“My beautiful land – the Rybnik and Racibórz district” – this is how Henryk Mikołaj Górecki described his birthplace (on 6 December 1933): Czernica, a little village in the southern part of industrial Upper Silesia. A landscape filled with mineshafts and smoking chimneys but also oases of lush nature. It was his homeland, which he never rejected and always recalled with fondness. Górecki’s childhood and youth were full of hardship – both because of his failing health and everyday problems. It was only after graduating from secondary school that he began his regular musical education in Rybnik. Through his incredible determination, he was soon admitted to Katowice’s State High School of Music in the class of Bolesław Szabelski. The composer’s hard work and talent were promptly acknowledged. As soon as 1958, while still as a student, he made his Warsaw Autumn debut with his Epitaph Op. 12. From then on, each new work would attract the attention of music critics in Poland.
Entering the musical world after 1956, Górecki’s generation was spared the rigid regime of “Socialist realism”. Poland was now (relatively) open to the world; composers passionately engaged in learning and assimilating the techniques and aesthetics of the Western avant-garde. After several years of following those hitherto forbidden novelties, the post-war generation eventually worked out its own avant-garde language: that of sonorism, a phenomenon original enough to be hailed in the world as the “Polish school of composition”, based on new sound material produced on traditional instruments by means of unconventional techniques, clusters, glissandi, etc. arranged into new types of textures. Sonorism also developed a new type of narrative: a tale of pure sound and texture, often dramatic, even violent. Górecki co-created this new phenomenon in the 1960s, but his sonorism was of a very peculiar sort. Instead of multiplying new sound-and-colour qualities, he reduced them to reach a kind of minimalism. Later he rediscovered the lost elements of harmony and melody and symbiotically combined them with verbal text, mostly of religious character. At the peak moment of this evolution, Górecki wrote his Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” (1976) and the cantata Beatus vir (1979). After those monumental works, the composer dedicated himself primarily to religious choral works. He also discovered the string quartet – largely through commissions from the Kronos Quartet, for which he wrote three works between 1988 and 1995.
Górecki said he owed his quartets “to Beethoven”. What was Beethoven’s role and what kind of influence did he have on the Polish composer? Certainly Górecki did not mean occasional quotations or musical allusions. Rather, he saw Beethoven as a model in emphasising expression as the main quality in music, in aesthetic unorthodoxy, in his unpredictability and violent nature... In Górecki’s music, even the tranquillo or tranquillissimo are of Beethoven’s spirit, which means that they cannot be contented with peace, not to mention any kind of moderation. It is a peace from beyond peace, coming as though from another world.
Górecki’s first quartet (still not called a quartet – that subtitle was added later) was simply called Music for String Quartet, and subtitled “Already It Is Dusk”. Composed in Chochołów in 1988 as Górecki’s Opus 62, the duration is ca. 16 minutes. In the score, the composer included the cantus firmus of Wacław of Szamotuły’s (mid-16th century) setting of Prayer for When the Children Go to Sleep by Andrzej Trzecieski:
Already it is dusk, the night is near:
Let us ask the Lord for his aid.
Let him be our guard,
Protect us from evil fiends
For whom the darkness is
Best for their wrong-doings.
It was a song that Górecki held in particular reverence and used several times (e.g. in his Old Polish Music for orchestra Op. 24 of 1969). The composition is a leading Polish Renaissance work, regularly included in the repertoire of Polish choral ensembles. On the first page of the score, there is yet another text, written by the composer himself:
Hens cluck / geese and ducks gaggle / dogs bark // horses whinny / pigs squeal / sheep bleat / cows moo // Peasants shout / their wives bawl / children run about / music is playing // MOVEMENT – Bustle // All this slowly dies down and calms down // Smoke from the chimneys // Lights in the windows / Mist in the fields – meadows / The Angelus is heard from a distance / PEACE – Silence.
This poetic commentary is quite unusual for Górecki – especially in purely instrumental music! Music that brings peace and silence (molto lento, tranquillo, tranquillissimo; pianissimo, piano pianissimo), but also music full of movement and stir (allegro – deciso, energico, molto espressivo e molto marcato ma sempre ben tenuto; feroce, gridendo, acuto, ferocissimo, furioso, martellando, tempestoso, con massima passione; sempre forte fortissimo). Peace and calm are associated with the linear exposition of Wacław of Szamotuły’s song in four contrapuntal variants (original, retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion). Movement and agitation come in the form of motifs and chordal gestures that summon the images of shouting peasants, bawling village women, cries of farm animals, and a Highlanders’ band pounding on their instruments. Without the score commentary, the contrapuntally transformed song quotation is not easily recognisable; the illustrative gestures, however, are. The composer revealed to his monographer Adrian Thomas that the quartet is a musical picture of Chochołów in the Tatra Mountains before nightfall. So it clearly illustrative music: depicting the kind of village life that no longer exists but was preserved in the memory or recreated in the imagination... Yet the music can also be interpreted as a tale of the eternal interaction of the sacred and the profane in human life.
String Quartet No. 2 “Quasi una fantasia” Op. 64 (1990) consists of four movements; its duration is more than double that of the Quartet No. 1. It begins wistfully and as if reluctantly – Largo – Sostenuto – Mesto – with a persistent ostinato on the cello’s low E and a melodic “sighing” motif in the viola (E flat – D). In the next section, the full quartet plays what Górecki defined as “chordal textures” consisting of “Beethoven chords” (B flat – E flat – A – E flat). A genuine contrast is only offered in Movement II, Deciso – Energico. Now the music is based on two notes, E–G pounding from ff to ffff like the heart of a breathless man. Above it, in the higher registers, aggressive melodic motifs combine into longer phrases, which are abruptly interrupted in the climax, giving way to two more “Beethoven chords” (B flat – E flat). There comes another contrast: a quiet chordal Tranquillo – Mesto, which ends this movement, suspended on the dominant seventh chord of the latent D major.
Movement III: Arioso. Adagio cantabile ma molto espressivo e molto appassionato – follows the same principle and role division: the basses (cello and viola) provide a chordal pulse, while the violin sings. The song is not overly sweet, though: the voices are doubled in minor ninths, producing the effect of singing offkey, as on some solemn occasions when people put maximum strength and enthusiasm into collective singing. But even here, in the Largo, we are suddenly faced with a “learned” sequence of “Beethoven chords” (B flat – E flat – A...) followed by a straight F major in the end.
The Finale – Allegro sempre con grande passione e molto marcato – finally brings a merry dance-like pace. It contains reminiscences of Highlanders’ music (as in the second movement of the Harpsichord Concerto) as well as jazz-like passages, dynamically shifting metres and active, meandering voice lines in the low register. Apart from many playful elements, this section also introduces a reflective one in the form of a quotation from the Christmas carol Silent Night (Lento).
The title of this quartet – Quasi una fantasia – alludes to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 27 No. 1. There are more references to Beethoven, to mention only the “Beethoven chords”. Yet Górecki’s other “secular” instrumental works from that period, e.g. his other quartets or Lerchenmusik, could also be labelled “fantasies”.
Górecki’s last work, String Quartet No. 3 “...songs are sung” Op. 67, was written in late 1994 and early 1995 – and it had to wait. “It is only now”, the composer confessed on the last page of the manuscript, “that I have revised it a little and made a clean copy. [...] All the time, I have been holding it from the world. I do not know why – Ząb, May 2005”. The title comes from a Russian poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, which Górecki had once read, memorised and which haunted him ever since:
When the sun dies – it goes out
when horses die – they neigh
when grasses die – they wither
when people die – songs are sung.
The old Russian custom of singing while washing the dead man’s body deeply moved the composer. “It is wonderful that songs are sung at that moment. And I wrote such songs” (from an interview with Joanna Grotkowska after the first performance of String Quartet No. 3 in Bielsko-Biała, November 2005). At the same time, however, Górecki did not want his audience to be influenced by a programme. Bohdan Pociej aptly observed that “the prayer for good death is a motif that returns in Górecki’s music now more, now less distinctly; this prayer is thought and said, but it is also sung”.
Movement I, Adagio – Molto andante – Cantabile, is based on a rhythm similar to that of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 but slower: transformed into a very slow funeral march. On this foundation, a melody made of only two intervals, minor seconds and thirds, climbs from piano and low register, culminating in a fortissimo and then returning to the beginning. The homogeneous material, melodic type, and dominance of descending motifs give this movement the character of a lamentation, and in some places (where the metre is changed) also that of a lullaby. The mournful atmosphere sets in in Movement II, Largo – Cantabile. The tempo becomes so slow that the music loses its pulse, time stops, and the sound is hushed. There is no space here for any movement or development – even on the level of dynamics. The mood becomes just a little bit livelier in the D major sections, with motifs reminiscent of Highlanders’ music. But the sound remains dead, without vibrations, as if it were coming out of a village church harmonium. The painful dullness of this music ends with a cadence in E flat major.
Movement III, Allegro – Sempre ben marcato, is the Quartet’s axis of symmetry. It is the shortest movement, standing in contrast with everything that precedes and follows. It brings the fast pace of something like a dance – or perhaps of a wind-up toy which eventually loses its impetus and gets stuck? Another surprise comes with a brief, literal quote from Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 2, but what was written piano pianissimo by Szymanowski is quoted forte fortissimo by Górecki.
Movement IV, Deciso – Espressivo ma ben tenuto, begins with a return of the Szymanowski quote. What seemed an surprising abrupt addition in the previous movement, has now its structural importance confirmed. The second motifs from the previous section also return, but augmented, with their character changed from a fast carefree play to a slow song, built on several tones; in the morbido section this turns into a sweet tune in parallel thirds in the violin. As in the other movements, this tune is saved from banality, this time by bitter, dissonant ostinato harmonies in the lower registers. The movement dies away on a F major cadence. Movement V, Largo – Tranquillo, is introduced by the solo cello, which reiterates this introduction towards the end of the work. This is the only (and therefore significant) example of a large intervallic leap in Górecki’s quartets. Still, the music immediately becomes calm and hushed, articulated by homorhythmic textures with the melody flickering in the violin. That melody slowly swings on just two tones: D flat and B flat, leading to a long sustained chord of E flat major. The end.
Alfred Schnittke once said that Giya Kancheli’s symphonies are like “living a lifetime”. It is also the case with Górecki’s three quartets: experiencing them is, in a sense, like living an entire life: the life of a suffering man. That of a homo patiens.