Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1997 [1]

by Greg Sandow

When Henryk Mikołaj Górecki first came to America in 1992, he wasn’t yet famous. His Third Symphony, newly released on Nonesuch records, hadn’t yet shot to No. 6 on British pop charts or settled in for its long run on top of the classical charts here. So Górecki didn’t ask to meet Madonna or the New York Philharmonic. In fact, says Carol Yaple, then vice president for artist development at Nonesuch and now an independent producer of special musical events, he made just twp requests. One was for a cardiologist; the other was to see some mountains. Yaple made sure a doctor was on hand. Górecki’s health is poor; he has had heart attacks and kidney trouble, even a brain tumor. But where could she find mountains close to New York City? She compromised and took Górecki to a crowded park above the Hudson River called Bear Mountain, though it’s really a chain of woodsy hills. “There he was,” she remembers, smiling, “with that bad leg” (he limps from a childhood injury), walking everywhere, far from his native Poland, but “ecstatic” and completely at home.

Who is this man who loves mountains more that fame? What do we know about the first living classical composer to sell a million records who, starting tonight, is going to be honored with four days of concerts, appearances and discussions at USC? If all goes as scheduled, he’ll even conduct his Third Symphony for the first time in America.

But here the plans conflict with Górecki’s reputation, because he’s often said to be a recluse. And certainly the 63-year-old composer won’t allow himself to be a public figure. He was wary, Yaple said, of press attention; on this trip, he won’t allow press conferences or face-to-face interviews. He doesn’t live in Poland’s intellectual and artistic center, Warsaw, but instead (with his wife and two children) in the industrial city of Katowice, near the Tatra Mountains, a rugged region he prefers to any other place on Earth. He travels to the English-speaking world more often for Polish events than for performances. And, according to Maria Anna Harley, professor of music and director of the Polish Music Reference Center at USC (and creator of this week’s festival), he’ll turn around and leave if the arrangements don’t suit him.

Yet, as Yaple says, he’s also “capable of great force and warmth.” As evidence, she points to a documentary that was shown on Dutch TV. Speaking happily in German, his second language, Górecki welcomes a Dutch conductor to his Katowice apartment. The city is notoriously polluted, and the outside of Górecki’s building is blackened with a haze of soot. But inside, all is welcoming, with folk art and religious paintings hanging everywhere. There, and later in a trip to the Netherlands, the centerpiece of the film, Górecki talks about his work with both authority and a boyish sense of wonder. After the premiere of a new composition, he jumps on stage to cheer the Dutch musicians. He wears an absurdly wrinkled bright blue suit and shines with happiness.

It’s also true, however, that he has been isolated. That’s partly because of his health—as a fervent Catholic and supporter of John Paul II—he fought with Poland’s former ruling communists. “Little yapping dogs,” he calls them now; but in 1979, they forced him to resign from an important teaching job. “They treated me as if I was dead,” he later said. And he was also set apart by his music. While other Polish composers oriented themselves toward Western Europe, Górecki “remains in close contact with his Polish roots,” Maria Harley says. Nourished by the folk music of the Tatra Mountains, he evolved what Yaple calls his “elemental” style, which with its apparent simplicity defied the modernist musicians’ rule that music should be complicated.

But that simplicity can be deceptive, because Górecki’s music stretches towards extremes. Much of the Third Symphony is low- pitched, painted in a thousand shades of darkness. It’s static, sorrowful, and all of it is slow. In the Dutch video, Górecki plays a new work on the piano, treating the slow parts, where time nearly stops, with rapt attention. Then, when the music gets faster, he attacks it with almost shocking ferocity. “Everything with him has to be maximum,” Harley says, “played with maximum passion.”

His concentration on his vision grows abrasive, even “ruthless,” as one of his students once reported (admiringly). Apart from “thank you,” Carol Yaple heard him say just two words of English in New York five years ago. “Be honest,” he told a student chorus that had rehearsed his work. But Górecki’s independence also can be charming. He won’t speculate, for instance, on why his symphony became so popular. “I can tell you why I wear red or green pants,” he once said, “but not what happened, or why it happened.”

What people find arresting in his work, however, might be Górecki’s honesty, along with a sense of religious awe. Robert Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records, says Górecki has a “depth that you don’t find in Western music.” Harley finds him “white-hot, reaching into archetypes.” Górecki himself won’t speak about the deepest meaning of his work, though he did once quote the pope: “[Artists] know that what they do is only a distant echo of God’s word.”

One thing is clear. The Third Symphony, for all its depth, gives only an introduction to Górecki’s music. Harley also recommends the piece Górecki played for the Dutch conductor, his “Kleines Requiem für eine Polka” [Little Requiem for a Polka], a title that makes Górecki laugh with delight. And both she and Hurwitz cite Górecki Second Symphony as a so far unacknowledged masterpiece. This work, available on CD only as an import, on the Stradivarius label, sounds at the end much like the Third Symphony does, with a glow of subtle, calming harmony. But at the start it’s far from the Third Symphony’s gentle hush—it’s fierce and wild, hammering and screaming what might be a plea, a demand or a lament. The sound is torn by dissonance and is primitive. Yet it’s wrought with loving craftsmanship, surrounded by a glow of woodwinds. Górecki, in the end, can’t be classified, and his music will almost always surprise you.


[1]. This article, “special to the Times,” was printed in the Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1997. [Back]