Musical Genius Beyond Chopin
by Wanda K. Mohr
Much, if not most, attention in Polonia with respect to musical genius, is accorded to Frederik Chopin. Indeed, entire concerts are devoted to his works. But there are other extraordinary Polish musicians and composers that remain unacknowledged, under performed and even unrecognized. One of those is Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, a remarkable artist who achieved enormous worldwide popular and commercial acclaim.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was a Polish composer of contemporary classical music. Górecki was born on December 6,1933 in Southwest Poland in the village of Czernica to parents who were musically inclined, but was discouraged in his pursuit of music by his family.
Nevertheless, he persisted in his art and began his formal musical training at the National Music School, a type of performing arts school, in Rybnik and going on to study composition at the State Academy of Music (1) in Katowice from1955-1960. He studied under, and was strongly influenced by, Bolesław Szabelski, a composer of modern Polish classical music, best known in his musical grounding in Polish highland folklore and for his atonal (2) compositions. Later Górecki was to emulate his mentor’s love of Polish folklore and incorporate it into some of his own work. Górecki wrote his First Symphony in 1959 and graduated with honors from the Academy in 1960.
In 1975, Górecki became a Professor of Composition at the University of Music in Katowice, where he served as a mentor to several students who would become well known classical composers in their own right. These included Eugeniusz Knapik and Andrzej Krzanowski.
During his tenure at the University in Katowice, Gorecki became concerned that Polish Communist authorities were interfering unduly in the schools academic activities and he was in frequent conflict with the authorities with his efforts to protect his students and staff from political influence. In 1979 he resigned from the University in protest against the government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He continued to compose and his compositions reflected important events in contemporary Polish history. In 1981, he composed his Miserere for a large a cappella mixed choir in remembrance of police violence against the Solidarity movement. After the imposition of martial law, the piece was banned and not performed again until 1987. In 1987 Górecki composed Totus Tuus Op. 60 to celebrate Pope John Paul II's third pilgrimage to his native Poland that summer, and the work remains his best-known, if not critically acclaimed, a cappella choral piece of the 1980s.
During his early career Górecki’s work was radically modernist, but he began to move away from the avant-garde toward a more traditional mode of expression that was dominated by the human voice. In 1972 he composed Symphony No. 2, 'Copernican', Op. 31 (II Symfonia Kopernikowska) to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. This work was commissioned by the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, and it allowed for Górecki to have exposure outside of his native Poland.
But Górecki remained mostly unknown outside of Poland until the 1990s when he achieved world wide fame with his Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Polish: Symfonia pieśni żałobnych). Although first performed in 1977, the work was known only to a few avante-gard connoisseurs until its release on the Nonesuch label by conductor, David Zinman. The composition became an extraordinary commercial success, selling more than a million copies and making it one of the best-selling classical records ever. Recorded with Dawn Upshaw, an American operatic soprano and the London Sinfonietta, it was released to commemorate the memory of those lost in the Holocaust. The symphony consists of three movements, rather than the traditional four, and each is a lament of loss. The movements are composed in slow tempo and are played at low dynamic levels throughout. They are based on a modal canon (3) in which there is a repetition of short melodic fragments that are re-stated at another pitch level, several more times. The repeated orchestral lines are typical of musical minimalism which employs an extreme simplicity of form and few traditional musical embellishments. The music builds upward from low strings to the soprano voice singing the lamentations in Polish. The first is a 15th century monastic song, the second is a message written by a young girl on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, and the third is a folk song of a mother searching for her son believed to have been killed by Germans during the Silesian Uprisings (4) expressing grief and mourning in the context of a conflict she cannot understand. The themes tying the three movements together are motherhood and loss, especially through war (5).
Despite its very modern feel, it is a symphony in which Górecki used a conventional melodic structure to say something profound about war, its legacy and Poland’s part in it. The work appeared to touch on a human fascination with the unknown, as musical tensions in the work rise and fall and dissonances are resolved through the power of singing and a repeated major chord (6).
Gorecki insisted that his symphony was neither religious nor about World War II. But it is a work that could only have been written by a deeply spiritual man and by one who has suffered through the horrors of the Hitler era in which he lost members of his family at Auschwitz, and through its almost equally horrible aftermath under Stalin.
It is safe to say that no piece by a classical composer has ever touched so many people who do not ordinarily listen to symphonic music. Górecki’s music has been adapted for film soundtracks, most notably fragments and pieces of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs have been adapted for film soundtracks and used in ballet. In 2016 the Pennsylvania Ballet performed “In the Mirror of Her Mind” and in 2017, Philadelphia’s Ballet X premiered a new work, “In Between the Passing” by choreographer, Tommie-Waheed Evans, set to the Górecki's symphony.
In the years between the end of the 20th and the turn of the 21st century, Górecki composed or revised 15 works, consisting mainly of vocal compositions and pieces for small ensemble. His final work—The Song of Rodziny Katynskie, Opus 81 (Piesn Rodzin Katynskich), was completed in 2004 and premiered by the Polish Radio Choir in Kraków in 2005.
During most of his life Górecki suffered from various illnesses which became more frequent during his last decade. He died on 12 November 2010, in his home town of Katowice from complications arising from a lung infection.
1. Academy of Music today
2. Tonal music is what most of us think of when we think of music. It has a harmonic center and the individual elements form a cohesive whole. It feels familiar and certain notes have certain expected roles to play with traditional roles to follow to form the structure of the piece. By contrast, atonality in music refers to the absence of functional harmony.
3. Modal music uses diatonic scales (stepwise arrangement of the seven “natural” pitches forming an octave) that are not necessarily major or minor and does not use functional harmony as we understand it within tonality.
5. Watch and listen to the symphony performed:
6. A chord is a combination of two or more sounds or notes. A major chord in one made up of three notes and are often described as happy chords.
Libbey, Theodore. 2006. The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music. Workman’s Publishing Co: New York, NY.
Robin, William. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/arts/music/how-a-somber-symphony-sold-more-than-a-million-records.html
Thomas, Adrian. 1997. Górecki. Oxford Studies of Composers. New York: Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Smith Brindle, Reginald. 1987. The New Music: The Avant-Garde since 1945. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Whittall, Arnold. 2003. Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation. Cambridge University Press: New York
With much appreciation to Richard Hoffert, CEO (ret.) Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and North Carolina Symphony Orchestra for his feedback.