Often mistaken for a one-work composer on account of his Third Symphony, Henryk Górecki, born in 1933 near Rybnik, Silesia, was a Polish creative artist who, from the atomised musical language of the 1960s avant-garde, fashioned a remarkable individual style - grave, penitential, mystical - guided by the twin stars of national spirit and the Catholic Church.
Directly or obliquely, Poland's troubled history is reflected in much of his output. As a gifted young modernist composer, he became prominent through the Warsaw Autumn Festival, founded in 1956 as an audacious assertion of his country's artistic independence in the years of Soviet domination.
But while his early works such as Epitafium, the First Symphony and Scontri scandalised audiences and established his progressive credentials in the European citadels of new music, he was also sensitive to deeper currents from his country's history. Long before it became fashionable to recall the past through quotations of earlier music, heritage elements of Tatra folk song and medieval liturgical chant became part of his language through their overwhelming symbolic power.
First revealed in the nostalgic anachronisms of the Three Pieces in the Old Style of 1963 and in the Old Polish Music of 1969, this new manner achieved a simple yet bold monumentality in the 'Copernican' Second Symphony of 1972, more intimate expression in the Third Symphony of 1976, and a historic apotheosis in Beatus vir, performed in Krakow before Pope John Paul II on his first Polish pilgrimage in 1979.
Górecki responded to the political violence of the early 1980s with an unaccompanied Miserere; boycotted by the authorities, it was premiered in 1987, a year that also saw a renewal of interest in his Third Symphony against the backdrop of a decaying Soviet empire. Recovering from serious illness in 1985, he re-engaged with the currents of contemporary music in Recitatives and Ariosos (Lerchenmusik) for clarinet, cello and piano, but otherwise concentrated on the composition of choral music, including Totus tuus, written in 1987 for the third Papal visit to Poland.
Górecki's rise to celebrity status in the late 1980s scarcely shifted his stylistic co-ordinates, though he extended their scope in a variety of chamber works, including Already it is Dusk (1988) for the Kronos Quartet, the memorial Good Night (1990) and the enigmatic Little Requiem for a Polka (1993), both for ensemble. Faith and its expression in vocal and choral music steeped in the Polish tradition nevertheless remained at the heart of his later music, which is dominated by the substantial cantata Salve, sidus Polonorum (2000; heard at the Proms in 2001). In 2002 Górecki arranged his second string quartet Quasi una fantasia for string orchestra, and his long-awaited Third String Quartet was premiered by the Kronos in October 2005. His Symphony No. 4 was due to be premièred in London in 2010, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but the event was cancelled due to the composer's ill health. He died in November of that year.
Profile © Nicholas Williams, 2005