Henryk Górecki: 1933-2010

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by Mark Saleski

I don’t have the language to properly describe most pieces of classical music, so you will rarely (if ever) see me employ words such as “sonata,” “fortissimo,” and “canon.” Besides, with this week’s passing of Polish composer Henryk Górecki, many megabytes (and ink!) have been spilled with the various re-visitations of the technicalities of his iconic composition Symphony No. 3.

I will skip those details partly out of obvious necessity but mostly because things like that are almost never relevant to my enjoyment of music. Let me tell you, I have been in huge arguments about this point: that because I know about music theory (in the jazz world) that I must think about the music in those terms — diatonic scales, passing tones, chord substitutions. No sir, I am just not wired that way.

Which is all fair and proper for my discussion of Symphony No. 3.

Like a lot of people, I only became aware of this composition in 1992, when the Nonesuch release came out. To my ear, the media hype was more than warranted. Conducted by David Zinman, performed by the London Sinfonettia, and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, Symphony No. 3 is an exercise is building emotion by way of dynamic variations. Indeed, the dynamic range is quite wide, from hushed double-basses that begin the first movement up to the explosive climax with Dawn Upshaw supported by strings.

What I found so interesting about my own reaction to this music is that the sorrow is successfully conveyed despite not knowing a single word being sung. The words employed during the second movement were found written on the wall of a cell in the basement of the Gestapo’s headquarters in Zadopane:

No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Support me always.

The prisoner was Helena Wanda Blazusiakówn, 18 years of age. Yes, knowing these facts does indeed push the composition’s emotional content up a bit, but the music can and does stand on its own.

I heard about Górecki’s death on my way home from work. At the end of the radio segment, the composer spoke about how fame wasn’t important to him:

“I will be extremely happy,” he said, “if some people 100 years from now would listen to some of my music. It’s not a question of being famous and popular. It’s a question of what you did and how you did it.”

You will be extremely happy, Mr. Górecki. And you will be missed.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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