The Polish composer Henryk Górecki used to be a leader of the Eastern European avant-guard, but in the early 1960s he began a slide into obscurity from which he is just now emerging.
Górecki was born in 1933, which makes him the same age as his vastly more famous countryman Krzysztof Penderecki. Górecki and Penderecki entered the international scene via the same avenue, the Warsaw Autumn Festival that was established almost the moment Poland shook off the cultural restrictions imposed by the Stalinist regime. Penderecki’s big moment came in 1960, with the festival presentation of his dramatically ear-jarring ”Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” By that time, Górecki had already been twice represented on the festival agenda, by his ”Epitaph” in 1958 and by his ”Symphony No. 1” in 1959. Whereas Penderecki was regarded as something of an iconoclast, Górecki was seen as a Polish heir to the new aesthetic of post-Webernian serialism; with his taut structures, lean orchestrations and painstaking concern for the logical ordering of pitches, Górecki identified himself not just as a classicist but as an intellectual, and as such he quickly became a favorite of the West’s avant-garde elite.
Górecki himself recalled that, at the premiere of Symphony No. 3, he was sat next to Pierre Boulez, who, after hearing the twenty-one repetitions of an A-major chord at the end of the symphony, loudly exclaimed Merde!
A great many composers who came of age in the years following World War II launched their careers as radical modernists and then later, as they effected rapprochements with their past, switched over to more traditional, more romantic modes of expression. Penderecki did this, but not until the late ’70s, when that sort of thing was fashionable. Górecki’s change of heart happened much earlier, and at the time it seemed an affront to the avant-garde establishment. He continued to write, and to win prizes from various Polish agencies. As far as the power brokers were concerned, though, Górecki had ceased to be a composer who mattered.
His reinstatement began five years earlier, when French film maker Maurice Pialat used Górecki’s 1976 ”Symphony No. 3: Chants plaintifs” to accompany a movie called ”Police.” The title of the film, not the music, dominated the cover of the soundtrack album (Erato ERA 9275), and the names of the stars – Gerard Depardieu, Sophie Marceau, Richard Anconina – appeared in larger type than did the composer’s. Still, the music circulated, and it caught the ear of a whole new generation of listeners.
One of the things that alienated Górecki from his colleagues in the early ’60s was the utter simplicity with which he began to state his ideas. Another was an almost atavistic sort of lyricism, not necessarily song-like but based – as good songs tend to be – on the most fundamental forms of human vocalization. Górecki’s new material was no longer cerebral and sparse; rather, it was intensely expressive, persistently rhythmic and often richly colored in the darkest of orchestral hues. After its discovery by Pialat, it proved very appealing to a sophisticated young audience far removed from avant-garde factionalism.
It is not surprising that the Kronos String Quartet, an ensemble that dresses snazzily and includes arrangements of Jimi Hendrix pieces on its concert repertoire, chose Górecki for a commission in 1988. The resulting composition is ”Already It Is Dusk,” a 14-minute gem just released (along with Górecki’s 1984 ”Lerchenmusik,” for clarinet, cello and piano) on Nonesuch 9 79257-2. There is nothing lightweight about either work; these are probing essays that balance meditative lulls with episodes of blistering energy, and both of them feature a harmonic language considerably more bracing than that heard in the ”Chants plaintifs” symphony. At the same time, there is nothing in these works that is not immediately accessible, even to listeners whose previous experience with serious music has been limited to ”concept albums” by rock groups.
While one can only imagine that Górecki’s music comes from the heart, there is no question that it goes to the heart – and to the gut – of those who hear it. That the music also makes its way to the mind of its audience is not to be discounted; in ”Already It Is Dusk” there is a wealth of symbolism woven into Górecki’s variations on a 16th-century Polish hymn tune, and in ”Lerchenmusik” (available in another performance on Olympia OCD 343) the counterpoint sometimes glows with awesome perfection.
But in the long run it is the music’s directness, not its subtlety, that makes it so winning. Górecki abandoned the international circuit almost 30 years ago and went into a self-imposed exile in the industrial city of Katowice. It was in Katowice, one of the most polluted cities in the world, that he began to tap the raw, elemental musical forces that are now his trademark. However they are channeled, these are forces that work.