Henryk Górecki (1933–2010)

Henryk Górecki was born in southern Poland in 1933, the same year as his fellow composer and countryman, Krzysztof Penderecki. As a child, he suffered a dislocated hip that was misdiagnosed and left untreated, causing him permanent injury and poor health for the rest of his life. He was interested in music as a child and studied the violin. After a few years of teaching children, he entered the Katowice Academy of Music, graduating with honors in 1960. He later became a professor of composition in Katowice.

Górecki’s early works were written using the serial technique and were greatly influenced by Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez. These consisted of several piano pieces, chamber music, and some songs and orchestral works. One of the most popular from this period is the Three Olden Style Pieces for string orchestra. These pieces have even been recorded by electronic musician William Orbit. Górecki was considered one of the leading avant-garde composers in Europe, until a change in style occurred in the 1970’s. His music became much more tonal and simpler in its melodic content. His works also became increasingly occupied with sacred themes and were politically provocative against the communist regime. He was, along with Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, one of the leading examples of the popular style of “holy minimalism”. This change in style was harshly condemned by critics and the avant-garde academic establishment, causing his music to fall into neglect, although he still received several commissions. One of the first examples of this was his Symphony No. 2, written for the 500th Birthday celebration of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, which quoted from Copernicus’ works, as well as several Psalms. In 1976, Górecki wrote what would become his best-known piece, the Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Incorporating a lamentation of the Virgin Mary, a prayer by a girl held by the Gestapo, and the cries of a mother looking for her child lost in war, it is a powerful and moving work. It remained relatively unknown until a recording in 1992 featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw became a global sensation and platinum best seller. It has since been recorded dozens of times and was sampled by the British hip-hop group Lamb for a pop hit named after the composer.

Górecki was commissioned by then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) to write a piece in honor of the patron saint of Poland, St. Stanislaus, a martyr who had become a symbol of anti-communist sentiment. Górecki’s acceptance of the commission forced him to leave his teaching position and his name was removed from all news media by government authorities. However, Górecki hurriedly completed the work, Beatus Vir,  in time for its premiere for the new Pope’s first return visit to his homeland. Other important sacred pieces include a Miserere, written in honor of the Solidarity movement, and the choral work Totus Tuus, written for Pope John Paul’s third visit to Poland. (The Latin phrase was the Pope’s personal motto, meaning “totally Yours”). Górecki also enjoyed a long partnership with the Kronos Quartet, for whom he wrote three string quartets. Two of his popular later works include the Goodnight Requiem and the Kleine Requiem (für eine Polka).

Górecki died last week, on November 12, after a long illness. The premiere of his Fourth Symphony had been cancelled earlier in the year due to his poor health. Just a month before he died, he was awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle. He is survived by a wife and two children, all of whom carry on his musical legacy. Of his music, critic James Wierzbicki wrote:

“Gorecki’s new material was no longer cerebral and sparse; rather, it was intensely expressive, persistently rhythmic and often richly colored in the darkest of orchestral hues… it proved very appealing to a sophisticated young audience far removed from avant-garde factionalism.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Adrian Thomas. Górecki.