How Gorecki makes his musicby Norman Lebrecht
/ April 30, 2007
Fifteen years ago, in 1992, a
peculiar sound leaked onto the streets and began eroding the party walls
between musical genres. It was the voice of a woman keening in a Slavic
tongue and it captured two parallel interests – the West’s awakening
to post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and the growing curiosity of a post-ideological
generation in vaguely spiritual utterances.
The third symphony by Henryk
Mikolaj Gorecki, a Polish composer unknown abroad, went on to sell a
million discs and to achieve more performances than any work by a living
composer since the Second World War. It shattered two cardinal rules
of contemporary music – that the symphony was dead and that melody
should be forbidden – by showing there was life in the old forms yet
and that new serious music could appeal, incredibly, to a modern clubbing
audience. At his peak, Gorecki teetered at number six in the UK pop
charts, just behind Paul McCartney.
And that was it. For the
next 15 years nothing more was heard from Gorecki. A stubborn man, crippled
in one hip from wartime hospital treatment, he hunkered down at home
in Katowice and in his holiday chalet in the Tatra mountains. The musical
world wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and went back to its wicked
old ways. Gorecki was so Nineties, you know.
Finally, this month, he has
a new work out. It is a string quartet, sombre and intermittently agitated,
sharing many of the characteristics with the third symphony, except
its transcendent vocal finale.
The quartet’s title, though, is Songs are Sung, and the impulse
is unmistakably lyrical. You can whistle every line in the score and
the themes are weighted with devotional fervour. It may not be another
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs but it is a work of music that will
conquer the airwaves and be extremely hard to avoid in the months to
Gorecki wrote the quartet
between November 1994 and January 1995 and kept it hidden ever since.
"I don’t know why," he wrote on the manuscript – and that
is all we are supposed to know. Absolutely no interviews, was the word.
I had met the man twice in the symphony’s heyday – at a round table
in Brussels where he beamed an enigmatic bonhomie and in a London hotel
suite where I had persuaded him to face a BBC camera. "Quatsch,"
was a favourite response of his to my questions, German for "nonsense."
I liked him enormously.
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
work room. 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. I enquire
after his health and he chortles that, after a life full of bad medical
prognoses, he feels fine at 74. Married for half a century to a pianist,
his college sweetheart Jadwiga, with a son, a daughter, four grandchildren
and a fifth on the way, he never wants to leave home again. "I
have no time to travel," he frets. "The clock runs so fast.
I sit in my house with Schubert, Chopin, Bach and Mozart."
A heavenly quartet, I say.
"You mean my quartet?" he exclaims, fishing for compliments
about the new work. That’s pretty heavenly, too, I say, especially
the super-slow finale which sounds almost not of this world. "It’s
just notes," says Gorecki dismissively. Does it have a religious
or spiritual impulse? "That must remain in my work room,"
he repeats. Did the third symphony have a message? "Listen,"
says the composer, "what goes into my music stays in my room. The
world can hear what it likes."
He had a hard time under
the Communists. Lacking the sophistication of Lutoslawski and Penderecki
to play the game and face both ways, he suffered for his naivety and
had to resign from his conservatory post in 1979 after protesting the
government’s refusal to allow the Pope to visit Katowice. His response
was to write a Beatus Vir that he conducted before John Paul in Cracow.
His phone was tapped and calls were cut off every two minutes. He will
not speak of these miseries. Politics, oppressive then and chaotic now,
are kept outside his door.
Is he still composing, I
ask. "Of course, what else should I do?" He goes into his
room each morning and emerges only for meals. Does he use the piano?
"Sometimes yes, sometimes no, like Stravinsky."
The title of his new quartet
is a line from a poem by the Russian Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922).
"When people die/songs are sung." But the work itself is by
no means a valediction. It is a vibrant affirmation of life, joyous
and motoric, young and loving. I ask why he waited so long before bringing
it out. "I honestly don’t know," he sighs. "It’s
like wine; some bottles you leave for two years, some for five. This
one had to lay a little bit longer."
The finale has a hint to
it of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique
Symphony, with prolonged exhalations and the word "morbido"
dictating its mood. But the uplift is not delayed for long and the work
closes in an F-major consolation of the Amen cadence. It was premiered
in Poland by the designer-cool Kronos Quartet and repeated in New York
last year to ecstatic reviews. I ask Gorecki if he is happy with the
initial reception, ahead of its CD release on Nonesuch. "I wrote
a piece," he says beatifically. "It went out into the world."
Finally, he confides a working
secret, his three rules of composition: "One must have distance
from the work. One must not look into the music. One has to be optimistic
about the world. That is all," he says. "That is all music
No music presently being written
does it better than Gorecki’s. n
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