The ‘raw, impassioned core’

A fertile collaboration

A brief reflection, albeit belated, on the passing of Henryk Górecki won’t be out of place in such a hive as ours of classical music enthusiasts.

The Polish composer secured immortality with his Third Symphony. It’s a shame the expression ‘achingly beautiful’ has become debased currency, because occasionally something comes along that genuinely merits the description, and the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was one of them. And there seems to be a near universal consensus on the quality of the work, which is unusual for any composer of the post-WWII period. I looked at the customer reviews for the London Sinfonietta recording on Amazon; all but five out of 120 awarded five stars. (For comparison, Phillip Glass’s Akhnaten, another well regarded piece, of comparable substance and vintage, scored 24/34.)

Had he not composed that symphony (completed in 1976 but not recorded or distributed in ‘The West’ until 1992) Górecki would have remained almost unknown outside of Poland. His reward was not just well-deserved acclaim for that work (offset by celebrity, which he hated), but greater attention for earlier works and, more importantly, some commissions resulting in major compositions that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

One of these was his instantly pleasing choral work ‘Totus Tuus’ (Totally Yours) composed in honour of one of Pope JP’s return visits to Krakow in 1987.

The bulk of Górecki’s other work is tougher to digest; like much of twentieth century music it is prone to be derided as much by lovers of mainstream classical music and by detractors of classical music in general. The scorn will be shared equally between the composer’s earlier ‘modernist’, ‘avant-garde’, atonal period and his later ‘spiritual-minimalist’ period.

But those of us who have time for these styles can get plenty of satisfaction from Górecki’s music. For example, another of the interesting commissions was a series of three string quartets for the Kronos Quartet.

According to David Harrington, the ensemble’s first violinist:

The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique body of work. With Already it is Dusk, Quasi una Fantasia, and …Songs are Sung, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering, his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as our bows could handle and more.

Górecki’s atonal modernist and the meditative minimalist tendencies are both in evidence in the second of these quartets, Quasi una Fantasia. (Follow the links to other two parts of the video.)

The ‘Beethovenian chords’ bring to mind the Gross Fugue, even if the quartet is not quite in that class. But it isn’t only in its formal aspects that this quartet belongs in ‘an extended European tradition’.

The film footage that the Youtube member chose for his videos, from John Huston’s documentary The Battle of San Pietro, brings this out superbly. Perhaps it’s because we’re used to hearing bleak and world-weary chords with war documentaries, but it seems so fitting it’s hard to believe the music wasn’t composed for it – at least t6he first movement. The grim scenes of survivors in their demolished Italian village might just as easily have occurred in the backward, mountainous region where Górecki grew up; he could even have been one of those children. As far as I know the quartet isn’t meant to ‘depict’ anything, but it easily fits into a tradition of war dirges and lamentations extending from Beethoven’s Eroica to Gorecki’s own Third Symphony.

There are few images in Huston’s documentary that outwardly suit the alternately sinister and frantic modernist sections in the last two movements. On the surface they cry out for some fast-motion industrial scenes like the ones used to brilliant effect in Koyaanisquatsi. At a stretch, one can find poignancy in the contrast between the outward calm of the dazed villagers and exhausted soldiers burying their comrades, and the psychic turmoil and confusion conveyed by the music. (The documentary can and should be watched in its proper sequence, with the original soundtrack, here.)

In any case, the film as a whole matches the mood of the piece, and the development of the musical themes is very rewardng — again, if you like this sort of thing. (If not, stick to Totus Tuus.)

Górecki was an important voice of the second half of the twentieth century, well deserving of the recognition and opportunities that finally came his way. Let’s hope his unfinished Fourth Symphony turns out to be salvageable.

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David Walker
13 years ago

I listened to the Third again last night after I first read this post. It deserves all the plaudits it gets, in an era where few symphonic pieces are capable of touching many people.

13 years ago

The Third is an amazing piece of music.mesmerizing.