Book Review of Adrian Thomas’s Górecki (1997)

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 187 pp.


by Luke Howard


When this book appeared in 1997, it seemed a bit like shutting the gate after the horse had bolted. It would have been nice to have it handy when Górecki and his Third Symphony were grabbing headlines five or six years ago. Critics and journalists had no idea who this obscure Polish composer was back then–“Henryk who? Is he the fourth tenor?”, asked the Boston Globe in July 1993–and the vacuum of reliable information was rapidly filled with rumor, speculation, misinformation, and outright fabrications by the media. Adrian Thomas’s book, the first comprehensive English-language examination of Górecki’s music, goes a long way toward debunking many of these misrepresentations, but it may have appeared too late to reverse some of the lingering popular myths about who Górecki is and what his music is like.

This is certainly no fault of either Prof. Adrian Thomas (University of Wales, Cardiff) or Oxford University Press. The Górecki phenomenon took everyone by surprise, and nobody could have foreseen the extent to which the Third Symphony captured public interest in the early 1990s. But while the average music consumer may go on believing that Górecki is a “mystical minimalist” who writes soft, consonant music about the Holocaust, Thomas’s book provides a wealth of information and insight for those curious enough to explore a little deeper into the music. What they will find is that Górecki is not merely a one-hit wonder, and that his most famous work represents only one aspect of a multi-faceted and surprisingly varied musical personality. Thomas states in his preface, “[The Third Symphony’s] phenomenal success . . . should not be allowed to mask a forty-year career,”[1] and he embarks on the imposing task of explicating that long and eventful career.

Thomas has written a sourcebook that surveys all of Górecki’s works, adding background and biographical details where appropriate. But unless the reader is already familiar with the composer’s life and music, the opening of the Preludium (Thomas uses titles borrowed from Górecki’s musical works as section and chapter headings) may seem a little incongruous: “Otylia Górecka died on 6 December 1935; it was her son’s second birthday” (Thomas, p. 13). Thomas is careful not to overstate the impact of this event on Górecki’s musical character, but it’s a suitable starting point, as motherhood and lamenting both recur in his compositions with some frequency.[2]

Górecki’s tragedy-ridden biography is certainly moving, with the legend of “humble beginnings” and success against the odds assuming an Abraham Lincoln-like potency. But Thomas avoids reading too much of the composer’s life into his musical compositions, and soft-pedals many of the biographical details. Obviously in works such as Beatus vir and Miserere, there are abundant connections with Górecki’s religion and politics that cannot be overlooked, and Thomas summarizes them with appropriate concision. But in many of the other works under discussion, the focus is almost purely on compositional issues, detached from Górecki’s life experiences at the time. The further one reads into the book, the more the biographical details appear incidental (or coincidental) to the music. Of course, there are dangers in making too close parallels between life and music, and to do so in a book of this scope would render it unwieldy. But there is certainly room for further elaboration, and Thomas opens the door for others to expand on what he offers.

For most of the chronological survey of works that constitute the bulk of this book, it reads very easily. Writing as a lover of music rather than a musicologist (and there is a difference!), Thomas is not afraid to occasionally wax poetic in his analyses and responses. In one particularly Tovey-esque passage on the second of the Three Songs (Op. 3), for example, he writes, “Only once does the gloom lift, at the end of the third line, when the chord of C major unexpectedly appears as the resolution of a clouded perfect cadence. For a moment the silence hangs in the air” (p. 4). Given the lengths to which some writers go to affect a false objectivity, it’s refreshing to see Thomas’s informed enthusiasm reach up from the page and speak directly to the reader. His spirited accounting of Górecki’s oeuvre piques interest especially in the lesser-known compositions.

Thomas assumes a readership that is fluent in music history, terminology and notation. He includes numerous score examples, often to illustrate the text but occasionally to replace it. He introduces an excerpt from the codetta of Already It Is Dusk, for example, with the comment that it represents the release of “static electricity” produced by the preceding “violently contrasted paragraphs” (p. 129). The reader is left to deduce the details from the score, which isn’t difficult for the musically literate and those familiar with the work, but may not be so easy for the uninitiated (who, presumably, may constitute a fair percentage of the readership). Similarly, some observations on compositional processes are necessarily loaded with music terminology. Thomas’s reference to the “antiphonal contrast of the string tutti set against a concertante quartet drawn from the front and back desks” (p. 19). in the Symphony No. 1, or his description of the ostinato chord in the final movement of Good Night as an “unresolved third-inversion dominant thirteenth” (p. 132) may send less musically-experienced readers scurrying for their dictionaries. But while information like this may be gobbledygook for some, it’s perfectly useful for others. And besides, Thomas never gets so technical that his readership is in danger of alienation.

The discourse strikes a balance between expressive interpretation and technical description precisely where Thomas claims Górecki also reconciles technique and expression – with Refren from 1965. From this point on the author seems more at ease expressing his observations, perhaps because the works of the 70s and 80s are better-known by the public. One of the difficulties in discussing some of the earlier pieces is that so much of Górecki’s oeuvre remains unpublished and unperformed. The author has obviously poured over the composer’s manuscripts, and has been allowed access to some works that may never see the light of day. But descriptions of pieces that no readers have seen and are unlikely to ever hear have a limited application. It is when he shows how these obscure works are part of a stylistic development that reaches maturity in Muzyka Staropolska, Beatus vir, the Second and Third Symphonies, and Miserere, that the discussions of the unpublished works become more relevant.

For the most part, Thomas treats Górecki’s compositions according to their size and importance in the composer’s stylistic development. But some pieces get short-changed. The Cantata (for organ), Op. 26, receives barely a passing mention, though it is a major published work for an instrument Górecki rarely uses (raising important questions about its place in the oeuvre), and has been recorded more than once, including a recent version on compact disc. The pay-off is that some of the marginalia is treated at length, and nobody would object to Thomas’s emphasis on ostensibly marginal works like the Three Pieces in Old Style. By showing how crucial they are to later works – with their use of quotation, melodic-harmonic auras, and “stacking” – Thomas rightly assigns the Three Pieces a level of distinction denied them by the composer (who didn’t even give them an opus number).

Tucked in among Thomas’s narratives are some especially revelatory insights that are, of themselves, ample incentive for further research. In a footnote to Ad matrem (p. 70, fn), he mentions Górecki’s occasional use of number symbolism, without elaborating any further. While other scholars have also scratched the surface of Górecki’s fascination with numbers,[3]there is still much material to be uncovered on that topic. In another footnote, on the Second String Quartet, Thomas notes that “performers disregard Górecki’s tempos at their peril” (p. 136, fn), an observation that the composer later confirmed was one of the chief performance-practice issues in his music.[4]Thomas’s exposé of a cosmically tragic undercurrent in the Second “Copernican” Symphony has, for one, critically altered my response to one of Górecki’s most powerful musical statements, and reinforced my belief that this work deserves much more public and critical attention (as well as a decent recording). His discovery of extremely subtle allusions in Górecki’s music – a chord drawn from Chopin, a melodic gesture from Szymanowski, or a note or timbre from Beethoven – and his subsequent explication of their import should spur others to delve deeper in the music, rather than merely being satisfied with the intriguing surface qualities. The connection between Messiaen and Górecki, made explicit in reference to the chamber works, is also worth exploring further.

By the time the reader gets to the infamous Third Symphony, it’s clear that Thomas has no intention of opening the Pandora’s box of its popularity and reception.[5]Nor should he, though he is certainly well-qualified. That kind of study is at cross-purposes with his goals for this book, and while people may buy it hoping to find the key to the symphony’s enigmatic popularity, they’ll search in vain. Thomas’s account, however, of the Third Symphony’s origins– musical and conceptual–should lay to rest some of the more misleading popular myths. He shows, for instance, that there is little direct evidence to justify this work’s reputation as a memorial for the victims of Nazi atrocities; the “lamenting” aspect is far more universal than that, and draws from a much broader range of musical and textual sources than most listeners realize.

After discussing the formidable chamber works of the late ‘80s and early 90s, including the two string quartets, Lerchenmusik, and the Kleines Requiem für eine Polka, Thomas includes an exhaustive and definitive works list that provides indispensable information about each of Górecki’s compositions. In addition to the usual details – dates, premičres, instrumentation, and so on – he lists text sources for vocal works, dedications, awards, and includes a complete discography for all recorded works. An impressive research achievement on its own, this list of works is an invaluable resource, and its place in the end-matter of the book shouldn’t detract from its importance as a crucial complement to the text.

In his conclusion, Thomas sees Górecki at a crossroads of “content, style, and structure” (p. 148). He includes a note of optimism: “Górecki has been in this situation before, and each time he has come to an individual and fruitful solution of the compositional challenges he sets for himself” (p. 148). But the years since the Third Symphony’s flush of international success have not been fruitful for the composer. Newly-composed works have slowed to a trickle[6] and he has backed out of several commissions since 1993. Górecki seems reluctant to expose new works to the public gaze, because the biggest challenges he faces now are not compositional. They are the much more overwhelming pressures of fame, commerce, international exposure and public expectation: factors over which he has little control, and for which he was not prepared. Perhaps we will have to wait until Górecki regains some of the anonymity he previously enjoyed before we can determine if Thomas’s optimism is justified. But even if Górecki never writes another piece, his accomplishments deserve all the attention Thomas has given them, and more.

Górecki, the culmination of Thomas’s years of thorough, meticulous, and engaging research, provides a necessary foundation on which present and future scholars can build. But its appeal is such that any reader – musician or not, scholar or amateur – will benefit from Thomas’s insights, learn from his observations, and, like the author, come to respect the music of this acclaimed composer on its own terms.



[1] Quoted from Adrian Thomas: Górecki (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), series: Oxford Studies of Composers, p. vii. The following page references are listed in the text of the review.[Back]

[2] For a fuller discussion of the role of “mother” in Górecki’s music, see Maria Anna Harley, “Górecki and the Paradigm of the ‘Maternal’,” The Musical Quarterly 82/1 (Summer 1998): 82-130. [Back]

[3]. See, for example, Martina Homma, “Das Minimale und das Absolute: Die Musik Henryk Mikolaj Góreckis von der Mitte der sechziger Jahre bis 1985,” MusikTexte – Zeitschrift für Neue Musik 44 (1992): 40-59.[Back]

[4]. James Harley presented a paper on the issue of tempo in Górecki’s music at the “Górecki Autumn” symposium, held at the University of Southern California in October 1997. In the ensuing discussion, Górecki repeatedly emphasized the importance of adhering to his tempo markings in the score. Yet when he conducted the Third Symphony that same weekend, the performance lasted 11 minutes longer than indicated in the score. Perhaps his main criticism was that performers tend to play his music too fast.[Back]

[5]. For a detailed account of the Symphony’s reception, see Luke Howard, A Reluctant Requiem: The History and Reception of Henryk M. Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Britain and the United States (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1997). [Back]

[6]. The recent Mała Fantazja and Valentines are Górecki’s first pubished works in several years. [Back]

After studying at the Sydney (Australia) Conservatorium of Music and Brigham Young University, Luke Howard earned his doctorate in musicology at the University of Michigan with a dissertation on Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Dr. Howard’s research concentrates on reception history, art music in media and popular culture, and the recent works of Polish and American composers. He teaches music history, keyboard, and directs the early music ensemble at Moorhead State University in Minnesota.