Meet The Composers: Górecki

Image by Ian Shine
Image by Ian Shine

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” So said Voltaire back in the 18th century. But in a 21st century world where, for many, God does not exist because we’ve chosen to phase out such a notion, what is it necessary to invent to replace God?

“Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true,” according to Alain de Botton. “What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind… and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively.”

So what is good within the faiths? What do religions offer? Well, they offer us something we need, because if they did not — regardless of whether they are a fantasy or not — no-one would pay any attention to them.

They offers us a realm to escape to, away from the burdens of the world. A place to stop and consider life; to turn away from ourselves and survey the meaning of our existence, our place within the universe. A place to admit that we are wrong and flawed; that we are human. A form of release. Somewhere where the unceasing machinations of time cease to matter.

And depending on who we are, we may already find such good within yoga, getting smashed on a Friday night, burying our head in a book, running marathons, attending orgies, stroking a cat or popping outside for a fag break at work.

We may also find it in music, as the Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) noted:

“I think that music is one of the domains that people really need, and its importance only depends on whether one knows how to receive it. Not only music, also literature, painting, sculpture, and film. [Russian film director Andrei] Tarkovsky said that art is prayer. It is something that I also emphasise.”

Górecki (pronounced goo-ret-ski) was a practitioner of “holy minimalism”, a school of classical music that uses simple forms of composition — harmonies, repetition, a limited number of chords — in accordance with sacred music techniques and texts, but without intending to convey a spiritual message. In short, a form of music that seeks to take the good within faiths and offer it to the secular world.

Holy minimalism’s foremost exponent was probably the recently departed John Tavener, but, for me, Tavener’s music doesn’t quite plunge to the same emotional depths as Góreck’s output. For while Tavener’s music is like a huge rock thrown into the lake of the soul, causing enormous splashes and billows, the surface soon returns to its original state. Górecki’s music, however, is like a perpetual scree of pebbles that slip through the lake’s surface and steadily build on top of one another until they fill up the basin, totally displacing the water. See, in particular, the second movement of his Symphony No. 3.

Górecki’s name may not be the first that would trip off the tongue if asked to name a composer born in the 20th century, but he is responsible for the best-selling contemporary classical CD in the shape of his Symphony No. 3. He wrote the piece in late 1976, but it only gained international recognition after a 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta became one of the UK’s best-selling albums in 1993.

This popularity prompted Górecki to say of the symphony: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music… something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them.”

Indeed, Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, says Górecki’s works provide “oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture”.

What is Symphony No. 3?

Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it is a piece of three “very, very slow” movements, according to Michał Dworzynski, who recently conducted it at London’s Southbank Centre. That performance lasted about 55 minutes, although when Górecki conducted it himself it could take up to 70 minutes.

The text of each movement is a variation on the theme of separation of mother and child. The first is a 15th-century prayer in which the Virgin Mary grieves over the dying Jesus. The words of the second were written by a teenage girl on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell, while the third is based on a 19th-century Polish folk melody in which a mother mourns the loss of her young son during an uprising.

“But even if you don’t understand the text, you can find meaning,” Dworzynski says. “The strongest meaning of this symphony, is that it is giving us time to live. Us as humans, we need this kind of time to ourselves.”

This extra-temporality of the symphony is something that is widely commented upon. The sleeve notes say that: “All tempi are nominally slow, but are subject to such subtle changes and influences that conventional notions of slow and fast are set at nought, and a new sort of dynamism develops.”

The music seems to almost pulse, the violin and cello strings unceasing but slipping from the borders of silence to a place just beneath piercing, lifting the listener up and down with them. As I mentioned in my previous piece about composers, it easy to see links between classical and electronic music. The overarching idea of subtly altered repetitions of a simple motif that build to a peak and then descend is one that props up all electronic music. You can hear this a lot in Floating Points’ work, and you can hear the same oscillating pulse in The Streets. Lamb even sampled Symphony No. 3 for their 1997 single Górecki, although this is a rather poor tribute to the man and his works in this writer’s opinion.

Symphony No. 3 was seen as somewhat naïve when it first appeared, marking a shift in Górecki’s style from the avant garde’s favoured dissonant clashes and violent stabbings of sound — remnants of which can be heard at the start of his second symphony — to traditional composition. It is no coincidence that he wrote it just after becoming professor of composition at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, where he found himself in continuous conflict with Poland’s communist authorities as he looked to shield his students from political interference. As such, the symphony’s nod towards the church is a subtle attack on these authorities, for the Polish church was “the sole, truly independent church in the whole Soviet Bloc”, according to the historian Norman Davies, and as such offered a shelter from the regime, somewhere to escape to.

“[The church’s] strength can be explained in part by the suffering of the war years, which turned people’s minds to the solace of religion; in part by the law of human cussedness, which increased people’s loyalty to the church just because their government forbade it,”[i] Davies says.

Górecki became more overtly political with his later composition, Miserere, written in protest at militia violence against members of the Polish trade union Solidarity in 1981. The piece, which runs to over 30 minutes, involves an unaccompanied choir repeating a Latin text of only five words — “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis” (Lord our God, have mercy on us) — with the final clause not actually sung until the final three minutes. It might sound dull, but it possesses an otherworldliness that, if I could express in writing, would make it not worth listening to.

For Górecki, music was not just music, but it was a response to life, a way of coping with life, and even more so, it was life itself. One of his most famous remarks was uttered to a student who asked him how they should know what music to write. “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write — it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer. If you can live without listening to music — any kind of music — then live without music. If you don’t need it, you don’t need it. But then that is a very poor person. Very, very poor.”

Symphony No. 3 has become something I cannot live without; something I have come to need, every two or three days, to find space to live. Once you’ve listened to it, you may find that the same becomes true for you.

Górecki’s Symphony No. 4 will have its world premiere at London’s Southbank Centre on Saturday 12 April.


[i] Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, Norman Davies

Ian Shine

About Ian Shine

Ian Shine lives in southeast London and works as a sub-editor. His short stories have appeared in publications including The Stinging Fly, the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies for 2013 (Scraps) and 2014 (Eating My Words), The Fiction Desk anthology Because of What Happened, Belleville Park Pages, Firewords and Stories for Homes, a collection of stories put together to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.

Ian Shine lives in southeast London and works as a sub-editor. His short stories have appeared in publications including The Stinging Fly, the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies for 2013 (Scraps) and 2014 (Eating My Words), The Fiction Desk anthology Because of What Happened, Belleville Park Pages, Firewords and Stories for Homes, a collection of stories put together to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.

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