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Biography of

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki

6 dec 1933 (Czernica) -
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Henryk Górecki photographed in 1993

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (Polish pronunciation: [ˈxɛnrɨk mʲiˈkɔwaj ɡuˈrɛtski]) (born December 6, 1933 in Czernica, Silesia, Poland)[1] is a composer of contemporary classical music. Górecki studied at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice between 1955 and 1960. In 1968, he joined the faculty and rose to provost before resigning in 1979. Górecki became a leading figure of the Polish avant-garde during the post-Stalin cultural thaw.[2][3] His Webernian-influenced serialist works of the 1950s and 1960s were characterized by an adherence to dissonant modernism, and drew influence from Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen,[4] Krzysztof Penderecki and Kazimierz Serocki.[5] He continued in this direction throughout the 1960s, but by the mid 1970s had changed to a less complex sacred minimalist sound, exemplified by the transitional Symphony No. 2 and the hugely popular Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). This later style has since developed during several other distinct phases; from such works his 1979 Beatus Vir,[1] to the choral 1981 hymn Miserere, the 1993 Kleines Requiem für eine Polka[6] and his recent requiem Good Night.[7]

Until 1992, Górecki was viewed as a remote and fiery figure[8] known only to a few connoisseurs, primarily as one of a number of composers responsible for sparking a postwar renaissance in Polish music.[9] In 1992, 15 years after it was composed, a recording of his Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs—recorded with soprano Dawn Upshaw and released to commemorate the memory of those lost during the Holocaust—became a worldwide commercial and critical success, selling more than a million copies and vastly exceeding the typical lifetime sales of a recording of symphonic music by a 20th-century composer. As surprised as anyone at its popularity, Górecki said, "Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music […] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed."[9] This popular success did not generate wide interest in Górecki's other works,[10] and he has since pointedly resisted the temptation to repeat earlier success, or compose for commercial reward.

Apart from two brief periods studying in Paris and a short time living in Berlin, Górecki has spent most of his life in southern Poland. He has remained primarily a religious composer.



Early years

Henryk Górecki was born on December 6, 1933, in the village of Czernica (Silesian Voivodeship) in southwest Poland. The Górecki family lived modestly, though both parents had a love of music. His father Roman (1904-1991) was an amateur musician, while his mother Otylia (1909-1935), played piano. Otylia died when her son was just two years old,[11] and many of his early works were dedicated to her memory.[12] Henryk developed an interest in music from an early age, though he was discouraged by both his father and new stepmother to the extent that he was not allowed to play his mother's old piano. However, he persisted, and in 1943 was allowed to take violin lesson with Pawel Hajduga; a local amateur musician, instrument maker and chłopski filozof (peasant philosopher).[13]

I was born in Silesia....It is old Polish land. But there were always three cultures present: Polish, Czech, and German. The folk art, all the art, had no boundaries. Polish culture is a wonderful mixture. When you look at the history of Poland, it is precisely the multiculturalism, the presence of the so-called minorities that made Poland what it was. The cultural wealth, the diversity mixed and created a new entity.[14]

— Henryk Górecki

In 1945, Górecki fell while playing in a neighbor’s yard and dislocated his hip. The resulting suppurative inflammation was misdiagnosed by a local doctor, and delay in proper treatment led to tubercular complications in the bone. The illness went largely untreated for two years, by which time permanent damage had been sustained. He spent the following twenty months in a hospital in Germany, where he underwent four operations.[15] Górecki has continued to suffer ill health throughout his life, and as a result has said he has "talked with death often".[16]

View of Rydułtowy, where Górecki taught for two years from 1951

Emerging composer: Rydułtowy and Katowice

Between 1951 and 1953, Górecki taught 10 and 11 year olds at a school outside of Rydułtowy, in southern Poland.[13] In 1952, he began a teacher training course at the Intermediate School of Music in Rybnik, where he studied clarinet, violin, piano, and music theory. Through intensive studying Górecki finished the four year course in just under three years. During this time he began to compose his own pieces, mostly songs and piano miniatures. Occasionally he attempted more ambitious projects—in 1952 he adapted the Adam Mickiewicz ballad Świtezianka, though his work was left unfinished.[17] However, life for the composer during this time was often difficult. This teaching posts were generally badly paid, while manuscript paper was at time difficult and expensive to acquire. With no access to radio, Górecki kept up to date with music by weekly purchases of such periodicals as Ruch muzyczny (Musical Movement) and Muzyka, and by purchasing at least one score a week.[18]

The Academy of Music in Katowice where Górecki lectured from 1968

Górecki continued his formal study of music at the Katowice Academy of Music,[19] where he studied under the composer Bolesław Szabelski, a former student of the renowned composer Karol Szymanowski. As Górecki was later to follow, Szabelski drew much of his inspiration from Polish highland folklore.[8] Szabelski schooled his pupil in a neoclassical reading of counterpoint and motorics, during a period when Górecki was also absorbing the rules of twelve-tone serialism.[20] He graduated from the Academy with honours in 1960.


In 1975, Górecki was promoted to Professor of Composition at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, where his students included Eugeniusz Knapik, Andrzej Krzanowski and Rafał Augustyn.[19]

Around this time, Górecki came to believe the Polish Communist authorities were interfering too much in the activities of academy, and described them as "little dogs always yapping".[8] As a senior administrator but not a member of the Party, he was in almost perpetual conflict with the authorities in his efforts to protect his school, staff and students from undue political influence.[19] In 1979 resigned his post in protest at the government's refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice[21] and formed a local branch of the "Catholic Intellectuals Club"; an organisation devoted to the struggle against the Communist Party.[8] He remained politically active through the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, he composed his Miserere for a large choir in remembrance of police violence against the Solidarity movement.[6]

Style and compositions

Górecki's music covers a variety of styles, but tends towards relative harmonic and rhythmical simplicity. He is considered to be a founder of the so called New Polish School.[22][23] His first works, dating from the last half of the 1950s, were in the avant-garde style of Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) and other serialists of that time.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Górecki progressively moved away from his early career as radical modernist, and began to compose with a more traditional, romantic mode of expression. His change of style was viewed as an affront to the then avant-garde establishment, and though he continued to receive commissions from various Polish agencies, by the mid 1970s Górecki had ceased to be a composer that mattered. In the words of one critic, his "new material was no longer cerebral and sparse; rather, it was intensely expressive, persistently rhythmic and often richly colored in the darkest of orchestral hues".[24]

Early modernist works

The first public performances of Górecki's music in Katowice in February 1958 programmed works clearly displaying the influence of Szymanowski and Bartók. The Silesian State Philharmonic in Katowice held a concert devoted entirely to the 24 year old Górecki's music. The event led to a commission to write for the Warsaw Autumn Festival. The Epitafium ("Epitaph") he submitted marked a new phase in his development as a composer,[9] and was described as representing "the most colourful and vibrant expression of the new Polish wave".[25] The Festival announced the composer's arrival on the international scene, and he quickly became a favorite of the West's avant-garde musical elite.[24] Writing in 1991, the music critic James Wierzbicki described how that at this time "Górecki was seen as a Polish heir to the new aesthetic of post-Webernian serialism; with his taut structures, lean orchestrations and painstaking concern for the logical ordering of pitches".[24]

Górecki wrote his First Symphony in 1959, and graduated with honours from the Academy the following year.[19] At the 1960 Warsaw Autumn Festival, his Scontri, written for orchestra, caused a sensation among critics due to its use of sharp contrasts and harsh articulations.[19][26] By 1961, Górecki was at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde, having absorbed the modernism of Anton Webern, Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez, and his Symphony No. 1 gained international acclaim at the Paris Biennial Festival of Youth. Górecki moved to Paris to continue his studies, and while there was influenced by contemporaries including Olivier Messiaen, Roman Palester, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.[4]

He began to lecture at the Academy of Music in Katowice in 1968, where he taught score-reading, orchestration and composition. In 1972, he was promoted to assistant professor,[19] and developed a fearsome reputation among his students for his often blunt personality. According to the Polish composer Rafał Augustyn, "When I began to study under Górecki it felt as if someone had dumped a pail of ice-cold water over my head. He could be ruthless in his opinions. The weak fell by the wayside but those who graduated under him became, without exception, respected composers".[8] Górecki admits, "For quite a few years, I was a pedagogue, a teacher in the music academy, and my students would ask me many, many things, including how to write and what to write. I always answered this way: If you can live without music for 2 or 3 days, then don't write…It might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer…If you cannot live without music, then write.”[27] Due to his commitments as a teacher and also because of bouts of ill health, he composed only intermittently during this period.[28]


A performance of Górecki's Beatus Vir conducted by Włodzimierz Siedlik. The piece was composed to celebrate Karol Wojtyła's appointment as Pope

By the early 1970s, Górecki had begun to move away from his earlier radical modernism, and was working towards a more traditional, romantic mode of expression. His change of style affronted the avant-garde establishment, and although various Polish agencies continued to commission works from him, Górecki ceased to be viewed as an important composer. One critic later wrote that "Górecki's new material was no longer cerebral and sparse; rather, it was intensely expressive, persistently rhythmic and often richly colored in the darkest of orchestral hues".[24] Górecki progressively rejected the dissonance, serialism and sonorism that had brought him early recognition, and pared and simplified his work. He began to favor large slow gestures and the repetition of small motifs.[29]

The "Symphony No. 2, 'Copernican', Op. 31" (II Symfonia Kopernikowska) was written in 1972 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Written in a monumental style for solo soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra, it features text from Psalms no. 145, 6 and 135 as well as an excerpt from Copernicus' book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.[30] It was composed in two movements, and a typical performance lasts 35 minutes. The symphony was commission by the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, and presented an early opportunity for Górecki to reach an audience outside of his native Poland. As was usual, he undertook extensive research on the subject, and was in particular concerned on the philosophical implications of Copernicus's discovery, not all of which he viewed as positive.[31] As the historian Norman Davies commented, "His discovery of the earth's motion round the sun caused the most fundamental revolutions possible in the prevailing concepts of the human predicament".[32]

By the mid-1980s, his work began to attract a more international audience, and in 1989 the London Sinfonietta held weekend of concerts in which his work was played alongside the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.[33] In 1990, the American Kronos Quartet commissioned and recorded his First String Quartet, Already It Is Dusk, Op. 62, an occasion that marked the beginning of a long relationship between the quartet and composer.[34]

Górecki's most popular piece is his "Third Symphony", also known as the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych). The work is slow and contemplative, and each of the three movements is composed for orchestra and solo soprano. The libretto for the first movement is taken from a 15th century lament, while second movement uses the words of a teenage girl, Helena Błażusiak, which she wrote on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary.[35]

The third uses the text of a Silesian folk song which describes the pain of a mother searching for a son killed in the Silesian uprisings.[36] The dominant themes of the symphony are motherhood and separation through war. While the first and third movements are written from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child, the second movement is from that of a child separated from a parent.

Recent works

Despite the success of the Third Symphony, Górecki has resisted temptation to compose again in that style, and according to Allmusic continues to work, not to further his career or reputation, but largely "in response to inner creative dictates".[37]

His more recent work includes a 1995 commission for the Kronos Quartet entitled "Songs Are Sung", and "Concerto-Cantata" (written in 1992 for flute and orchestra) and "Kleines Requiem für eine Polka". Both "Concerto-Cantata" and "Kleines Requiem für eine Polka" (1993 for piano and 13 instruments) have been recorded by the London Sinfonietta and the Schoenberg Ensemble.[38] "Songs Are Sung" is his third string quartet and was commissioned in 1992, and inspired by a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov. When asked why it took almost thirteen years to finish, he replied, "I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world. I don’t know why."[39]

Gorecki's Symphony No. 4 was to be premiered in London in 2010 but the event has been cancelled due to the composer's ill health.[40]

Critical opinion

When placing Górecki in the context of the history of modern art, musicologist and critics generally compare his work with such composers as Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives.[41] He himself has said that he also feels kindred with such figures as Bach, Mozart, and Joseph Haydn though he has said he feels most affinity towards Franz Schubert, particularly in terms of tonal design and treatment of basic materials.[41]

Since Górecki's move away from serialism and dissonance in the 1970s, he is frequently compared to composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Giya Kancheli.[26][41] The term holy minimalism is often used to group these composers, due to their shared simplified approach to texture, tonality and melody, in works often reflecting deeply held religious beliefs. However, none of these composers has admitted to common influences.

Discussing his audience in a 1994 interview, Górecki said,

I do not choose my listeners. What I mean is, I never write for my listeners. I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them. I have something to tell them, but the audience must also put a certain effort into it. But I never wrote for an audience and never will write for because you have to give the listener something and he has to make an effort in order to understand certain things. If I were thinking of my audience and one likes this, one likes that, one likes another thing, I would never know what to write. Let every listener choose that which interests him. I have nothing against one person liking Mozart or Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein, but doesn't like Górecki. That's fine with me. I, too, like certain things.[27]

Górecki received an honorary doctorate from Concordia University, in Quebec, Canada. In a press statement, Concordia Professor Wolfgang Bottenberg described him as one of the "most renowned and respected composers of our time", and stated that Górecki's music "represents the most positive aspects of the closing years of our century, as we try to heal the wounds inflicted by the violence and intolerance of our times. It will endure into the next millennium and inspire other composers".[42] In 2008, he received a further honorary doctorate from the Music Academy in Krakow. At the awarding ceremony a selection of the composer's choral works was performed by the choir of the city's Franciscan Church.[43]


  1. ^ a b Cummings (2000), 241
  2. ^ Thomas (1997), 12
  3. ^ Kubicki, Michal. "H.M. Gorecki at 75". The, December 8, 2008. Retrieved on December 28, 2008.
  4. ^ a b Thomas (1997), 17
  5. ^ Mellers (1989), 23
  6. ^ a b Thomas (2005), 262
  7. ^ Morin (2002), 357
  8. ^ a b c d e Perlez, Jane. "Henryk Górecki". New York Times, February 27, 1994. Retrieved on October 26, 2008.
  9. ^ a b c Steinberg (1995), 171
  10. ^ Steinberg (1995), 170
  11. ^ Thomas (1997), xiii
  12. ^ Howard (1998), 131–33
  13. ^ a b Thomas (1997), xvi
  14. ^ "The Twentieth Century: On Life and Music: A Semi-Serious Conversation". Musical Quarterly, 82.1, 1998. 73-75
  15. ^ Thomas (1997), vi
  16. ^ Howard (1998), 134
  17. ^ Thomas (1997), xviii
  18. ^ Thomas (1997), 13
  19. ^ a b c d e f Harley, James & Trochimczyk, Maja. "Henryk Mikołaj Górecki". Polish Music Information Center, November 2001. Retrieved on March 6, 2009.
  20. ^ Thomas (1997), 39-41
  21. ^ Lebrecht, Norman. "How Górecki makes his music". La Scena Musicale. February 28, 2007. Retrieved on January 4, 2008.
  22. ^ Thomas 2005, 159
  23. ^ "Górecki, Henryk Biography". Naxos Records. Retrieved on June 1, 2009.
  24. ^ a b c d Wierzbicki, James. "Henryk Gorecki". St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 7, 1991. Retrieved on 24 October, 2008.
  25. ^ Thomas (1997), 29
  26. ^ a b Wright (2002), 362
  27. ^ a b Duffie, Bruce. "Composer Henryk-Mikolaj Górecki: A conversation with Bruce Duffie"., April 1994. Retrieved December 22, 2007.
  28. ^ Williams, Julie. "Henryk Gorecki: Composer Profile". MusicWeb International, 2008. Retrieved on December 13, 2008.
  29. ^ Howard (1998), 153
  30. ^ Thomas (1997), 77
  31. ^ Thomas (1997), 74
  32. ^ Davies, Norman. God's Playground: A history of Poland. Oxford, 1981. 150. ISBN 0-1992-5339-0
  33. ^ Thomas (2008), 5:35
  34. ^ "Henryk Górecki + Kronos Quartet". Nonesuch Records. Retrieved on June 01, 2009.
  35. ^ Thomas (1997), 82
  36. ^ Ellis, David. "Evocations of Mahler" (PDF). Naturlaut 4(1): 2—7, 2005. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  37. ^ "Henryk Górecki: Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved on December 13, 2008.
  38. ^ "Henryk Mikolaj Górecki". Boosey & Hawkes, February 2007. Retrieved on October 24, 2008.
  39. ^ Gardner, Charlotte. "String Quartet No. 3 '...songs are sung'". BBC, March 22, 2007. Retrieved on March 27, 2010.
  40. ^ "Southbank Centre." Retrieved on February 5, 2010.
  41. ^ a b c Thomas (1997), 135
  42. ^ Bottenberg, Wolfgang. "Gorecki, Martin to receive honours". Concordia University, November 19, 1998. Retrieved on October 26, 2008.
  43. ^ "Henryk Górecki Receives Honorary Doctorate from Krakow Music Academy". Nonesuch Records (press release), May 13, 2008. Retrieved on October 26, 2008.


  • Cummings, David. International Who's Who in Music and Musicians Directory. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-9488-7553-4
  • Howard, Luke B. "Motherhood, 'Billboard' and the Holocaust: Perceptions and Receptions of Górecki's Symphony No. 3". Musical Quarterly 82, no. 1 (Spring), 1998. 131–59.
  • Jacobson, Bernard. 1996. A Polish Renaissance. Twentieth-Century Composers. London: Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-3251-0
  • Markiewicz, Leon. "Conversation with Henryk Górecki. Leon Markiewicz, July 1962". Polish Music Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 2003. ISSN 1521 - 6039
  • Mellers, Wilfrid. "Round and about Górecki's Symphony No.3".Tempo New Series, No. 168, 50th Anniversary 1939-1989. March, 1989. 22-24.
  • Mirka, Danuta. "Górecki's Musica Geometrica". The Musical Quarterly 87. 305—32, 2004.
  • Morin, Alexander. Classical Music: The Listener's Companion. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2002. ISBN 0-8793-0638-6
  • Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener's Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-1951-2665-3
  • Marek, Tadeusz, and & David Drew. "Górecki in Interview (1968)—And 20 Years After". Tempo 168, 1989. 25-28
  • Thomas, Adrian. Górecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-1981-6393-2 (cloth) ISBN 0-1981-6394-0
  • Thomas, Adrian. "Polish Music since Szymanowski". In: Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-5215-8284-9
  • Thomas, Adrian. "Henryk Gorecki". Gresham College, London, December 4, 2009.
  • Wright, Stephen. "Arvo Pärt (1935–)". In: Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. ISBN 0-3132-9689-8

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