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An introduction to Górecki’s music by Adrian Thomas

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki belongs to the generation of Polish composers (which includes
his exact contemporary Penderecki) that found itself poised to take full advantage of the
post-Stalin thaw of the mid-1950s. A plethora of youthful works from 1955-59 saw the
composer ranging freely from the exuberant and dynamic vitality of the Songs of Joy and
op.7 (1956, rev.1960) through to experimental scores owing more to Webern and
Boulez. Henceforth, the evolution of Górecki’s musical language has been a
consistent search for the most truthful expression of his musical roots.

It quickly becomes apparent that Górecki holds Poland’s musical past, its church
and its folk culture in unwavering awe; for him they are the unchallengeable rock on which
both his and his country’s identity and true heritage are securely founded. From the
combustive, flamboyant energy of the orchestral Scontri (Collisions) op.17
(1960) to the reflective lamentations of his best-known work, the Third Symphony
op.36 (1976) and on to his most recent chamber works such as the string quartet Already
it is Dusk
op.62 (1988) and his piece written in memoriam Michael Vyner, Good Night
(1990), it is this deeply-felt awareness of his roots that gives his music a directness
and emotional impact all its own.

In creating this particular world, Górecki calls upon a number of sources. The folk
and religious elements are both abstract (immediate granitic textures, large-scale
canvasses, slow tempi) and specific (folk songs and texts mainly from his beloved Tatra
mountains, plus modal hymnody and references to old Polish music). In times past these
were often treated beyond recognition, but in the 1970s Górecki came to confide in their
innate simplicity and let them stand for themselves, as in his recent folksong settings
and Marian hymns. Occasionally he will also make passing reference to phrases or harmonic
progressions from composers with whom he feels a special closeness, such as Beethoven,
Chopin or Szymanowski. Such allusions or quotations are an integral part of the musical
flow, of the personal vision that has marked out Górecki’s unique voice from that of
his contemporaries and compatriots.

His restrained approach to his material should not, however, be confused with the
minimal aesthetics of certain Western European or American composers. It is a quite
specifically Eastern European phenomenon (one he shares in some measure with the Estonian
composer Arvo Pärt) which Górecki has refined to a remarkable degree. Long regarded in
his native Poland as a composer of uncommon individuality, Górecki is now beginning to be
acknowledged in the West as a major figure of considerable stature whose music transcends
cultural and political boundaries.

© Adrian Thomas, 1990

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