The composer Henryk Gorecki died today. He was 76.
Most people who know him know only his Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” A 1992 recording sold over a million copies. The texts in the hour-long work draw on a fifteenth-century lament, a folk song from the Silesia region of Poland, and the words that a teenage girl wrote on the wall of her cell in a Gestapo prison in Poland.
I have the recording; after its popularity started to wind down, the classical CD store I worked for had at least three copies in the Used section, and I adopted one and took it home. I’m going to take another listen; it’s been years since I’ve heard any of his music.
Several writers today have asked whether Gorecki was a one-hit wonder. In the sense that only one piece of his was ever popular, yes. But I don’t get the sense that he only wrote one good piece – that he reached an apex with the Third Symphony and then languished in obscurity. He’s gone through important stylistic shifts, and I want to go now and listen to his other music from other time periods, to get a better sense of the arch of his approach, his structure and language. This post by Tom Service explores some of the breadth of Gorecki’s compositional career.
I first saw the news about Gorecki on Twitter, via @nprclassical. I read the article in the Guardian. NPR Music has a great piece up with audio excerpts from interviews with the composer. I like Rob Cowan’s piece in Gramophone. WQXR has a nice piece as well.
Here are my favorite Gorecki quotes that I’ve come across today.
To his students who asked him about writing music, he said: “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.”
And in an interview, he wrote: “I do not choose my listeners. What I mean is, I never write for my listeners. I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them. I have something to tell them, but the audience must also put a certain effort into it. But I never wrote for an audience and never will write for one, because you have to give the listener something and he has to make an effort in order to understand certain things.”
(That last statement is in line with what I was writing just last week, from a different angle. The artist, the presenter, the performer all put something forward, and the listener comes and meets them partway. Everyone brings something to the experience of an artistic work.)
And, finally, when an interviewer said she wanted to talk about “music and life,” he responded: “Please, one does not talk about life. One lives life.”
(Musical Quarterly 82:1, Spring 1998)