13 Nov

Henryk Gorecki, Polish Composer, Is Dead at 76


Henryk Gorecki, a renowned Polish composer whose early avant-garde style gave way to more approachable works rooted in his country’s folk songs and sacred music and whose Symphony No. 3 — an extended lamentation subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — sold more than a million copies on CD in the 1990s, died on Friday in Katowice, Poland. He was 76.

Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa, the general director of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, announced Mr. Gorecki’s death, telling The Associated Press that he had been hospitalized with a lung infection. Mr. Gorecki lived in Katowice.

Mr. Gorecki (pronounced go-RET-zki), who with Witold Lutoslawski and Kzysztof Penderecki was one of Poland’s most revered contemporary composers, wrote music that often played with the extremes of musical expression. In works like “Old Polish Music” (1969), blocks of assertive, high-energy brass writing are juxtaposed with eerie, slow-moving, pianissimo string passages.

His intensely focused “Beatus Vir” (1979) and “Totus Tuus” (1987), both dedicated to Pope John Paul II, draw on the simplicity of traditional chant as well as richly harmonized, intensely focused choral writing and, in the case of “Beatus Vir,” monumental orchestral scoring. And in “Already It Is Dusk” (1988), his first string quartet, Mr. Gorecki reconfigures Polish dances and dirges, casting the more outgoing sections in acidic harmonies that give the score a searing, angry edge.

But the work for which Mr. Gorecki is most widely known, the Symphony No. 3 (1976), explores the gradations of a single mood: somber, introspective reflection, conveyed in three long, slow, quiet movements that last nearly an hour. Scored for orchestra and soprano, the work’s vocal sections include settings of a 15th-century sacred lamentation, a simple prayer (“Oh Mamma do not cry — Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always”) scrawled by a young girl on the wall of a Gestapo prison in southern Poland, and a plaintive Polish folk song in which a mother grieves for a son lost in war.

Henyrk Górecki – Symphony No. 3, Op. 36

Augmented by the artwork of Van Gogh, Hugues Merle, and Francis Louis Mora, this Spadecaller video dramatizes the dominant themes of Gorecki’s symphonic masterpiece about motherhood and separation through war. David Performed by David Zinman, conductor, and Dawn Upshaw, soprano.

Mr. Gorecki surrounds these texts with a compelling amalgam of lush neo-Romanticism; open, entirely consonant tonality; and a gradual unfolding of themes and textures that struck many listeners as a distinctly Eastern European approach to Minimalism.

The work quickly took on a life of its own. In 1985, the French director Maurice Pialat used an excerpt from the symphony on the soundtrack to “Police,” a film starring Gérard Depardieu. A recording of the full work, conducted by Ernest Bour, with the soprano Stefania Woytowicz, was released on the Erato label, and though it was packaged as a soundtrack album for “Police” — a film virtually unknown in the United States — it proved a first encounter with Mr. Gorecki’s music for many American listeners. Two more recordings were released, both with Ms. Woytowicz as the soloist.

But the work did not achieve its explosive success — a surprise, given its unceasingly mournful character — until a recording by the soprano Dawn Upshaw, with David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta, was released on the Nonesuch label in 1992. The recording became a radio hit in Britain, where it broke into the Top 10 on the Music Week pop chart, and sold more than a million copies worldwide. For a while, Nonesuch said, it was selling 10,000 copies a day in the United States.

The symphony was subsequently used as soundtrack music in Peter Weir’s “Fearless” (1993) and Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996). Samples of the score were also used in recordings by several pop groups, most notably “Gorecki” by the English band Lamb

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki was born in the village of Czernica on Dec. 6, 1933, to parents who were amateur musicians. He began studying the violin when he was 10, and later took up the clarinet and piano. By the early 1950s he was composing songs and piano works while earning a living as a teacher. In 1955, he enrolled at the Music Academy in Katowice, where he spent the next five years as a composition student of Boleslaw Szabelski.

But he was already beginning to make his name in Polish avant-garde circles with works like the Four Preludes (1955) for piano and the contrast-rich Sonata for Two Violins (1957).

In “Epitafium” (1958), for mixed choir and instruments, he began experimenting with the spatial placement of his performing forces. In the Symphony No. 1 (1959) and “Scontri” (“Collisions,” 1960), he experimented with Serialism (in which a composer must use all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in equal proportion) and with the textural contrasts — dense clusters versus spare, pointillistic solo lines — that would become a hallmark in his later music.

Mr. Gorecki continued to embrace Serialism through the 1960s, but mixed it with other techniques — including whole-tone harmony and the use of ancient modal scales — that made his music sound bracing and fresh, rather than doctrinaire.

He became fascinated with choral and vocal music around 1970, and expanded his stylistic arsenal with folk music — an extension of his interest in modal melodies — and traditional Polish church music. Gradually, he jettisoned Serialism and moved toward the completely tonal, diatonic language that gave the Symphony No. 3 much of its immediate accessibility and appeal.

Other important works in Mr. Gorecki’s catalog include three string quartets — “Already It Is Dusk” (1988), “Quasi Una Fantasia” (1991) and “… Songs Are Sung” (1995), all written for the Kronos Quartet — and the “Kleines Requiem für eine Polka“ (1993) for piano and 13 instruments.

Mr. Gorecki joined the faculty of the Music Academy in Katowice in 1968, and became a professor in 1972 and rector from 1975 to 1979. Among his composition students were his son, Mikolaj Gorecki, who survives him, as do his wife, Jadwiga, and his daughter, Anna Gorecka-Stanczyk.

Mr. Gorecki left his post at the Music Academy in 1979 to protest the Polish government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He also composed his Miserere (1981) as a protest, in this case against the government’s crackdown on members of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz. But he always insisted on a distinction between his music and his politics.

“My dear, it would be a terrible poverty of life if music were political,” he told Bruce Duffie, a radio producer, in a 1994 interview. “I cannot imagine it, because what does this mean — ‘political music?’ That is why I ignore questions about political music, because music is music. Painting is painting. I can be involved in some political ideals. That would be my personal life.”

Mr. Gorecki received honorary doctorates from the University of Warsaw, the Music Academy in Krakow and Concordia University in Quebec, and an honorary fellowship from Cardiff University. Last month Bronislaw Komorowski, the president of Poland, visited Mr. Gorecki in the hospital to award him the country’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle.

“I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them,” Mr. Gorecki said in his 1994 interview. “If I were thinking of my audience and one likes this, one likes that, one likes another thing, I would never know what to write. Let every listener choose that which interests him. I have nothing against one person liking Mozart or Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein, but doesn’t like Gorecki. That’s fine with me. I, too, like certain things.”

Comments are closed.

© 2021 | Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS)

Global Positioning System Gazettewordpress logo