Born: Dec 6, 1933 in Czernica, Poland
Died: November 12, 2010 in Katowice, Poland
Genre: Choral Music, Symphony, Chamber Music, Orchestral Music
Henryk Gorecki is that rarity among contemporary composers: the originator of a full-fledged hit. A recording of his Symphony No. 3 by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw climbed to the top of the British pop charts in the early '90s. Gorecki was among the Eastern European composers for whom contemporary stylistic trends (first serialism and then the various reactions against it) took on anti-authoritarian overtones, and who thus emerged in the forefront of late twentieth century music; in his works, stylistic originality seems a personal and political necessity.
Gorecki was born in 1933 in the small town of Czernica in the Silesia region of Poland. He was trained as a primary-school teacher, and did not formally become a composer until the age of 22 when he enrolled at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice. He studied in Paris for a time and became acquainted with the leading edge of the Western avant-garde. The works of Webern, Stockhausen, and Messiaen were unavailable in Poland, suppressed by socialist-realist doctrines; but all of them, especially Messiaen, influenced Gorecki's early music. Gorecki became a professor at Katowice and went on to gain some official acceptance, ascending to the post of provost.
Gorecki's music was always deeply rooted in Polish ideals, however, and it carries a sense of the emotional impact of the atrocities of the Second World War. He ran afoul of the authorities in the late '70s, resigning his post as provost to protest the government's refusal to permit Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He later composed music to honor an injured Solidarity labor union activist. What gave his protests additional weight was that he had rejected Western hyper-modernism and created a new musical language that more directly served his ideals. Gorecki had first gained recognition with Scontri (1959), a work very much of the avant-garde in its treatment of sonority and texture as primary structural elements. In the 1960s, however, Gorecki's music offered harbingers of the eclecticism that would dominate contemporary music by the century's end. Genesis shows minimalist qualities, while Three Pieces in the Old Style manipulates modal and whole tone ideas, and Lerchenmusik quotes Beethoven, to name a few examples.
Gorecki became interested in the folk music of his native region and investigated Polish music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. In 1976 he synthesized the new trends in his music with the Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." Scored for soprano and orchestra, this hour-long piece contains three movements, quoting old religious and folk texts and incorporating folk tunes. It opens with a canon in the strings that builds gradually over a 12-minute span, with an effect comparable to that of Western minimalist composition but proceeding from different spiritual bases. (One of the animating principles of Gorecki's work has been a fervent Roman Catholicism.) The work was recorded several times, but it was the 1993 release that caught fire - partly because it fit perfectly with the new and well-marketed trend toward "holy minimalism."
Despite his growing success, Gorecki has continued to compose largely in response to inner creative dictates rather than according to any plan to increase his reputation. Much of his work in the 1980s and 1990s has been in the choral and chamber genres; the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 62 ("Already It Is Dusk"), was written for the Kronos Quartet, a successful U.S. ensemble devoted to new music, and further enhanced his reputation. The work used a Renaissance part-song as raw material, transforming it first into a dissonant but peaceful chorale and then into a folk-inflected dance.
All Music Guide
Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki,
Polish, born 1933. The Kurpie region is situated in north-eastern Poland, a land of forests separated by farmlands. The main cities of the Kurpie region are Myszyniec, a centre of Kurpie culture, and Ostroleka, with its ancient monastery and Kurpie Museum. The folk art of Kurpie manifests itself in architecture and crafts such as wood-carving and weaving, and in traditional songs and dances in areas where the local dialect can still be heard. The Five Kurpian Songs (1999) is a relatively recent work by Gorecki, combining the familiar mesmeric repetitions that have become hallmarks of his style since the Third Symphony (1976) with the secular stimulus of folksong. The work is dedicated to his first grandchild, Jasio, who appears, so to speak, in one of the songs. (Szymanowski also composed a set of Kurpian Songs back in 1929.) It is recorded here for the first time.