Henryk Gorecki (Image via Wikipedia)
Henryk Gorecki is not a name
that is known to the general public; in fact, it’s likely not a name that the
general public even knows how to pronounce. But he was a figure of seminal
importance in 20th-century classical music, influencing countless composers to
come after him, and unwittingly helping lead the charge for a return to beauty,
truth, and goodness in classical music. While he had only one stupendously
successful piece (and several others of moderate success), his influence is
still felt well beyond the borders of his native Poland. And the muse, the
influence, the guiding light that led him to this epiphany of beauty was his
unwavering Catholic faith.
Henryk Mikołaj Gorecki
(pronounced gor-ET-ski) was born on December 6, 1933 in Czernica in Silesia, in
what is now southwestern Poland. Both of his parents were musical, but this was
not a gift that was nurtured in young Henryk. His beloved mother died when
Henryk was only two years old, and his father and stepmother discouraged his
musical interest to a great degree. He was even barred from playing his
mother’s piano. However, he fed his musical appetite at every opportunity, and
as he got older he quickly became a gifted musician and composer.
Gorecki came of age in Poland
during the Second World War. He had many relatives who would die in Nazi
concentration camps, and those who didn’t were profoundly affected by the war
in other ways, as was Henryk himself. Being formed as a young man during such
turbulent and painful times may have had an influence on the music Gorecki
would compose early in his career.
Much of his early work is
compared to that of Igor Stravinsky or Olivier Messiaenhighly experimental and
adventurous, with form and tonality as secondary concerns at best. Compositions
like “Epitaph” (1958) and his Symphony No. 1 (1959) are prime examples of the
avant-garde, atonal style that he preferred. At the risk of projecting too much
on him in hindsight, it seems likely that he rejected musical tonality because
it seemed so at odds with the world as he knew it; the Nazis had invaded Poland
when Gorecki was only five years old, and their tyranny was followed shortly
thereafter by the rule of the Communists. By the time he was composing in
earnest in the late 1950s, Gorecki had experienced a great deal of pain and
Influenced by atonal,
serialist composers such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg, Gorecki had
basically abandoned traditional, classical styles of composition. But this
would not last forever.
As the 1960s progressed into
the 1970s, Gorecki began to question his approach to his music. Throughout the
years, the strife of his mother’s death, his difficult (to say the least)
relationship with his father and stepmother, the Nazi occupation, the death
camps, Communist rule, and everything else, there was one constant, one
steadfast and strong support which never failed him and never abandoned him:
his deep and profound Catholic faith.
In Poland, to be connected
with the Catholic faith is to be connected with traditional Polish culture.
Gorecki had always had an interest in unusual and uncommon melodies and scales,
including the church modes. These modes can be very often found in traditional
Roman Catholic chant, as well as Polish folk songs. Their simplicity and purity
(not to mention approachability) appealed to Gorecki. He began to utilize them
more and more in his music.
In 1972, to celebrate the
500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus, Gorecki wrote his Symphony No. 2.
The symphony featured texts from Psalms 145, 6, and 135, and an exerpt from
Copernicus’ monumentally important book, De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium. This symphony was a turning point for
Gorecki, a crucial transitional piece in his style and output. Featuring a tonal
system based in classical western harmony, as well as a greatly reined-in
harmonic texture, the piece indicated a return for Gorecki to traditional
western musical styles. Furthermore, his incorporation of Psalm texts in this
piece celebrating a Polish priest-astronomer reflects his recognition of the
importance of his own religious faith.
The simplified style toward
which Gorecki was moving would become known as “sacred minimalism,” and would
be embraced by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tavener.
The sacred minimalism of
Gorecki was exemplified most clearly by pieces like his Symphony No. 3 (about
which more below), the grand setting of several psalms called Beatus Vir (commissioned for the 900th
anniversary in 1979 of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław by then-Cardinal Karol
Wojtyłaabout which more below), and 1981’s choral hymn Miserere (which is an a capella piece of about 35 minutes in
length, with a text of only five words, Domine
Deus Noster, Miserere Nobis).
Gorecki was not well known at
all until the 1990s, when a recording of the Symphony No. 3, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, became
a phenomenal success, selling more than a million copies. This did not lead to
success for Gorecki’s other work, however, and the Symphony No. 3 remains his
most popular and well-known piece today.
Isn’t it interesting, we ask
ourselves at this point, that a piece so ostensibly dark and brooding,
reflecting on the Holocaust and the horror of lost children and lost parents,
should be so successful, and should be the effective turning point in the
battle between tonality and atonality, beauty and stark harshness? Music critic
and commentator Robert Reilly reflected on this point in his book Surprised by Beauty: “It is undoubtedly
surprising to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling,
spiritual compositions should come not only from Scripture and liturgy, but
from the 20th century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. The late Pope John
Paul II was not surprised.”
What was it about Gorecki’s
faith that allowed such an approach to this suffering? Put simply: the Cross
and Resurrection. Jesus Christ took our suffering onto Himself, died for us,
and then was resurrected, overcoming death forever on our behalf. He gives us
the gift of this victory, vanquishing sin, defeating death. As Robert Reilly observes,
“[Gorecki] could look at suffering unblinkingly because Christianity does not
reject or deny suffering but subsumes it under the Cross. At the heart of the
most grief-stricken moments of his work, there is a confidence that can come
only from deep belief. When asked from where he got his courage to resist
Communist pressure, Górecki said, ‘God gave me a backboneit’s twisted now, but
still sturdy. … How good a Catholic I am I do not know; God will judge that,
and I will find out after I die. But faith for me is everything. If I did not
have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.’”
After the composition of his
Symphony No. 3, Gorecki tended to favor smaller and more intimate musical
forms. While it is certainly true that his Symphonies No. 2 and 3 were tending
towards minimalism, and his later compositionseven in their simplicity and
sometimes starknesscould be exceptionally long, the trend later in his life
was always towards the more minimal and more intimate, with few exceptions.
Accompanying, and perhaps
influencing, this trend towards greater minimalism was Gorecki’s increasing use
of traditional musical styles. In particular, he favored Polish folksongs and
chant from the Roman Catholic tradition.
Throughout his life, Gorecki
never lost his Catholic faith. And this was not a faith that he simply
maintained out of nostalgia or even stubbornness. Gorecki’s faith was a
profound one; his devotion to the Church, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the
crucified and risen Jesus Christ, was always present and influencing his work.
As time went on, however, it became an increasingly bigger part of his life,
and this was reflected in his music.
At this point, let’s take a
moment to examine more closely three of his later compositions, which exemplify
this “sacred minimalism” of Gorecki and others, and which demonstrate his
profound faith and the effect it had on his music.
Symphony No. 3
When discussing the life and
work of Henryk Gorecki, the conversation must at some point reach the Symphony
No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” Composed in the fall of 1976, this
piece is in three movementsthree heartbreaking movementsand alludes to some
of the greatest atrocities ever committed and the greatest tragedies ever
This piece is the great hinge
on which Gorecki’s work turns. It marked a final departure from the dissonant
atonality of his earlier compositions, and his embrace of consonance and
The piece includes texts in
each of its three movements sung by a solo soprano. The text of the first
movement is taken from a 15th-century Polish lament of the Blessed Virgin Mary
at the suffering of her son; the second movement’s text is taken from a message
written by an 18-year old girl on the wall of her Gestapo cell, invoking the
protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the text of the third movement is
from a Polish folk song wherein a mother is searching for her son killed in the
Silesian uprisings (armed uprisings in Silesia between 1919 and 1921, in an
attempt to break off German rule and join the Second Polish Republic, which was
only a few years old at the time).
This piece, along with other
pieces from his days of minimalism, features simplified textures,
straightforward harmonic activity, and a major reliance on repetition. While
Gorecki said that the Symphony No. 3 is not an explicitly religious piece,
still it invokes a sense of prayer, of petition, of supplication.
The Beatus Vir was written in 1979 to commemorate the 900th anniversary
of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław. The piece, it is interesting to note, was
commissioned by the then-archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, in 1978.
When Wojtyła was elected pope in October of that year, Gorecki worked furiously
to ensure that the piece could be premiered as scheduled in June 1979, which
would now coincide with the first journey home of the first Polish pope.
At the time of the premiere,
Gorecki had swiftly fallen out of favor with the Communist authorities. Due to
their refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice, Gorecki resigned
from the significant post he held at the university; the authorities had his
name removed from any documents pertaining to important musical events in
Poland. Even his acceptance of the commission in the first place was seen as
problematic by the Communists, due to parallels between the struggle of St.
Stanisław and the struggle of Poland against communism.
The text of the piece, written
for baritone, large mixed chorus, and grand orchestra, was taken from several
psalms (Psalm 143:1, 6-10; 31:16; 88:2; 67:7; 34:9). The title is taken from
the last of these psalms: “Blessed is the man that trusts in Him.” The piece premiered
on schedule on June 9, 1979, in front of the Holy Father, and under the
Beatus Vir was
not the only major work of Gorecki’s influenced by Pope John Paul II. In 1987,
on the occasion of the third journey of Pope John Paul II to his homeland of
Poland, Gorecki composed a choral piece entitled Totus Tuus (“Totally Yours”).
The title of the piece comes
from the papal motto of John Paul II, reflecting his deep Marian piety and
devotion. The libretto itself is from a poem by Polish writer Maria
Boguslawska. The importance of the text in the eyes of the composer is perhaps
made most evident in the texture of the musical setting. In this piece, Gorecki
utilizes a simple homophonic texture, which allows the text to be clearly heard
and understood. Rather than composing a showy and boisterous piece to celebrate
the Pope’s arrival in Poland, Gorecki wrote a tender dedication to the Blessed
Mother. As a result, this piece is a prime example of the sacred, or holy, or
mystical minimalism, of which Gorecki was a leading figure.
The piece premiered on June
14, 1987, at a High Mass celebrated by the Holy Father in Victory Square in
On November 12, 2010, Henry
Gorecki died, before completing his Symphony No. 4, which was due to be
premiered shortly thereafter. Leaving behind a wife, two children, and five
grandchildren, Gorecki had been a devoted family man to his dying day.
I once heard someone remark,
after a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”),
“After hearing that, how could anyone not believe Jesus rose from the dead?”
And there is a “proof” of God’s existence, championed by Peter Kreeft among
others, that goes as follows: “There is the music of J.S. Bach, therefore God
exists.” For me, the music of Henryk Gorecki is one more tally on God’s side of