Monday, 5 March 2012

Henryk Gorecki - Sorrowful Songs

Henryk Gorecki
(1933 - 2010)
Gorecki was a Polish composer of contemporary classical music, and became a leading figure of the Polish avant-garde movement. His music covers a variety of styles, but tends towards harmonic and rhythmic simplicity. His earlier works were influenced by the serialist style of Boulez and other composers at the time. Gorecki's work was not always well-recieved, e.g. in 1967 his 'Refrain' was critiqued, 'players can bang and blow and scrape repeated notes as they wish, but the experiment might have been better conducted in private!'

Later in his career, Gorecki moved away from his original experimental and modernist style to adopt a more romantic and traditional style of composition. From this, he seemed to completely abandon the dissonance, serialism and sonorism that had brought him early recognition as he attempted to simplify his work. As well as the more traditional and romantic elements of his music, he began to favour large, slow gestures and the repetition of small motifs. This lead some critics to describe his new form of music as minimalistic.

Gorecki's most famous piece is The Symphony No.3 - also known as 'The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'. The work is a symphony in three movements composed in 1976. This is a good example of the transition between the two main styles of music that Gorecki explored. In each of the three movements, a solo soprano sings a different text. The first movement has a text about Mary, mother of Jesus. The second text is based on a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during WWII, and the third is a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her son who has been killed in the Silesian uprisings. With the first and third movements written from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child and the second written from the perspective of a child separated from their parent, the main themes of the symphony are clearly expressed as motherhood and separation during the war. The symphony was actually dedicated to Gorecki's wife, and represented no particular historical event, however he said his main aim was to achieve a sense of there being a crucial bond between mother and child.

The lack of harmonic variation and its reliance on repetition marks the symphony as Gorecki's move towards holy minimalism. Because of the emotional and religious aspects of the works that he produced at this time, Gorecki was often compared to other modernist composers who began to experiment with radical and simplified musical textures such as Arvo Part and John Tavener. Interestingly, the comparison of these composers seems to be complete coincidence, as none of them admit to having had any common influences on their music.

My favourite of the three movements is the second. The text translates as 'No mother, do not weep, most chaste queen of heaven support me always.' My reason for this is the beautiful opening of the piece played by the upper strings, and the extreme contrast of the lower orchestra when we hear the entrance of the solo soprano (sung in an extremely low tessitura) at 1.02. As well as this, the middle of the piece creates a huge, gradual climax (beginning at 3.31) after which fades into the introduction of the piece as the soprano mimics the repeating motif of the strings (5.20). Fitting in with the description of the piece being a work of holy minimalism, it is the simplicity of this work that makes the contrasted moments very effective, and almost heart-breaking.

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