In the early 1990s, at the peak of his popularity, Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki’s classical compositions hit the contemporary pop charts and overshadowed such artists as Leonard Cohen, Madonna or David Bowie. ‘The Telegraph’ ranked him third among the most influential performers and show-business figures of the time. Best known for his ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, he is often called the most Polish modern composer.
Alex Ross, renowned cultural commentator, once wrote about him: ‘It is not hard to guess why Gorecki and several like-minded composers achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the Eighties and Nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture.’
Gorecki, one of the few classical artists that reached the top ranks of music charts, was born on 6 December 1933 in Czernica, a small town in the Polish industrial region of Silesia. Since his early childhood, he displayed exceptional talent for music that he inherited from his parents Roman and Otylia. His tutors would often repeat that he was destined to become a musician; however, he started his regular education in that direction at the age of 19 in the nearest Music School in Rybnik. Afterward, he entered the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice (the capital of Silesia) under the supervision of recognized Polish educator and musician Boleslaw Szabelski. Gorecki debuted as a composer when he was still a student during the first monographic concert at the Academy in 1958. In the same year, his ‘Epitaph’ was performed for a wider audience at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Modern Music. His early success enabled him to travel and study in Paris where his ‘Refrain’ was awarded the prestigious international award at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in 1967. That opened for him the path to international recognition. Gorecki’s most notable ‘avant-garde’ compositions of the 1960s were ‘Genesis I-III’ (1962–63) and ‘La Musiquette’ (1967–70). They featured changing tones, folk inspirations and affiliation to the motifs from the composer’s beloved Tatra Mountains. The author was always strongly attached to his motherland and would repeat: ‘nobody chooses their time and place of birth. You need to respect it, live a decent life and be responsible for it.’
After the success of ‘Refrain’, Gorecki radically turned to large forms, religious texts and inspirations rooted in the past. In 1972, he created his famous Symphony No. 2 ‘Copernican’ on the commission of the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York (aimed at the promotion of Polish culture) to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer and contributor to the heliocentric theory who radically changed the way we perceive the universe today. In 1975, Gorecki was appointed the Rector of the Academy of Music in Katowice; however, after several years, he was forced to resign due to his lack of political zeal. He would say:
‘I've always fought for what I wanted to fight for (…) Some people take an automatic gun and shoot. I can only fight with my notes on the page.’
Although Gorecki had no particular interest in political matters, he was not afraid of expressing his thoughts and feelings; therefore, he accepted the proposal to create a ‘Beatus Vir’ to celebrate John Paul II’s first visit to Poland after he was elected Pope in 1979. The political pressures from the Communist government and health problems finally made the composer withdraw from public life; nevertheless, he remained active as a creator. The peak of his already intense career came in 1992 after American music label Elektra Nonesuch released the new version of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976). The composition was performed by American singer Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta and sold a record number of 800,000 copies. Except for his emotional symphonies, he also became known for his composition created for the famous David Harrington’s Kronos Quartet. Gorecki, often compared to such figures as Arvo Part and Giya Kancheli, received many Polish and international awards and titles: The Award of Highest Honor of the Soka University in Tokyo (1996), honorary degrees of the Catholic University in Washington, Michigan University in Ann Arbor, Victoria University and Montreal University, as well as the degree honoris causa of Warsaw University, Academy of Music in Katowice and Jagiellonian University in Cracow.
Few artists may claim such success as Henryk Gorecki. Despite that, the musician always remained modest and focused on music. He did not like giving interviews and avoided official receptions, emphasizing the role of charity in show business. On one of the occasions, he said: ‘when I see 20 bunches of flowers, I imagine how many loaves of bread, syringes or diapers could be bought for that. It pisses me off! – as the young would say’. Due to his rejection of the celebrity lifestyle, he becomes called the ‘Loner from Silesia’; however, people who knew him would often oppose that judgment, presenting Gorecki as open and friendly. Norman Lebrecht, a prominent British cultural commentator, was one of the few who had the opportunity to talk to the composer. After the interview, he wrote:
‘So I rang him in Katowice and found him in his usual high spirits. – Write what you like about the quartet – he cried by way of greeting. – I am always interested in what people write about my work. I put notes on paper, you put words. What I think about the music, my philosophy that does not leave my workroom. But I am curious to know what others see in it (…) – The thing about Gorecki is that he actually loves talking, can’t stop himself once he gets going until you ask about one of his works and then he clams up.’
When asked about his works, Gorecki once said that before his death, he would like to learn what music was. On his deathbed, the composer was awarded the Order of the White Eagle (the most prestigious Polish decoration), which proves that his wish had come true – at least in the eyes and ears of classical music aficionados not only in Poland, but also worldwide.
Author: Grzegorz Zawora / pr-controlled.com ©
Photos: Judyta Papp