An interview with Henryk Gorecki
Fifteen years ago, in 1992, a peculiar sound leaked onto the streets and began eroding the party walls between musical genres. It was the voice of a woman keening in a Slavic tongue and it captured two parallel interests – the west’s awakening to post-Soviet eastern Europe, and the growing curiosity of a post-ideological generation in vaguely spiritual utterances.
The third symphony by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, a Polish composer unknown abroad, went on to sell a million discs and achieve more performances than any work by a living composer since the Second World War. It shattered two cardinal rules of contemporary music - that the symphony was dead and melody forbidden - by showing there was life in the old forms yet and that new serious music could appeal, incredibly, to a modern clubbing audience. At his peak, Gorecki teetered at number six in the UK pop charts, just behind Paul McCartney.
And that was it. For the next 15 years there was nothing more was heard from Gorecki. A stubborn man, crippled in one hip from wartime hospital treatment, he hunkered down at home in Katowice, and in his holiday chalet in the Tatra mountains. The musical world wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and went back to its wicked old ways. Gorecki was so-oh Nineties, you know.
Finally, this month, he has a new work out. It is a string quartet, sombre and intermittently agitated, sharing many of the characteristics of the third symphony except its transcendent vocal final. The quartet’s title, though, is ‘songs are sung’ and the impulse is unmistakably lyrical. You can whistle every line in the score and the themes are weighted with devotional fervour. It may not be another Symphony of Sorrowful Songs but it is a work of music that will conquer the airwaves and be extremely hard to avoid in the months to come.
Gorecki wrote the quartet between November 1994 and January 1995 and kept it hidden ever since. ‘I don’t know why,’ he wrote on the manuscript – and that is all we are supposed to know. Absolutely no interviews, was the word. I had met the man twice in the symphony’s heyday – at a round table in Brussels where he beamed an enigmatic bonhomie and in a London hotel suite where I had persuaded him to face a BBC camera. ‘Quatsch,’ was a favourite response to my questions, German for ‘nonsense’. I liked him enormously.
So I rang him in Katowice and found him in his usual high spirits. ‘Write what you like about the quartet,’ he cried by way of greeting. ‘I am always interested in what people write about my work. I put notes on paper, you put words. What I think about the music, my philosophy, that does not leave my work room. But I am curious to know what others see in it.’
The thing about Gorecki is that he actually loves talking, can’t stop himself once he gets going – until you ask about one of his works and then he clams up. I enquire after his health and he chortles that after a life full of bad medical prognoses he feels fine at 74. Married for half a century to a pianist, his college sweetheart Jadwiga, with a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and a fifth on the way, he never wants to leave home again. ‘I have no time to travel,’ he frets. ‘The clock runs so fast. I sit in my house with Schubert, Chopin, Bach and Mozart.’
A heavenly quartet, I say. ‘You mean my quartet?’ he exclaims, fishing for compliments about the new work. That’s pretty heavenly, too, I say, especially the super-slow finale which sounds almost not of this world. ‘It’s just notes,’ says Gorecki dismissively. Does it have a religious or spiritual impulse? ‘That must remain in my work room,’ he repeats. Did the third symphony have a message. ‘Listen,’ says the composer, ‘what goes into my music stays in my room. The world can hear what it likes.’
He had a hard time under the Communists. Lacking the sophistication of Lutoslawski and Penderecki to play the game and face both ways, he suffered for his naivety and had to resign his conservatory post in 1979 after protesting the government’s refusal to allow the Pope to visit Katowice. His response was to write a Beatus Vir that he conducted before John Paul in Cracow. His phone was tapped and calls were cut off every two minutes. He will not speak of these miseries. Politics, oppressively then and chaotically now, are kept outside his door.
Is he still composing? I ask. ‘Of course, what else should I do?’ He goes into his room each morning and emerges only for meals. Does he use the piano? ‘Sometimes yes, sometimes no, like Stravinsky.’
The title of his new quartet is a line from a poem by the Russian, Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922). ‘when people die/songs are sung’. But the work itself is by no means a valediction. It is a vibrant affirmation of life, joyous and motoric, young and loving. I ask why he waited so long before bringing it out? ‘I honestly don’t know,’ he sighs. ‘It’s like wine, some bottles you leave for two years, some for five. This one had to lay a little bit longer.’
The finale has a hint to it of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, with prolonged exhalations and the word ‘morbido’ dictating its mood. But the uplift is not delayed for long and the work closes in an F-major consolation of the Amen cadence. It was premiered in Poland by the designer-cool Kronos Quartet and repeated in New York last year to ecstatic reviews. I ask Gorecki if he is happy with the initial reception, ahead of its CD release on Nonesuch. ‘I wrote a piece,’ he says beatifically. ‘It went out into the world.’
Finally, he confides a working secret, his three rules of composition: ‘One must have distance from the work. One must not look into the music. One has to be optimistic about the world. That is all,’ he says. ‘That is all music can do.’ No music presently being written does it better than Gorecki’s.