Though he spent two brief periods studying in Paris and a short time in Berlin, Górecki has remained for most of his life in his native southern Poland. Until 1992, he was known only to a few connoisseurs, primarily as one of a number of composers responsible for sparking the postwar Polish music renaissance. That year Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of his fifteen year-old Symphony No. 3, which topped the classical charts in the UK. Within two years Symphony No. 3 had sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide—at least four hundred times the expected lifetime sales of a recording of a symphony by a relatively unknown twentieth-century composer. However the recording's success failed to arouse interest in other works by the composer. Górecki was as surprised as anyone else at the recording's success and said, "Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music…somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed."
Between 1951 and 1953, Górecki taught 10 and 11 year olds at a school outside of Rydułtowy, in southern Poland. In 1952, he began a teacher training course at the Intermediate School of Music in Rybnik, where he studied clarinet, violin, piano, and music theory. Through intensive studying Górecki finished the four year course in just under three years. During this time he began to compose his own pieces, usually songs and piano miniatures. Occasionally he attempted more ambitious projects—in 1952 he adapted the Adam Mickiewicz ballad Świtezianka, though his work was left unfinished.
Górecki began his formal study of music in 1952 at the pedagogical department of the Music High School in Rybnik, where he studied under the composer Bolesław Szabelski, a former student of Karol Szymanowski. Szabelski schooled his pupil in a neoclassical reading of contrapunctual and motorics; at the same time Górecki absorbed the rules of twelve-tone serialism. His first public performances were held in Katowice in February 1958, and the works performed displayed clear influence from Szymanowski and Bartók. By 1961, Górecki had progressed to the modernism of Anton Webern, Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez, and was at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde, while his Symphony No. 1 gained international acclaim at the Paris Biennial Festival of Youth. Górecki moved to Paris to continue his studies, and while there was influenced by such contemporaries as Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Roman Palester, and Karlheinz Stockhausen; composers who were at the time suppressed in Poland by the communist authorities.
In 1959, he wrote his Symphony No. 1, and graduated with honours from the Academy the following year. At the Warsaw Autumn Festival In September 1960, his Scontri (Opus 17), written for orchestra, caused a sensation among critics. Górecki began to lecture at the Academy of Music in Katowice in 1968, where he taught score-reading, orchestration and composition. In 1972, he was promoted to assistant professor, and became known amongst students for his often blunt personality. Górecki developed a fearsome reputation amongst students' the Polish composer Rafal Augustyn remembers, "When I began to study under Górecki it felt as if someone had dumped a pail of ice-cold water over my head. He could be ruthless in his opinions. The weak fell by the wayside but those who graduated under him became, without exception, respected composers." According to Górecki, “For quite a few years, I was a pedagogue, a teacher in the music academy, and my students would ask me many, many things, including how to write and what to write. I always answered this way: If you can live without music for 2 or 3 days, then don't write…It might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer…If you cannot live without music, then write.”
In 1975, Górecki was promoted to Professor of Composition at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice. Among his students were Eugeniusz Knapik, Andrzej Krzanowski, and Rafal Augustyn. However the academy at the time received a high level of interference from the Polish communist authorities. As a senior administrator, but not a member of the party, Górecki was in almost perpetual warfare with the authorities in an effort to protect his school, staff, and students from political influence.
He resigned his post in 1979, in protest at the government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II visit Katowice. Górecki formed a local branch of the "Catholic Intellectuals Club", an organisation devoted to the struggle against the communist party. He remained politically active through the late 1970s and 1980s. During the mid-1970s, he had composed for a celebration of Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland, while 1981's Miserere was written to commemorate police violence enacted against the Solidarity movement.
Górecki's more recent work includes a 1995 commission for the Kronos Quartet entitled, ...songs are sung as well as Concerto-Cantata (1992) for flute and orchestra and Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (1993) Both Concerto-Cantata and Kleines Requiem für eine Polka have been recorded by the London Sinfonietta and the Schoenberg Ensemble.
Górecki is married to the pianist Jadwiga Rurańska and has two children—Anna, also a pianist, and Mikolaj, a composer.
Górecki's music covers a variety of styles, but tends towards relative harmonic and rhythmical simplicity. He is considered to be a founder of the New Polish School, and his first works were in the avant-garde style of Pierre Boulez and other serialists. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Górecki progressively moved away from his early career as radical modernist, and began to compose with a more traditional, romantic mode of expression. His change of style was viewed as an affront to the then avant-garde establishment, and though he continued to receive commissions from various Polish agencies, by the mid 1970s Górecki had ceased to be a composer that mattered. In the words of one critic, "Górecki’s new material was no longer cerebral and sparse; rather, it was intensely expressive, persistently rhythmic and often richly colored in the darkest of orchestral hues."
Górecki's most popular piece is his Third Symphony, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych). Slow and contemplative, the three movements are composed for orchestra and solo soprano. The words of the first movement are from a 15th century lament; the words of the second from a teenage girl, Helena Błażusiak, written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane to invoke the protections of the Virgin Mary; the third movement uses a folk song.
When placing Górecki in the context of the history of modern art, musicologist and critics generally compare his work with such composers as Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives. He has said that he feels kindred with such figures as Bach, Mozart, and Joseph Haydn, though he has said he feels most affinity towards Franz Schubert, particularly in terms of tonal design and treatment of basic materials.
Since Górecki's move away from serialism and dissonance in the 1970s, he is frequently compared to composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Giya Kancheli. The term "holy minimalism" is often used to group these composers, due to their sharing a simplified approach to musical texture, tonality, and melody, in works often reflecting religious beliefs. However, none of these composers has admitted to common influences.
Discussing his audience in a 1994 interview, Górecki said,
|1972:||"Symphony No. 2"||Symphony No. 2 'Copernican', Op. 31||Baritone, Soprano and orchestra|
|1981:||"Miserere"||Miserere, Op. 44||Mixed choir|
|1986:||"Molto Lento"||Lerchenmusik, Op. 53|| Flute, Clarinet, Soprano, |
Trumpet, Trombone, Percussion.
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