Some of Henryk Gorecki’s closest collaborators were the members of the Kronos Quartet. He composed all three of his string quartets for Kronos. As it happens, when the composer passed away yesterday, the group was in Poland. Late yesterday, David Harrington, Kronos’ first violinist, released the following statement:

“The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique
body of work. With ‘Already it is Dusk’, Quasi Una Fantasia’ and ‘…songs are
sung’, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among
many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as
we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of
Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on
the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering,
his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as
our bows could handle and more.

“Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward.
There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He
was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12
years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the
right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that
devotion to his muse.

“I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful
chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said,
‘David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet #4. You choose.’ I
chose String Quartet #4. But it looks like I will have to wait.

“There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many
others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found
a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that
resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the
Universe. I miss him immensely.”

David Harrington
November 12, 2010
Wroclaw, Poland

3 thoughts on “Kronos remembers Gorecki”
  1. “While the composer has denied a direct program for the work, it’s frequently been linked with the experiences of the Polish people under German occupation during the Second World War; in particular, with the Holocaust.”

    Dr Carey, while this description could be technically correct if one follows those scholars who consider the Hebrew-rooted concept of “Holocaust” to include — among others — non-Germanic peoples, especially Poles and Slavic peoples in general and Romani, as well as European Jews, it is, I think, also open to misinterpretation.

    Throughout the 1960s (and perhaps late 1950s), Gorecki developed ideas and/or sketches for a memorial to the victims of Auschwitz which was located near his home in southern Poland (and which was the camp where an aunt died — his grandfather having died in Dachau near Munich and a third close relative in another camp elsewhere). However, when he was asked to complete this project and to have the work performed at a memorial service at Auschwitz he stopped working on it. His colleague Penderecki, however, did complete his “Dies Irae” short oratorio – based upon Latin and Greek texts — which was presented at an Auschwitz memorial concert during the same period.

    Whether Gorecki, in fact, ‘continued that Auschwitz work in new guise’ in 1976, as has been described elsewhere, is, I believe, open to question, given the transition of his modernist musical language (partially serial to chromatic/modal) and his memorial focus between the 1960s and 1976, and also his choice of the Polish language for his 1976 masterpiece.

    It is well known that the germs of his Symphony #3 are texts from the 15th-century “Holy Cross Lament”, an inscription by an 18 year old female Polish Catholic dissident imprisoned by the Gestapo in Zakopane south of Krakow, and an ethnic Polish folk song which speaks of warfare and a mother crying over her dead son — especially the last.

    Referring to his Symphony and his aborted Auschwitz project, Gorecki is quoted as saying “It came to my mind to write some similar songs for soprano and orchestra.” However, his Symphony would not, I imagine, have been critically or culturally well received as an Auschwitz or Holocaust memorial work in, say 1968. The work today is, I believe, seen less as a Holocaust (however interpreted) work, than as an anti-German fascist and more universal anti-war work (with the texts and contexts of the last two movements trumping the Polish Catholic opening text). These are important distinctions to consider, I believe, as we each think about the music of the past third of a century.

  2. Garrett,

    I think he’s talking about the overall chamber music tradition of Western classical music: not the quartet repertoire exclusively. Bach didn’t write string quartets, but he certainly did write a lot of great chamber music.

  3. I agree with Christian Carey that we shouldn’t distract ourselves with meaningless details in light of this sad occasion, but I am a little confused by something Mr. Harrington said in his quote.

    Forgive me if I misunderstood, but did he imply Bach wrote string quartets?

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