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Catholic Composers: Henryk Gorecki

The 20th-century composer drew inspiration not only from his Polish heritage, but from his Catholic faith as well.

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 Messiaen—highly 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 tumult.

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 Wojtyła—about 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 backbone—it’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 compositions—even in their simplicity and sometimes starkness—could 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 movements—three heartbreaking movements—and alludes to some of the greatest atrocities ever committed and the greatest tragedies ever experienced.

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 tonality.

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.

Beatus Vir

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 composer’s baton.

Totus Tuus

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 Warsaw.

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 the ledger.

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About Paul Senz 120 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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