by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

translated by Maja Trochimczyk [1]

Dean Larry Livingston: Welcome to the Composition and Performance Forum with Henryk Górecki. We are blessed to have such a wonderful guest here with us. He does not speak English but agreed to talk to you today. That is why we are grateful to have with us Maja Harley, who will translate his remarks for us. We also have here Adrian Thomas, Provost’s Distinguished Visitor to USC, professor of music history at the Cardiff University of Wales in England and the world’s greatest authority on the music of Górecki.

Adrian Thomas: My role here today, as his biographer and friend, is very humble. I will serve as a moderator in the discussion, if need be, but, in accordance with Henryk’s request (he does not like making speeches) I would like you to ask him questions about things that you are interested in. We have two translators here with us: Joanna will translate your questions into Polish for Henryk while Maja will translate his answers into English. I think that with this I finished what I had to say. Now it is your turn.

Student: You came to us from Poland, you lived under very difficult conditions, had to deal with communist repression, you lived through the war? I would like to know how did this experience affect your music? Did it play an important role in shaping you as a composer?

Górecki: Dear friends, I have one request for you. I wish for us to stop looking back at what passed and what should remain in the past. I would like us to be interested in what is today, what could be tomorrow, because what is past, what is finished cannot be corrected. I terribly dislike returning to the past because the past is not that interesting. What could be interesting in wars, illnesses, persecutions? Here you have a good life, because on one side you have water, on the other side you have water, on the top you have Canada, and you are safe. Nothing horrible can happen to you. You live as you want, you do what you want. You have everything. And us? On one side we have a “friend” and on the other side we have another “friend.” And we are in the middle. What should we do? Let us leave these matters then and talk about music, this is a far more interesting subject for our conversation.

Górecki with translators, M.A. Harley and Joanna Nizynska

Student: If this is what you want to talk about, tell us about melody. You music has such broad, extensive melodies. What do you think about composing with melodies?

Górecki: We usually understand melody as something that I can imagine and am able to sing to myself. I agree with this definition: it is simple enough. But try singing the melody from Bach’s Kyrie. . . [Students laugh. . . Górecki sings]. Perhaps you could sing it, but you would not be able to sing it in the morning while shaving yourself or while eating your breakfast… This is problem number one. Now, let’s be serious. In music, we have three elements: rhythm, harmony, and melody. But melody is the result of something else. Now let’s think what distinguishes one person from another person, how can you tell one composer from another? Is this a difference in melody, in harmony, or maybe of rhythm? When we hear a fragment, perhaps just one measure of some music, sometimes even only one chord, already we are able to tell whose music it is. Do you agree with me? Naturally, this has to be done by a person who has some musical abilities and musical knowledge. This person has to be capable of distinguishing between such composers as Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, or Stravinsky. This person has to know where this difference lies. Therefore, what is the most important element in music? Which element is the most important?

Students [different answers]: Melody. . . rhythm. . .

Górecki: No. Melody is built from harmony. I do not at first create a melody and then harmonize it. Each composer built his own melodic structures in accordance with his harmony. Thus, we can tell if the music was composed by Vivaldi, Schubert, or Brahms, whether it is a chord by Brahms or Mahler, a minor third by Mozart or Chopin. Do you have to hear Chopin’s whole melody to recognize that the music was composed by Chopin? No. At times it is sufficient to have just one or two chords and you are home: you know already that it is Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Messiaen, Bartók, Stravinky, etc., etc. For me, this is the most important. But I think that the material is the most important not only for me. It is the most important element, because from it, from harmony, I build melodies. Of course, these melodies cannot exist without rhythm, but harmony can exist without rhythm. So it is the most important. Now I have everything: I have melody, harmony and rhythm.

Student: You mentioned that harmony is the most important element in music. I would like you to talk about how you approach it in your music. We heard last night during the rehearsal about how harmony may sometimes be referential to other works by other composers. I was wondering if you could say that there is a harmonic vocabulary that you draw from for all your works or whether at certain times there are different meanings, depending on what piece you are working on.

Górecki: The beginning, when the conscious work on harmony and melody begins, is very mysterious. The whole conscious process of constructing the music is always subservient to the inspiration, to whatever passes through my mind. It is not a mechanical matter, though naturally there are many combinations that you could examine in order to recognize all the different possibilities latent in a given structure. I have to figure out what can I make from my material. We all know Bach’s fugues and there is the question: each of Bach’s fugues is built differently. There is a subject, the response, the first exposition, the second, third, fourth exposition, the second subject, the third… the double, triple fugue, etc. And now I have a question for Bach: why does one fugue have three expositions, and another one has four, why is one fugue in three parts and another one in five? Wherein lies the mystery of the construction of Bach’s fugues?

Now we live in the twentieth century and deal with contemporary music, especially from the 1950s. At this time, the music is all the same, composers write “by the meter” changing only titles, but all of this music is alike, it does not change that much from one piece to another. So what is the mystery of the infinite variety of ways of constructing the fugue? People are such strange creatures that they leave these simple, most essential questions without answers. We do not pay attention to these issues at all. Instead we look for such wise, extremely complicated and difficult answers, and these simple truths somehow escape us. The mystery of the construction of the fugue in Bach’s music is contained in the subject. Bach, while composing the subject, already knew that this one sounds good for two-parts, that one for three parts, the third one for a double fugue, and so forth. He knew immediately, he heard, and imagined for himself all the possibilities of construction concentrated in this small subject that he composed.

Górecki with friends at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 6 October 1997.

Student: I was wondering, as a composition student, about your studies. Which composers did you know first? Which composer of the past did you learn from? Which one was the most important to you? Perhaps you learned something that you would like to share with us today?

Górecki: It is hard to say. The first score that I had ever held in my hand and that I got in exchange for a ping-pong racket was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I said to this boy: “I will give you my ping-pong racket if you give me the score.” At that time I had no idea what a music score really was. But I wanted to have it. I still have it. It was an old edition, not a good, clear edition, but it fascinated me. What else. . . I have always felt connected to the piano because my Mom played the piano: she died when she was 26 years old and I was just 2 years old. Later, much later, the first scores that I consciously bought for myself with my own money were the scores of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas for piano and Chopin’s Impromptu. I do not know why I bought them, actually: I was at the store and bought them, and I have them still.

Who are my favorite composers? Those that were my favorites, are now, and will remain so—it is hard for me to name just one. I can’t name two either. I should certainly start with Beethoven, then Chopin. Actually, Chopin was not so interesting for me at first, because I was then a very young boy, 14 or 15 years old. But Beethoven was for me almost like a monument, a larger-than-life figure. Now it is hard to imagine life without Mozart, he is one of the greatest geniuses. However, above him, just a tiny little bit above him, is Chopin. After that come Beethoven, Brahms, Schuman, Haydn, Wagner, and Schubert. Did I forget Schubert? It is hard to imagine a day without thinking about or playing Bach, but also without Stravinsky and Szymanowski. With the latter I have been connected since the very beginning, from the very first moment of my way to music. All his Mazurkas are completely under-appreciated by pianists, by Polish composers, musicologists, and so forth. Too often they succumb to this misunderstanding that Szymanowski’s Mazurkas are too difficult, that they are impossible to play, un-pianistic. I also like other composers very much: Dvorak, Puccini—he wrote great operas, he really composed fantastic operas— Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Ives. Of course, Ives. We have to remember one thing. You could, even as long ago as 1945 or 1946, go into any music bookstore and buy whatever you needed, whatever you wanted, even Ives. In our times it was different. There was no music by Ives, he was forbidden as a member of the bourgeoisie. There was no Messiaen, because he was too religious. Even Szymanowski was forbidden at a certain time. Only in 1956, did I hold in my hands Szymanowski’s Third Sonata for the first time. I was so moved, my hands shook, but I could only look, I could not buy it, the score was not available. The music was beyond our reach. Finally, in the 1960s we could buy certain scores by certain composers in the stores. Therefore, probably for this reason the whole process of learning music, of studying music literature, was prolonged. It was difficult, but there was one good thing about it: it was also a matter of conscious choice. Everyone looked only for what that person was truly interested in, everyone took what they really needed, not what was fashionable. Now, I have talked too much. Your turn.

Student: You mentioned Mozart as a genius, surpassed only by Chopin. Could you tell us about what you value in his music?

Górecki: Do you know Mozart’s Partita in E-flat Major, KV 361, with one double-bass? Mozart used the basset-horn for the first time in this work. Now we have to study this instrument, we have to learn how it is built, what is its range, how to play it… And Mozart just got the instrument and wrote such a phenomenal part for it. In this KV 361 somewhere in the middle, the whole Requiem is already contained. But what fantastic instrumentalists did Mozart have at his disposal! When he composed his Clarinet Quintet, the clarinettist rebuilt his instrument in order to perform it because it would not have been possible otherwise. And now when I come with my new composition, the instrumentalist scolds me that I wrote it that way because of my stupidity. This clarinetist from Mozart’s time discovered these amazing possibilities in the part of the clarinet, which is now, for us, very simple. It is a fantastic piece.

Student: Do you compose like Mozart did? When and how do you compose?

Górecki: Everyone has to create their own process of creation; there are no recipes for this. Each great composer had a different way: Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven. I think that there is no one way that people create in. I truly respect people who are systematic like Tchaikovsky who had to compose for several hours daily. Schubert also got up at 4 or 5 every morning and composed until nine. And I? I waste five months and then go crazy and compose for thirty hours daily, but I am happy that I have so many ides, so many projects that I would like to work on. This fills me with joy: I do not have to search, but I have music in my head.

Student: Do you spend a lot of time at the piano? Are you working with the piano every day?

Górecki: At first not, then yes, and then there were long years without the piano. I like to play, though, and I play a lot, though rather badly, but I like it. I am filled with music all the time. When you are a composer you always search for what sounds within you, for what you have in your head. Once a good professor repeatedly told his students that one is a poet from time to time, but one has to be a composer for the whole twenty-four hours. It is because music sounds all the time within, perhaps there is something wrong with that, perhaps this is pathological, but this is how it is.

Górecki with pianist Robert Thies, after the concert on 1 October 1997.

Student: Did you have a vocation to become a composer? When did you know that you were fated to become a composer?

Górecki: Hmm. . . Do I believe in fate? Do I believe in “vocations”? . . . Again, let me use Bach’s words. He told a young musician: “If everyone will work very hard and will be as diligent as I am, that person will also reach what I accomplished.” We have a saying in Poland that one needs 90% of talent and 10% of work, but this is not true. I think that we have to have 1% of talent and 99% of work. Chopin worked really hard! He truly worked. At a time when the range of orchestral instruments available for composers increased very rapidly he remained faithful to his piano. But I challenge you to show me a composer living before or after Chopin who was able to better compose for the piano than Chopin did. He was the only composer who understood the essence of this instrument, of the piano. I do not even know if the piano as an artistic instrument was truly born in his music, or whether it was the other way around and his music stemmed from the instrument. I do not know. But this is not just in a technical sense: imagine orchestrating Chopin, some chords from a mazurka, perhaps. It is simply impossible to orchestrate Chopin’s music. This can’t be done. But it is possible to orchestrate a sonata by Mozart, for instance.

Student: What do you think about the development of music in our times? Does music develop? Do you see any progress in music?

Górecki: Does music develop? I think that music develops. Perhaps it is not very noticeable at present, perhaps it is not so distinct, but it seems to me that we are now standing at a turning point. I do not know exactly what it is. I cannot believe that it does not develop. However, I can only say with certainty that I cannot deny that music develops, because the whole world develops, it does not stand still. Music develops, but in what direction? Perhaps we are rushing toward some infernal ending. Perhaps. If so, this also is a development of a certain kind. Perhaps after the cataclysm something new will emerge. At present it is hard to fathom what this new material would be, what is the new element from which music will develop. [To Adrian Thomas] Am I saying it right?

Thomas: Yes, you are right. The idea of progress is connected to invention, originality. Inventing new materials for music was an extremely important issue in the 1950s and 1960s. . .

Górecki: I am not worried about it anymore. For me it is sufficient to have just the white and black keys. Now it is your task: you are young composers, you create the future of music. You create progress. For me such instruments as the piano are enough. So many people say that the piano is outdated, that it belongs in the museum as a monument to the past. But I think that it still is good enough to make music with.

Student: You mentioned listening. Do you like listening to your own music?

Górecki: I do not like listening to recordings of my music, because I get very upset about things that are not done the way I want them to be done. However, I do like, quite a lot, the London recording of the Third Symphony, with Dawn Upshaw. She has the perfect voice for the part; she is the perfect soprano. I like this recording even though there are some technical faults with it, even though I heard a lot of critical opinions about it.

Górecki listens to a rehearsal of Little Requiem at USC. Don Crockett conducts Contemporary Music Ensemble, October 1997, photo by Maja Trochimczyk.

Student: Many of your pieces have religious texts. What do you think about spirituality in music?

Górecki: I think I will not answer this question. I do not think I can. Instead I will ask you: Is Schubert’s music religious or non-religious, spiritual or non-spiritual? Could music exist without spirit at all? Without any spiritual inspiration? Why would anyone say that Schubert’s music is non-spiritual? In the past, all the composers, all the Mozarts, Schuberts, Haydns, Beethovens, and many others until the times of Bartók and Stravinsky, did not talk about these issues, because they could not imagine that music could be composed without this spritual inspiration. Each man, each person, as we sit here, consists of two elements: body and soul. We all know what body is: that many liters of water, that much minerals of this kind and that. . . What truly distinguishes us from each other, what makes us distinct individuals, is the spirit. This spirit works in us, because we are not robots as yet. Therefore it seems to me that many things that take place within the four walls of a creator’s study, never leave these walls. They should not leave the confines of the room. Finally, let me capture all these matters in one sentence. Our great, still living poet, Zbigniew Herbert, when asked about these matters concerning art, concerning the construction and definition of art, responded in the following manner: “Art is not a construction, it is not form; Art is conveying important spiritual experiences.” That is all.

Student: What about your future plans? What would you like to do in your music?

Górecki: I will tell it quite simply: I would like to die a decent death. Of course, I could think up a lot of things, dream that I would have a lot of money, but so what? Would I be able to take it with me when I die? I have to say that I would like to still compose several works that I had planned. At present I am in an extended hiatus, even though this year I wrote four new pieces. My most immediate plans are to write out the full score of the String Quartet No. 3, and then of the Clarinet Quintet. I have lots of ideas but we will see what will come out if it. I created a part of the material already and if I work as diligently on this as I had been until July this year, perhaps I will be able to finish it. But I have to focus. Of course, I would also like to write my Symphonies No. 5 and No. 9, and later complete all the missing ones in the cycle. [Laughter]

In 1905, a French poet said to his friend some very simple truths about life: “If you are reading, do read, and do not just turn pages. If you are listening to music, really listen.” Nadia Boulanger used to say: “If you are washing the window, wash it for real, if you are writing, write, and if you are playing, play and do not think about what you will be doing the next day.” Someone who is very young and lives in Los Angeles will tell me: “And when I drive my car, I can eat my sandwich and talk on my cell phone at the same time.” I say: “Yes, you can, but what for? Then you have no pleasure in eating your sandwich, and no pleasure in driving your car. If you do not focus, you do not enjoy life.” This is my atitude to these things. Let us not waste time, because life is too short.


[1]. During the Composition and Performance Forum held at Hancock Auditorium, Górecki answered questions asked by USC students of composition and performance departments. Dean Larry Livingston introduced the composer and the participants of the Forum. Prof. Adrian Thomas decided to limit his involvement to a supportive role. This text was transcribed by Blanka Sobuś from two mini-tapes recorded during the event by Polish journalist Danuta Pawlak and donated to the Polish Music Center. Maja Trochimczyk [formerly: Harley] translated Górecki’s statements into English (both during the event and afterwards) and edited the translation for publication. The English-language questions of the students were rarely audible and are reconstructed from memory, but the responses were usually very clear. [Back]