It was announced Friday morning that Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki died early Friday at the age of 76. Gorecki died in the cardiology ward of a hospital in his home city of Katowice in southern Poland, Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa, the director of Polish Radio orchestra in Katowice, told The Associated Press. The composer was suffering from a number of ailments, chiefly a lung infection, she said. Wnuk-Nazarowa also said she and another Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, had visited Gorecki in the hospital on Wednesday.
Last month, in his hospital bed, he received Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, bestowed by President Bronislaw Komorowski. The composer is survived by his wife, piano teacher Jadwiga; his daughter, pianist Anna Gorecka-Stanczyk; and his son, composer Mikolaj Gorecki.
Gorecki’s compositional style transitioned over the years. In his early career, Gorecki was influenced by avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Bela Bartok and cultivated an austere, cerebral style. His later works were often religious in inspiration, which earned him comparisons with other composers of sacred music such as Britain’s John Tavener and Estonia’s Arvo Part.
Gorecki’s best known composition is the contemplative Third Symphony or “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” composed for orchestra and solo soprano and explores the themes of war and loss. The symphony earned Gorecki international recognition. The work features a Polish religious lament, the message written on the wall of a Nazi prison cell by a young Polish woman, and a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her son. The work was brought back into the spotlight when a recording featuring Dawn Upshaw was released in 1992.
His monumental Second, or “Copernican,” Symphony marked a transition to a more traditional mode of expression from his avant-garde style. Composed in 1972 and featuring a choir and texts from biblical psalms, it celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who established that the earth circled the sun and not the other way round.
The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique body of work. With Already it is Dusk, Quasi una fantasia, and …songs are sung, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering, his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as our bows could handle and more.
Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward. There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12 years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that devotion to his muse.
I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said, ‘David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet No. 4. You choose.’ I chose String Quartet No. 4. But it looks like I will have to wait.
There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the Universe. I miss him immensely.
Gorecki was born on December 6, 1933 into a musical family in southern Poland. He combined composing with an academic career.
- RIP Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010) (netnewmusic.net)
- Henryk Górecki: an appreciation (telegraph.co.uk)
- Polish composer Henryk Górecki dies, aged 76 (guardian.co.uk)
- You: Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, Composer, Dies (nytimes.com)