The Mysterious Simplicity of Henryk Górecki
By Thomas May
When news arrived that Henryk Miko?aj Górecki had died in November 2010, almost every obituary seemed to start off with a focus on the overnight international fame and spectacular commercial success generated by the 1992 recording of his Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). Several recited its chart-topping statistics in envious detail — as if these were the real measure of the artist.
Yet that particular story had always been more about the apparent cultural anomaly it represented than about Górecki himself. How, wondered the pundits, could a composer manage to move so many listeners outside the rarefied sphere of contemporary “classical” music? Those who attributed this unexpectedly widespread appeal to a vaguely tranquilizing quality — one sorely needed in overstressed times — were ignoring the inner fire and intensity that burns in Górecki’s music. And cynics who accused him of pandering to a slick “New Age” sensibility among Western audiences conveniently overlooked both the chronological gap since the Symphony No. 3’s actual premiere in 1977 and the composer’s marked disinterest in self-promotion throughout his career.
In fact, Górecki remained an intensely private and humble man whose artistic integrity, widely praised by associates, is becoming increasingly evident in retrospect. Nothing in the painstaking dedication of his creative method changed over those last two decades: no quick and facile “spinoffs” of his enormous success. Górecki’s death came before he could complete his long-awaited Symphony No. 4, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic had co-commissioned and planned to introduce here only a year ago.
However unlikely his sudden fairy-tale ascent as a celebrity composer, Górecki patiently charted a path of his own from the beginning of his career in Poland of the 1950s. Adrian Thomas, an authority on Górecki whose writings helped introduce his work to the English-speaking world, points out that in these words from a speech by his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II, the composer found a perfect formulation for the artistic credo that consistently guided him: “Each authentic work of art interprets the reality beyond sensory perception [and]…tries to bring closer the mystery of reality…So what constitutes the essence of art is found deep within each person…”
Music itself was an unlikely career choice: while his parents were amateur musicians, Górecki received no encouragement in this direction as a child. He grew up facing serious illness and hardship in the industrial mining region of Silesia in southwest Poland, away from urban centers. Early on Górecki developed a fascination for folk sources — an important thread throughout his career — from the models of Szymanowski and Bartók. Along with his contemporary Krzysztof Penderecki, he was identified up through the 1960s as a young lion of the Polish avant-garde. Although it had already been foreshadowed in earlier pieces, a shift came in the following decade when Górecki turned his focus to writing for the voice and began, as Thomas explains, “to harness his discoveries to overtly expressive and sometimes highly personal compositions.” He began writing sacred
a cappella music with the Psalm settings Euntes ibant et flebant (1972), and the choir, according to Thomas, became his “favorite medium because of the wholeness of its sound quality.”
This quality resonates in Lobgesang (“Song of Praise”), which is the most recent piece on our program. (Only four years ago the Master Chorale gave its U.S. premiere.) Górecki was commissioned to write this motet-like gem in 2000 by the city of Mainz, birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, as a “musical greeting” to honor the great inventor’s 600th anniversary. Hence the German text (actually crafted by the composer), whose title implicitly alludes to another choral work that originated as a tribute to Gutenberg: Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony No. 2. And the Psalm-like words reinforce the ever-present juxtaposition of sacred and secular in which Górecki’s worldview is rooted. For example, in his choral Symphony No. 2, which was occasioned by another tribute to a great figure in European history (Copernicus), Górecki sets both Psalm texts and writings by the Renaissance astronomer.
The mixed choir’s repeated cries of praise carry a sense compounded of wonder and mystery. A signature of Górecki’s style is the focused context he creates, so that every gesture has maximal impact. This is especially the case with the magical, if brief, entry of a glockenspiel at the end. The score decrypts the musical code Górecki used to make its first twelve notes “spell” the name “Johannes Gutenberg.” Played against the choral intonation of “ewig,” it adds up to a larger sonic symbol for human invention in the face of the eternal cosmos.
This sort of encoding is reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s practice — though the music hardly evokes his actual sound world. Both aspects — the intricate construction and the style — intrigued Johannes Brahms, especially during the period of close study of counterpoint that led to his setting of Psalm 51, Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz (“Create in me, O God, a pure heart”), between 1856-60. The piece was later paired with another to make up the first of Brahms’s three published sets of motets and represents his efforts to reclaim the German tradition of sacred choral music by directly emulating Bach’s style.
The composer set himself some hefty technical challenges, opening with a learned form of canon (made from augmenting note values) that’s hidden beneath the five-part chorale-like surface. It forms the first of four distinct sections comprising the motet, serving as the “prelude” for a four-voice fugue in G minor. The third, highly antiphonal section returns to the major and leads to a faster-paced fugal section. Daniel Beller-McKenna writes that the last two sections continue to echo Bach’s choral style but also reveal “the emergence of Brahms’s own modern style against the Bachian background.”
If Brahms here resembles a painter reverently copying the Old Masters to liberate his own imagination, Górecki’s use of sources from the past often seems to amplify the feeling of something hauntingly archaic: his remarkable originality entails a sense of actually returning to distant origins. In this way, too, the folk and church music traditions he draws on “are essentially one and the same,” notes Thomas. This interchangeability permeates the Marian Songs, which are basically a cappella arrangements Górecki created in February and March 1985 of preexisting material: all five texts and four of the melodies come from The Church Songbook, a goldmine of old Polish church hymns and tunes collected by Father Jan Siedlecki in 1878. The devoutly Catholic Górecki, according to Thomas, actually never conceived these songs — or any of his works — as religious music per se or for a liturgical context. They simply spring from his ongoing artistic vision. Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon likens them to “lilies that sprout forth amid asphalt and cinderblock,” referring to the hostile environment the composer faced behind the Iron Curtain. In fact the Songs were not even performed for another two decades.
They can be admired on one level for the emotional intensity Górecki builds from the simplest of means, with homophonic chords and phrasings whose repetitions are meant to be conducive to a state of mindfulness — like rosary beads or a chotki prayer rope. The gentle oscillations of the first inevitably recall a cradle song, establishing the overall image of Mary as mother, and carrying a poignant reminder of the central role played by mothers in Górecki’s music, in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and elsewhere. (His own mother died on his second birthday — a loss that reverberates in several key works.) The second song is the longest of the cycle, its sorrowful slant deeply contemplative. The third reinforces the equation of beauty and simplicity in Górecki’s aesthetic, while the fourth touchingly reenacts the prayer’s image of absence with its alternation of song and silence, resolving on a major key final chord like an epiphany. Górecki brings out the folklike character of the final Marian song — fresh as spring water — but adds drama through his unpredictable use of dynamics to suggest a chorus of pilgrims approaching from the distance.
While music with sacred themes in general might be seen as an implied challenge to Poland’s Communist overlords, Górecki famously made this into an explicit act of protest in his Miserere, written four years before the Marian Songs. On March 19, 1981, a faction of the newly emerging Solidarity trade union was brutally suppressed in the northern Polish city of Bydgoszcz. (The event turned out to be a tipping point that led to the government’s imposition of martial law.) Górecki had actually already begun composing the Miserere but immediately dedicated the work-in-progress “to Bydgoszcz.” This gesture of defiance kept the music in limbo for another six years, and the belated premiere in 1987 (for which the composer revised his still-unheard score) was one of the most highly charged of his career.
The architecture of this work has been compared to that of earlier major compositions by Górecki — in particular the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs whose first movement has a close kinship. The composer’s knowing balance of epic monumental design and radical simplicity allows him to craft a piece that takes us outside our ordinary experience of time. On the surface, the structure is easy enough to map out: deploying a massive unaccompanied chorus divided into eight vocal parts (two each for SATB), Górecki begins with the bottommost layer of voices. He methodically adds to them, working up the “ladder” of vocal ranges. The basses sing the opening paragraph alone: a chantlike melody punctuated by lengthy pauses. Each new layer fans out in thirds on top of the basses’ opening low A. With their mantra-like chant “Domine Deus noster,” the chorus gradually expands the harmonic field but never strays outside the “white-key” Aeolian mode in which the entire piece is set.
It’s a beautiful metaphor for musical “solidarity,” as the voices contribute to the larger sound picture but also follow variant melodies. Thomas aptly describes this paradox as “a texture that is at once contrapuntal and homophonic.” But this isn’t simply a long-range crescendo of steadily increasing strength. Górecki introduces a kind of counterpoint of shifting volumes and other local gestures; the changes in timbre become major events in themselves. And the climax toward which all of this has been heading arrives as both inevitable and completely surprising, an expression of collective despair and yet hope.
The power of simplicity is inherent in the greatest music, as Górecki himself well knew, and remains unfathomable. In another obituary, he was reported to say: “What is it? You hear very simple sounds; you look at the notes in a Schubert song and there is nothing special, but it is a masterpiece. Why? A mystery.”
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale