Henryk Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs

Henryk Górecki

I’m not a globetrotter. Where did Beethoven go? Just to Heiligenstadt.


That’s a good model.

Until 1992, Henryk Górecki’s music was little known beyond the border of his birth country Poland. That year the recording company Nonesuch released a recording of his Third Symphony that rose to the top of the pop charts in several European countries and became a crossover CD phenomenon in the United States, selling well over a million copies, an unheard of number for a classical music disc. It also further elevated the recording career of then two-time Grammy winning soprano Dawn Upshaw. The symphony was featured in numerous videos and motion pictures and was used as a fundraising lure by many NPR stations including KCRW in Santa Monica.  Even the most classical music phobic listener could not avoid it.

CD cover, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs."

The composer was part of the post-Stalin Polish Renaissance generation that achieved international acclaim in the late 50s. Other principals were Andrzej Panufnik, Witold Lutoslawski, and Krystof Penderecki. Górecki, singularly in the group, remained a private and shadowy figure in the classical music world until his death this past November in his native town of Katowice. Last week on Dec. 9 this less-traveled composer would have been 77.

His three colleagues performed, conducted, recorded and taught throughout the world of contemporary music. But partly because of an innate quiet temperament, partly because of his life-long struggle with health issues, Górecki explored his own inner sensibilities and researched the nearer world of Polish folk music, rather than pursuing a life of concertizing on the road. His enduring Roman Catholic faith, much like that of his hero, Olivier Messiaen, gave him the spiritual sustenance that others found in the excitement of travel.

Górecki lost his mother at age two. At age five, he sustained a severe hip injury, which was carelessly treated; it left him with a limp. This ordeal was followed by tuberculosis. In the mid-1950s he had a severe infection that nearly cost him several fingers. Throughout his life, near death was a close companion.

Like his peers, his early music reflected the post-Webern dissonance, atonality and serialism  that dominated classical music after WWII until the late 60s. It centered on an annual festival in Darmstadt, Germany, that became a cannibalistic feeding frenzy for the most experimental music. Meanwhile, Górecki turned slowly toward older Polish models in traditional modes. Much of his new work featured the human voice, and his Second Symphony (Copernican) became a jumping off point for his move into a style that came to be called "holy" or "sacred" minimalism. Many of his Polish contemporaries, as well as the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tavener, also evolved their style away from the thorny harshness of serialism, turning to the emotional rewards of an accessible tonality. Much of this “Minimalism” reflected as well a worldwide cultural shift from rampant modernism to a search for harmony with nature and a simpler life--- with music aspiring to achieve a quasi-metaphysical state.

Manuscript page of "Two Sacred Songs" from 1972.

Having passed childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII and then coming of age in late Stalinist era Iron Curtain occupation, Górecki lived within the lingering shadow of the war's persecution of dissidents and homosexuals and genocide of Jews. Enduring memories of this suffering became the subject of his Third Symphony. In an interview with England’s South Bank Show he recalled his childhood:

I remember when I was twelve years old; we went out on a school visit to Auschwitz. I had the feeling the huts were still warm. (this was in 1945). . . The paths themselves—and this image has never left me—the paths were made from human bones thrown onto the path like shingles. We boys—how to walk on this? This is not sand, not earth. We were walking on human beings.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” --- "Work Makes ( You) Free,"  the Gates to Auschwitz.

This was my world. The only way to confront this horror, to forget—but you could never forget—was through music… The world today, it’s the same. Also a nightmare, crushing us. Somehow I had to take a stand, as a witness and as a warning… The war, the rotten times under Communism, our life today, the starving, Bosnia—what madness. And why, why? The sorrows, it burns inside me. I cannot shake it off.

He did not shake it off. In 1976 he finished the Third Symphony, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. His use of the word “witness” in the quote above evokes the “bearing witness” phrase of photojournalist James Nachtwey and his fellow conflict photographers.

The Third Symphony is composed in three rather than the traditional four movements, each one a dirge of loss. The text of the first movement comes from a 15th century Polish lament of the Holy Cross; the third, from a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her lost son killed in an uprising. But it is the second movement, the shortest of the three, which has become the focal point of the work. Its text was scrawled on a cell wall of Gestapo headquarters at Zakopane, Poland, by an 18-year-old woman prisoner named Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna.

On January 22, 2005, BBC-2 broadcast a memorial concert film performed inside Auschwitz, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. One of the pieces performed there was the Górecki Third Symphony. Here is the video of this second movement conducted by John Axelrod and sung by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian:

There is really nothing equal in the 20th century canon that approaches the raw power of this symphony to express the tragedy of life lost senselessly in a world increasingly more able to dispatch hundreds of thousands of its fellow men and women. The eclectic-minded New Yorker music critic Alex Ross caught the essence of Górecki’s appeal:

It is not hard to guess why [Górecki] and several like-minded composers achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the Eighties and Nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture.

Górecki himself expressed the dynamic of this turn toward deeply emotional music:

I've always fought for what I wanted to fight for. Some people take an automatic gun and shoot. I can only fight with my notes on the page.

Not all of Górecki’s music at this time embraced an aesthetic that some have found lugubrious rather than moving. There is a deft, almost self-mocking side to him that is reflected in a nine-minute concerto that he wrote for harpsichord (optionally for piano) from 1981. It is a kind of motoric riff on the sometimes-circular tropes of Minimalism a la Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich, but somehow imbued with the underlying gravitas that is the signature of late 20th century Polish music. Here is a video with the flame-tressed Elzbieta Chojnacka tearing up the keyboard of that stalwart instrument of the Baroque era. One can’t help but imagine how J.S. Bach and the Scarlattis would have been caught up in the frenzy of this runaway music.

In April, 1994 Górecki made a rare visit to the United States and gave an interview to Chicago musicologist Bruce Duffie:

bruceduffie.com article link

And shortly after Górecki’s death last month, David Harrington, first violinist of the hip Kronos Quartet (which had recorded all three of Górecki’s string quartets), wrote a brief but moving tribute.

sequenza21.com—“Kronos Remembers Gorecki” article link

Perhaps more than other European countries Poland has been buffeted by the ever-changing political fortunes of the 20th century, ones not always of their own making. Its artists in cinema and music have looked deeply into the chaos and death lust that occupies the dark recesses of man’s soul. They have struggled to define it, give it shape, and help us all find a way through the murk into the light. Nothing in our history can approach the horrors of Nazi genocide, even allowing for the more contemporary barbarism of Rwanda, the Balkans and Somalia. Yet it is composers like Penderecki in his Dies Irae (for the victims of the Holocaust) and the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and Górecki in his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs who have plumbed for a fragile transcendence.

Here is that movement again, in a deeply affecting endless tracking shot of family photographs almost reminiscent of Bela Tarr. An artist ID’d only as “fheofannya” has created this album memorial of victims of the Holocaust; it comes from the “Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project”  archive held at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Until the very end of the video, it avoids the unbearable horror of “Liberation Photos” by presenting a continuous chain of friends and families in the full flower of life. It opens by showing the scrawled message  left on her cell’s walls by the young Polish woman incarcerated on September 25, 1944. The video’s seamless momentum reflects the ostinato flow of the music, an inexorable tide of life that will endure beyond all evil.

Note: It would be more than negligent of me to fail to note that this past week, Saturday, Dec. 11, marked the 102nd birthday of the great American composer Elliott Carter, still active, still composing challenging music. If you don’t know this protean figure in American music here is the piece I wrote last year:

John’s Bailiwick—“Happy Birthday, Mr. Carter: Centennial Plus One” article link

Elliott Carter, centennarian plus, Dean of American music.
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