Monday, January 22, 2018
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Henryk Górecki, who died on November 12, 2010, aged 76, was a Polish composer who achieved immense popularity in Western Europe and America in the 1990s thanks to the ethereal splendour of his Symphony No 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which briefly reached No 6 in the British charts, just behind Paul McCartney.
He was also an important political voice in Poland, for example writing his controversial Beatus Vir for Pope John Paul II's return to his homeland after being elected pontiff in 1979. During the dying days of communism Górecki was seen as an agitator by the authorities and was frequently followed and had his phone tapped.
He had started his musical life as a pioneer of the Polish avant garde and his work was often dismissed for its violence, both in its sound and in the manner of its performance. However, the success of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – indeed much of the composer's later success – comes from the opposite: simplicity and religious minimalism. Gone are the complex, jarring chords of the modernists; instead, Górecki finds a new voice with a calm and serene sound that is focused in conventional tonality.
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was originally conceived as a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. In each of the three movements a soprano sings a Polish text: a 15th-century lament; a message scribbled on the wall of a Gestapo cell; and a Silesian prayer of a mother searching for her missing son.
The work was written in 1976, but in 1992 it was released on the Nonesuch label sung by Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman. Not only had the political landscape changed in the intervening years, but so too had the economic and musical landscape in the West.
It soon became the most successful recording of a new composition in the history of the classical record business. As the cultural commentator Alex Ross wrote: "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."
Despite the work's almost incessant airing on the nascent Classic FM radio station, there was much more to Górecki and his music. Works such as Three Pieces in Old Style (1963) and Muzyka staropolska (Old Polish Music, from 1969) often draw inspiration from the folk music and traditions of the Tatra region, the highest part of the Carpathian Mountains and once a northern outpost of the Ottoman Empire.
He remained unrepentant about both his politics and his seeming volte-face in musical style. "I've always fought for what I wanted to fight for," he once said. "Some people take an automatic gun and shoot. I can only fight with my notes on the page."
Henryck Mikolaj Górecki was born in Czernica, near Rybnik in the coal-mining region of Silesia, on December 6 1933. His mother, a pianist, died when he was aged two. Musically, the boy was a late developer and enrolled at the conservatoire in Katowice only at the age of 22, when he studied composition with Boleslaw Szabelski, a pupil of Szymanowksi. His Symphony 1959 was awarded first prize at the Paris Youth Biennale in 1960 and was followed by further prizes in his homeland.
Such acclaim was not always forthcoming. One London-based critic referred to Genesis, a gritty exploration of sonority, as "Darmstadt seen through the waters of the Vistula". At the 1967 Cheltenham Festival his Refrain (which also received a prize in Paris) was described thus: "Players can bang and blow and scrape repeated notes as they wish. The experiment might better have been conducted in private."
Even as recently as 1978 his music, on the rare occasions that it was heard in London, was dismissed as "crude, agitated, often loud and violent". Yet, almost in parallel, Górecki had begun working in a style that could not be more different. His Symphony No 2 (Copernican), from 1972, began a transition towards a more consonant language.
In 1975 Górecki was appointed rector of his former music school in Katowice but, lacking political sophistication, was forced to resign after protesting against the government's refusal to allow the Pope to visit the city. His response was Beatus Vir, a glorious setting of the psalms for choir and orchestra, which he conducted for the Pope in Kraków.
Increased political restrictions and poor health – he was crippled in one hip – soon led to Górecki withdrawing from public life. This allowed him to develop his chamber music, including three important string quartets (recently recorded by the Royal String Quartet, from Poland, for release next year on the Hyperion label).
In 1985, however, David Drew, from the British music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, was sitting in the crowded bar of the Europeiski Hotel in Warsaw when he overheard an animated conversation about the political state of the country. He soon realised that the chief protagonist was Górecki and immediately began to try to persuade him to visit Britain. Months of negotiation with the communist authorities followed. Górecki himself proved hard to engage on the matter, stating that he was only interested in visiting Germany and Austria, where he spoke the language.
Meanwhile, in 1987 the conductor David Atherton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, using a score brought back by Drew, gave the British premiere of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs at the Maida Vale studios. Word was soon out that this was a most unusual and interesting work, not dissimilar to music by Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.
In April 1989 a celebration of Górecki's music (and that of the similarly-minded Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke) by the modernist ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, proved a turning point in British understanding of the Eastern post-Shostakovich musical landscape. It confirmed the composer's importance as an original voice, which found even greater resonance when, within months, popular revolution swept across Eastern Europe.
After the success of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which sold more than a million copies, Górecki was finally able to purchase the Mercedes that he had long dreamed of, as well as a cottage in his beloved Tatra mountains. However, the composer remained as diffident about fame and travel as ever.
There were several musically-significant works in the 1990s, including Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (1993), which was recorded twice, for Philips and Nonesuch, yet nothing again quite gripped the public imagination – both in content and timing – as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Henryk Górecki is survived by his wife, Jadwiga, his college sweetheart whom he married in 1959, and by a son and a daughter.
Saturday, January 20, 2018
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
Yesterday's Mail; the casualties (typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;
For, said the paper, "When this war is done
The men's first instinct will be making homes.
Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,
It being certain war has just begun.
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead, --
The sons we offered might regret they died
If we got nothing lasting in their stead.
We must be solidly indemnified.
Though all be worthy Victory which all bought,
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
Would wrong our very selves if we forgot
The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,
Who kept this nation in integrity."
Nation? -- The half-limbed readers did not chafe
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe.
This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
(Not many elsewhere now save under France).
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They're happy now, poor things.
23rd September 1918.