CREES Mourns the passing of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010)


By Luke B. Howard
Nov 12, 2010 Bookmark and Share

The University of Michigan Polish studies faculty and community learned with sadness of the passing of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki on November 12, 2010. Gorecki received an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1996. The year before (1995), he delivered the Copernicus Lecture as an interview/concert with U-M School of Music's Contemporary Directions Ensemble. Here we remember his life and his time at U-M.

A Tribute to Composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) by Luke B. Howard

It was while a graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Music from 1994-97 that I started to examine the music of Henryk Górecki in detail—his famous Third Symphony eventually became the topic for my doctoral dissertation. And during those years I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing the composer several times in Ann Arbor, thanks to the Copernicus Endowment and the generosity of CREES. Over the course of these visits, and other meetings with Górecki, I came to know something about the man himself as well as his music.

Górecki was unfailingly kind, patient, and generous, despite painful physical ailments and an exhausting schedule that would render any normal person decidedly ill-tempered. I recall him literally bounding across the stage from player to player, with that pronounced limp from childhood injuries, cheerfully offering advice and assistance to student musicians playing his works, while his close friends threw up their hands in frustration because he would not slow down or calm down. He was irrepressibly enthusiastic, almost giddy, when it came to making music. And he was equally reticent when it came to talking about his music. It’s true that he could be dismissive of the merely curious journalist who wanted a quick quote or who attempted to pry into the composer’s psyche. But the flip side is that Górecki was consistently respectful of the serious musician who sought for musical answers to the profound questions his compositions raise. It was the music, not the ego, that was most important to him. And that kind of integrity in a composer cannot be faked.

When I came to the end of my journey with Górecki’s music, it was such a joy to know that my focus on him was not misplaced. His compositions withstood all the scrutiny I could give them, and every impression that I teased out of my analysis confirmed my feeling that he had reached a place of purity—especially with the Third Symphony—that few composers ever glimpse, never mind achieve. That such extraordinary music could come from such a humble, self-effacing soul should not surprise us. Górecki was a master of his craft, certainly. But for music to speak sincerely to the deepest emotions within us, it must spring from a deep well of sincerity and not merely a reliance on sound compositional technique.

Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer with whom Górecki was most often grouped during the 1990s, once asked, “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” If music aspires to break the powerful, divine stillness that Pärt spoke of, then its inescapable duty is to be exceptional. Górecki’s music is exceptional; it has earned the right to break the silence. But when Górecki had nothing to say musically, which was often the case in his last years, he respected the silence, too. At precisely the time when he might have sought for commercial gain, notoriety, attention, and honors, or be tempted to write “copy-cat” works in the wake of the Third Symphony’s stunning success, he chose instead to remain silent. That eloquent silence, now perpetual, will be one of Górecki’s most powerful legacies. For in an age when so many composers exploit their music to honor themselves, Górecki stood out as a composer who, above all, gave of himself in honoring music. And now in return, his music—and his silence—honor him.

Luke B. Howard received his Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Michigan in 1997. He is an associate professor of musicology at Brigham Young University.

See this article in Gazeta Wyborcza: "W holdzie Góreckiemu"

For more on Gorecki by Howard, visit www.usc.edu/dept/polish_music/PMJ/issue/6.2.03/Howard.html.

New York Times obituary (November 12, 2010)