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Remembering Polish composer H.M. Górecki

06.12.2023 23:30
The Polish musical world has paid tribute to Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, one of the most prominent 20th-century composers, who was born 90 years ago, on December 6, 1933.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, pictured in 2007.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, pictured in 2007.Photo: PAP/Andrzej Grygiel

A memorial mass for the composer was celebrated in the evening at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles in the Silesian city of Katowice, where Górecki spent the best part of his life and where he died on November 12, 2010.

A selection of his sacred choral works was performed during the service by Apertum Cor Ensemble, which has marked Górecki’s 90th birth anniversary with a CD featuring his Church Songs dating from 1986.

More musical tributes to Górecki are planned for later in the week, including the Górecki Marathon at the Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice. The all-day event, lasting from 9:30 a.m. until midnight, will include a wide selection of Górecki’s music, the launch of a popular monograph on his life and work, exhibitions and a meeting with his former students.

Born in the village of Czernica near Rydułtowy in Poland's southern Silesia region, Górecki started studying music at the age of 19. Three years later he enrolled at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice to study composition with Boleslaw Szabelski.

In the mid-1950s, at the time of the post-Stalinist cultural thaw, he found himself at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde.

He also explored folk music traditions in works such as Three Pieces in Old Style (1963) and Old Polish Music (1967-­1969).

His early pieces show a development from the folk-influenced worlds of Szymanowski and Bartok to the modernist techniques. The simple yet monumental style for which he came to be renowned became fully established in the 1970s, with such works as Symphony No. 2 Copernican (1972), Symphony No. 3 (1976) and the Psalm setting Beatus vir (performed in Kraków to mark Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979).

In the early 1980s, following the imposition of martial law in Poland, Górecki withdrew from public life and concentrated on choral settings, sacred music and chamber works.

In the 1990s, the recording of his Third Symphony, written 25 years earlier, achieved unprecedented international success, becoming the most popular recording of a work by a contemporary composer, thanks to a Nonesuch CD by the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman, with Dawn Upshaw as the soloist.

In the 1980s, Górecki’s music attracted new performers and audiences in the West. This led to the composition of three strong quartets, Already It Is Dusk (1988), Quasi una fantasia (1991) and Songs are Sung (2005), all of them commissioned and premiered by the Kronos Quartet from San Francisco.

Four of Górecki’s works were premiered upon his death: Symphony No. 4: Tansman Episodes, the hour-long oratorio Sanctus Adalbertus, a setting for choir and small orchestra of the Kyrie, and Two Tristan Postludes and Chorale for orchestra.

Górecki’s honours included the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish state distinction, as well as numerous honorary doctorates from universities and music academies across the world.

British musicologist Adrian Thomas, whose books on Polish music include a study on Górecki, wrote: "The strength and startling originality of Górecki's character shone through his music ... Yet he was an intensely private man, sometimes impossible, with a strong belief in family, a great sense of humour, a physical courage in the face of unrelenting illness, and a capacity for firm friendship."