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Music for Catholics: Henryk Górecki’s Opus for Instruments

When introducing the instrumental works of a composer to a musically untrained audience, a bit of trepidation naturally sets in. Tastes in music are often entrenched and become even more so where instrumental music is concerned. People are naturally more responsive to the sound of the human voice in music, while the modern era of popular music has certainly created a large population of listeners who “like only music with words.” So why should a writer bother to expose non-musicians to music most of them will find initially difficult? Simply put, because the greater potential complexity of instrumental music — a feature quite pronounced since at least the late string quartets of Beethoven — is matched by the greater tonal and timbral capacity of such music. As instruments and ensembles can often go into complex and contemplative regions that the human voice cannot reach, this is really where a composer often lays down his most profound utterances and personal statements. In short, this is the “good stuff,” and we are eager to share it.

The piano works of a Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin tell us more about these men than the most learned biographies and contain more individual information than their most intimate surviving letters. Where Henryk Górecki is concerned, his choral works tell us of his deep faith and the love lodged surely in the soul of this famously difficult man. Yet it is his instrumental works that reveal something more profound, showing us his fierce energy, his anger, his humor, and perhaps his characteristic limp as he treads through the mountainous Podhale region that he so loved and into uncharted territories beyond.

We begin with a work to build a bridge from the vocal realm to the instrumental, and the only piece he wrote in English: “Good Night,” op. 63 (1990) for soprano voice, alto flute, piano, and tam-tam (a type of large gong). The music is contemplative, utilizing Górecki’s telltale techniques of repetition, the subtle exploration of timbre (instrumental color), and reverent religious gestures couched in utter simplicity. It is music that requires utter commitment and should be taken in a calm, quiet place free of distraction.

This work is a profound goodbye, one that seems to represent the slow and uncertain sundering of a soul’s grasp on the mortal coil (or is it our unwillingness to have faith and truly let go?). It was composed as a requiem of sorts for Michael Vyner, the artistic director of The London Sinfonietta, the group who brought Górecki’s Third Symphony (profiled in the previous article) to worldwide fame. It reportedly generated many tears at its world premiere.

Any composer who completes an education at a music conservatory can write a fugue and perhaps even a symphony. But Górecki’s particular genius lies in his emotionally direct approach to his listener. It is no surprise that he was a great fan of the raw and often raucous folk music of the Podhale region, while he adopted the culture of the Polish highlander to himself. Stories abound of Henryk staying out late into the night and having the highlander equivalent of a “jam session,” which likely sounded something like this:

The incessant sawing, ebullient melodies (and frequently questionable intonation) of this music — a truly joyful and glorified amateur folk tradition that so well represents the energy and boisterousness of its people — seems to have entered Górecki and lodged at the level of bone and sinew. Nowhere perhaps is this more apparent than his three string quartets, commissioned by the legendary American group the Kronos Quartet. His String Quartet #1 — written over a decade after the Third Symphony — translates the Podhale cultural experience through his own particular personality, while also seeming to bear the weight of a time of transition and uncertainty out of the communist regime. It’s not easy music at first, but nevertheless rich with meaning and opportunity for those who would listen with care.

For listeners looking for more of the lyrical intensity and weeping glory of the Third Symphony, a prequel of sorts may be found in Górecki’s “Three Pieces in Old Style,” a work shocking in its tonal language and folk influences, given that Górecki was still in the midst of his strident modernist phase in 1963. A story is told that the director of Polish classical music publishing house PWM — Tadeusz Ochlewski — complained to Górecki that the young composers were too enamored with modernism and wrote works lacking in melodic content. The (then) otherwise committed avant-gardist Górecki replied with the following statement, telling his own musical future in the process:

Among many other things, there is something of a dark humor that emerges from the shared experience of the Second World War and subsequently shapes Eastern European culture. Górecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord may compromise just such a gesture, while it was suggested by the composer that this piece was a bit of a joke. One can hear what may be the skipping of a record here, a potential wink at the criticism that was sometimes leveled at his own repetitive style. And yet, while clearly humorous, the work contains a serious and vital earthy energy. Here it is played by the keyboardist the work was dedicated to, the late Elzbieta Chojnacka:

If the harpsichord is too piquant for you, a rendition on the modern piano provides a different level of depth and dynamic gravitas:

After the successful premiere and recording of his second string quartet — also played and commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (whom Górecki called “those nice California boys”), quartet leader David Harrington told Górecki that he wanted as many quartets from him as Shostakovich had written: fifteen. Ultimately Górecki would write only one more quartet, finishing it in 1994. Quite mysteriously, he held on to it for an additional ten years before finally relinquishing it for performance. When I personally asked him about this, he waved off this question and said: “Eh, it had to ripen a bit more.” While his reluctance to release this fine work remains a mystery, my own intuition had been that there is something stunningly final about this work and that it functions as the composer’s great personal elegy. Could it be that he was not yet ready to begin laying such final statements during a time in his life when his late blooming career was proceeding so beautifully? Called “Songs are Sung,” it has as a prequel this simple poem by Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov:

When the sun dies — it goes out
when horses die — they neigh
when grasses die — they wither
when people die — songs are sung.

Though pressure was high to repeat the incredible success of his Third Symphony, Górecki predictably resisted. Ultimately, the outline of a fourth symphony began to take shape on the page, but sadly, it was left incomplete in short score form. As the months passed after Górecki’s death in 2010, a palpable hunger in the music world emerged for his unfinished and unpublished works. Somehow, the composer who had touched so many lives around the world with his searingly direct and emotional works seemed to have left a void: the lovers of his work intuited that something was left unsaid.

Rumors of the fourth symphony once again began to swirl, and news that the work was more or less complete in short score form (with copious notes regarding orchestration) emerged. Soon it was revealed that his son Mikołaj — a professional composer and now a resident of the United States — was completing the work on his father’s behalf. The heir to the Górecki legacy speaks here of this experience and the late years of his father’s life:

The British scholar and writer Adrian Thomas — Górecki’s friend and biographer — also sheds light on this vital final work:

The fourth symphony ends up being a great surprise to many listeners less familiar with Górecki’s other works. Górecki clearly had no interest in aping the gestures of the Third Symphony, and he certainly did not enjoy being pigeonholed by this work despite the great blessing of owing his renown to it. The gestures of the fourth symphony, rather, begin in a demanding and acerbic way, sounding almost as a riposte to these aforementioned expectations. Yet for those listeners who know Górecki’s works, it becomes quickly apparent that the symphony is in part a stylistic catalogue of his career, one where those desired moments of calm, rich spiritual transcendence do eventually arrive but are much harder earned.

This final symphonic gesture opens with an almost controlled rage, a majestic series of struck chords of tectonic intensity. These repeat incessantly in typical Góreckian fashion, a stacked block approach that grows in frustration and dissonant intensity, like a slow-motion behemoth-like rendering of his harpsichord concerto. Once the initial intensity releases, the listener is taken on a stunning retrospective of the composer’s life and work.

As the final dissonant chords in the symphony fall, one can almost see the clenched fists of the lifelong fighter, the intense spitfire of a man finally letting go in one final triumphant major chord. Despite his cantankerous personality and his frequently dark and spiritually intense music, the final gesture is one  a joyful relief and release.

Henryk Gorecki’s instrumental works may provide a number of challenges to the lay listener, but the unabashed Catholicity and drive toward transcendence through repetitive simplicity and hyper-focus make them achievable. One way to sum up Górecki’s great works is by comparison: the famous arch-modernist Pierre Boulez once wrote a work titled “Le Marteau sans maître,” or “The Hammer without a Master.” If Górecki was anything, he was a hammer with a master, a man on a mission, and the final hammering chords of his last major work make that abundantly heard.

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