It might be a reflection of me, or my friends, rather than the world at large, but the passing of Henryk Gorecki marked the first time since Michael Jackson that I found out about a musician’s death through a text message rather than the news. To me, it seems like that speaks volumes about how deeply people care about his music, how unerringly it connects with its audience. And this is to say nothing of the way one of his most famous and most cherished friends and compatriots reacted. As CBC reported, “[Krzysztof] Penderecki insisted on seeing him [in hospital]. We tried to joke, make plans for the future. Penderecki promised he would direct his Beatus Vir for his 80th birthday.” That birthday, like Penderecki’s own 80th, would have been in 2013. Something as simple, poignant, and sweet as that says everything. His death, like his music, was deeply human.
That is one thing that’s refreshing, almost, about Gorecki’s death. The last time I wrote an obituary for this blog, I was writing about a man that died very young and very suddenly. This time, I’m writing about a 76 year old man who had been ill for some time. There is no big story here, no coals to rake over, no skeletons in the closet to pause on – there is just a tribute to be paid to a great artist, and nothing more. We arguably haven’t had that since Stockhausen died, and even he did his best to soil his legacy with his comments about 9/11. This, in its own way, is life-affirming – that such a famed, respected musician could live such a long life, remain a creative force for the vast majority of it, and have such a normal, peaceful death. It doesn’t seem to happen very often.
Gorecki began his career as part of the post-serial avant-garde, which may shock fans of his later work – his Symphony No. 1, Op. 14 begins with crashing cymbals and clustered strings; it’s horror-movie dissonance right from Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski’s books. This was fairly typical for Polish music at the time, with he and his contemporaries enjoying an unusual freedom under their communist government, with easy access to the influential works of their counterparts from central and western Europe. Yet as he moved into simpler territory, drawing more and more influence from traditional Polish folk song (a move likely inspired by Karol Szymanowski), he dragged a significant chunk of European music with him. Much like Bela Bartok half a century before him, he found inspiration and acclaim in placing the folk songs of his homeland in an art music setting.
Once Gorecki had settled into the style for which he is now known – largely thanks to the surprise success of a 1992 recording of Symphony no. 3, op. 36: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which sold over a million copies – he became an inspiration to a wave of composers, as one of the major faces of holy minimalism. Although initial performances of Gorecki’s works in this style were met unfavourably by critics, for many this genre was the ultimate reaction to the unwieldy modernism that had characterized the first half of the 20th century, and the artistic success of Gorecki’s 1972 and 1976 symphonies helped open a door for the likes of Arvo Part, John Taverner, and Peteris Vasks to enjoy similar successes. It also allowed Gorecki to enter into a long-standing creative relationship with the respected Kronos Quartet which resulted in three excellent string quartets, and saw him commissioned to compose music for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Krakow (the piece composed was Beatus Vir – the same piece Penderecki offered to direct for him at his 80th birthday).
Yet there was turbulence in his creative life too, particularly when it came to the Polish government – most notably, he was moved to resign from his post at the Katowice Music Academy in 1979 in protest at the government’s refusal to allow the Pope free passage on his journey to Poland. He remained a dissenter throughout his life, forming a pressure group made up of leading Polish intellectuals in 1981. In 1989, when the Communist government fell, he began to travel, living and working primarily in California; he was due to première his fourth symphony in London shortly before he died, but cancelled due to his failing health. Upon learning of this, the Polish government moved quickly to award him the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s version of a knighthood. Considering how much Gorecki had done for his country, and how little it had given him back (in terms of its establishment, at least), this was a big move, and one that was much appreciated in Poland. Given the struggles he had during his lifetime, it must have been one of the ultimate accolades to know that he was now being honoured by its new, post-Communist government, and had not needed to compromise his ethics or beliefs to earn that honour.
There is a popular trend among classical audiences, perhaps as a direct result of the circumstances surrounding Mozart’s death, to assume that a composer will have composed their own requiem at some point. Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, for instance, is now spoken about in those terms so often so that people tend to forget that it’s not a fact, but speculation. With Gorecki, there’s no doubt that his requiem, the piece forever associated with his death, will also be his most famous. The Third Symphony is already played at funerals around the world, and for obvious reasons – its depiction of desperate longing, and its sheer sense of religious awe, have rarely been matched. As a piece that manages to at once be both peaceful and turbulent, it sums up his life and works neatly enough. RIP.