament
of a mother - this time an earthly one
- for her son who has been killed by
enemies. Although the ending fades to
a quiet close rather than rounding to
a triumph, it allows hope and peace
to emerge after tragedy.
This intense and powerful
work was first performed at the avant-garde
Festival of Royan in 1977 and proceeded
to be recorded several times in Poland.
It developed a certain cult following
in Europe, for example a section which
used in Morris Pialot’s film "Police"
(1990). What took this work to a much
larger audience was the 1992 Elektra
Nonesuch recording (q.v.) by Dawn Upshaw
and the London Sinfonietta. The wide
panoramic sound and resonant recording
of this performance, together with the
musical accessibility of the work and
its capturing of the concerns of the
times, gave it an appeal well beyond
the usual narrow confines of contemporary
classical music enthusiasts. It became
part of the "sounds of the times" in
the early 1990s, when political and
cultural events in Eastern Europe were
significant in popular consciousness:
the fall of the Berlin Wall; the triumph
of the Solidarity movement; the presidency
of Vaclav Havel. Likewise, a whole new
world of post-Soviet music and musicians
reached Western audiences, this work
being a part of that movement.
Although the wide appeal
of this symphony gave it a popularity
beyond the scope of Gorecki’s earlier
- or indeed subsequent - works, it is
not the sum total of his achievements
as a composer. Born near the industrial
town of Katowice, he studied at its
conservatory, where he later joined
the teaching staff; and in Paris with
Olivier Messiaen. Initial experiments
with serialism, such as the First Symphony,
were greeted with hostility by the Communist
authorities. After spending some time
in Paris, he then returned for inspiration
to the folk songs and the religious
music of his own country for inspiration.
"Three pieces in the Olden Style" (1963)
- accompanying Symphony number three
on the Naxos disc - and the Second Symphony
(1972), a setting of texts from the
Psalms, are from this period. Gorecki
was at this time developing an individual
style which came to full fruition in
the Third Symphony. Composition was
intermittent as Gorecki was also active
as a teacher until 1979, when poor health
meant he had to retire from this occupation.
Since this time, however,
he has produced a number of significant
works on a smaller scale: a harpsichord
concerto; three string quartets, the
first being titled "Already it is Dusk",
and all of them being recorded by Kronos;
"O Domine Nostra" for soprano and organ;
"Lerchenmusik" for cello, piano and
clarinet; and in 1993 the "Kleine Requiem
für eine Polka" for piano and 13
instruments. This last is variously
translated as "Requiem for a Polka",
"Requiem for a Polish Woman" and "A
Small Requiem for a Pauper". It is typical
of his chamber music, sharing its sound-world
particularly closely with "Lerchenmusik".
There are also echoes here of the second
(and fastest) of the "Three Pieces in
the Olden Style".
The piano enters softly
to open the "tranquillo" first movement,
being joined delicately by strings and
woodwind in their higher registers.
Fast and slow sections alternate, the
former bursting out of nowhere in an
abrupt change of pace which contrasts
with the measured slow sections, introduced
variously by funereal bells and horn
solos. Messiaen’s influence shows, as
does that of Bartók (particularly
in the clarinet solo which opens the
second movement) and Stravinsky (for
example when the piano leads into a
fast tutti section immediately after
At times the work is
mournful - particularly in the third
movement - but at others it is surprisingly
joyful for a Requiem. The alternating
tempi and repetition of the thematic
material suggest a cycle of life and
death in which each individual plays
only a small part. Hints of timelessness
and eternity are here as well as both
joy and sadness.
alternates slow, gracious and dignified
sections and boisterous quick ones.
It is on a more intimate scale being
written for the three instruments: clarinet,
cello and piano. The choice of clarinet
and folk music influence present in
much of Gorecki’s work gives this piece
something of a klezmer feel.
Gorecki also wrote
significant choral works. "Miserere"
(1981) was written in response to the
violent dispersal by the authorities
of a Solidarity protest. "Good Night"
(1990) was written in memory of Michael
Vyner of the London Sinfonietta, as
was Hans Werner Henze’s Requiem. Recordings
of both of these are available, on Elektra
Nonesuch 79348-2 and Telarc 80417 respectively.
The "Symphony of Sorrowful
Songs", described by Gorecki as "an
intensely felt revelation of the human
condition", brought him international
celebrity and the opportunity to retire
to his beloved Tatra Mountains. However,
it is only one of a number of powerful,
interesting and relatively accessible
works this composer has written and
the rest of his oeuvre deserves exploration.