There is a select group of composers who seemed to anticipate and ultimately embody John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, somehow also achieving great international prominence and influence despite their industry’s general hostility to all things Christian. They prove that a vital Christian musical art was possible even in the age where most subscribed to modernism, populist drivel, or religious musical kitsch. We previously covered the perennial favorite Arvo Pärt. Now it is high time to profile his equally successful and able Polish counterpart, Henryk Górecki.
We can begin with a musical introduction: his sacred choral work “Matko Najświętsza” (Holy Mother):
For those who have not followed the twists and turns of contemporary classical music over the past few decades — and let’s face it, that describes most people — the incredible renaissance in sacred and sacred-inspired music that began in the late 1960s (of all times!) has probably passed you by. Those involved in music in the first six decades of the 20th century largely tuned out contemporary composers or just gave them a safe and minimal hearing, often feeling left behind by the ceaseless experimentation and pursuit of maximal ugliness. If you began your journey with music any time between the 1970s and this morning, you most likely fall into the category of listener who doesn’t even realize that meaningful new classical music is being written, let alone meaningful new classical works fit to continue the great Christian aesthetic tradition. Such are the wages of academic modernism, aesthetic relativism, and the ultimate denial of objective Beauty Himself.
Commenting on this great sundering between composer and performer and ultimately composer and audience, Robert Reilly writes:
“Music went out the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound[.] … All the symptoms of the 20th century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as ‘a loss of reality.’”
—Robert Reilly, Surprised by Beauty, p. 430
Yet, as Reilly’s astounding book relates, the pursuit of beauty in music was never so much lost as buried in the din of short-sighted ideological revolution. Many composers faithfully continued to pursue beauty, while many of their stubborn seeds landed on good earth to inspire the generation to come. The revolution back toward beauty — or, more precisely, the initial revolution against institutionalized ugliness and musical hyper-intellectualism (read: relativism) — began to take full form in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the realm of music, one of the leading lights out of the darkness came with a pronounced limp, notoriously short temper, and unapologetic earthy Catholicism: the Polish composer Henryk Górecki.
As many who introduce the now famous composer to their reading audiences remark, Górecki is the composer you didn’t know that you actually knew. Born to a railway man in the stark and smoke-stained Silesia region in Poland in 1933, Górecki’s young life was marred by difficulty and tragedy. His mother Otylia died when he was only two, and soon after, a misdiagnosis of a childhood injury resulted in chronic bone issues that ultimately led to lifelong health problems. The war would also leave a profound mark on his psyche. Nevertheless, he was a person of seemingly indefatigable energy, determined to pursue a career in music despite his father’s opposition and his own inadequate early training and formation. In the most roundabout way, he eventually was accepted into the State Higher School of Music in Katowice and slowly began to build a career as a composer.
Górecki’s earliest works in the 1950s and 1960s owed a great deal to the modernist experimentation of the era and quickly won him renown in those academic circles. Yet as the 1970s approached, it seems he felt the need to move away from academic formalism and toward a simpler and more expressive style rooted both in his love of Polish folk tradition and the natural yearnings of his simple yet strong Catholic faith. The powerful new works that emerged from this transition were tightly wound meditations that seemed to unify the bleak sights of communist-era Silesia with the region’s deeper and prouder cultural riches, feeding these elements into profound and unapologetically direct spiritual meditations of piercing clarity.
The work that ultimately broke him from the modernist mold in a public sense — and earned him his later worldwide fame — was his Symphony No.3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Composed in 1976, it is a slow and searingly lyrical hour-long meditation on the horrors of the Second World War in Poland, with a simple modal language weaved into great massive aural tapestries of spiritual potency. The work was as much a revelation to those seeking new ways forward in classical music as it was a massive affront to the now powerful and entrenched modernist establishment. It is often related that at the conclusion of the work’s premiere, the fanatic modernist and arch-bully of 20th-century music, Pierre Boulez, leapt up in dismay and shouted, “Merde!”
Despite this shocking premiere — and perhaps because of it, given how aesthetically intolerant the modernist establishment can really be — Górecki’s third symphony remained largely unknown in Poland for many years to come. During this time, Henryk Górecki became the rector of his former music academy in Katowice, having to resign only a few years later due to a “scandal” of international proportions. What began as a loosely tolerated sacred music commission from a certain Cardinal Karol Wojtyła became a major political row when this cardinal became the first Polish pope.
Górecki’s new style is fully on display in the resulting Beatus Vir. A folk-like Church melody is supported by almost obsessively repeating basic chord progressions, while the simplistic textures eventually lead to a setting akin to soldiers singing sacred songs before battle, ultimately flowering into something Mahlerian in majesty. Such a style has naïvely — and often dismissively and unfairly — been labeled “sacred minimalism” by many commentators, though more apt analogies are possible. If Paul Hillier more accurately compared the music of Arvo Pärt to that of the tradition of painting icons (simple on its surface, yet built on layers of meditative complexity), then Górecki’s music seems more an embodiment of the type of Catholic folk art that adorned his home. Those who visited his home — as did this author — noticed hand-carved wooden Christs of various shapes and sizes created by the composer. His music seems to say: “Look here, at the curve of the wood that now represents His cheek, and see His glorious tears!”
Górecki continued to work for years in his evolving and newly accessible style. Yet he did not receive true international recognition until 1992, when a new recording of his Third Symphony was played on a certain new British radio station, “Classical FM.” Requests for the work skyrocketed, and before long, sales of the CD topped the classical charts. Not long after this, it crossed over to the pop charts, temporarily outselling albums by Madonna and David Bowie. It ended up becoming the single most successful recording of a contemporary symphonic composition in the 20th century and made the now aging Górecki a household name the world over.
For many younger and even middle-aged Catholic composers today, Górecki’s Third Symphony is the work that gave permission to break from the academic mold. There is indeed a seemingly constant stream of recordings of this new iconic symphony available, including a recent and fascinating take by the pop vocalist Beth Gibbons of Portishead.
What many who find themselves captivated by Górecki’s signature work never realize is that he wrote additional music of stunning breadth and depth, including arguably his second most popular work, Totus Tuus, on the motto of the papacy of John Paul II:
Górecki’s choral oeuvre also includes the stunning album Miserere, recorded in Chicago at St. Mary of the Angels Church. It ranks as my single favorite recording.
After his death in 2010, posthumous editions and recordings of his work began to emerge. Quite notable are Górecki’s 20 Church Songs, which set classic Polish Lenten hymns in a uniquely Góreckian style. Potent encapsulations of Polish Catholicism, these works brim with ascetic darkness framed in luminous light. They are perhaps ideal listening for this particularly challenging Lenten season.
As a postscript to this article and a preview of part two, those looking for a truly beautiful hour of viewing should view the BBC documentary on the music of Górecki and Pärt, linked (while it lasts) here:
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.