Promoting Polish Music: Speech to the Friends of Polish Music, 7 October 1997

by Henryk Górecki [1]

translated by Maja Trochimczyk

Górecki at the Wilks’ residence in Los Angeles, October 1997. Photo by Vladek Juszkiewicz.

I would like to take the marvelous opportunity, in this select society, to, as it were, advertise a bit this merchandise that is the best Polish merchandise, that is to say, Polish art. I do not know if you are aware of this, that truly painting, poetry, music and other artistic products are the best-selling merchandise “made in Poland.” The only problem is that our businessmen somehow do not believe in it. They want to sell products of Polish industry and this is not in very good shape: our coal is not very good, the metallurgy industry is even worse, and cars. . . those I will not even mention. Somewhere abroad, in America, people know about Polish sausage, Polish ham, though this sausage or ham is nowhere near the quality of those made in the past. From time to time the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble “Mazowsze” toured the U.S., and interestingly, it was welcomed here as a real “folk ensemble.” But in reality it had as much in common with Polish folklore as I have in common with Chinese culture. “Mazowsze” and other large ensembles of this kind were groups supported and presented by the [Communist] Party, these people were intended to be true ambassadors of art. For instance, when “Mazowsze” was created in Warsaw, the First Secretary of the Katowice section of the Party [in Silesia] said;”We have to have one like that too!” And this is how “Śląsk” came into being. How could Silesia be worse than Warsaw? Unthinkable. The members of these groups were good musicians, good choral singers, good dancers, only they were pulled into the machinery of the Party, the “mafia”—what else would you call it?—of propaganda. It would be great, if this music were the first, introductory stage leading one into true Polish culture, but for the Party officials this was the highest form of art. Who heard about Szymanowski? About Herbert? And who is this Herbert, anyway? And here the tragedy began. If for instance, someone from the Polish Music Publishers (PWM) sent a package of scores to Polish cultural institutions abroad, such as Polish consulates, embassies, and various cultural institutes, it was very likely that these packages would remain unpacked in the basement for the next 10, 15 or even 20 years. If a conductor in Rome, for instance, wanted to get a Polish score he would go to the cultural division of the Polish consulate. There he would find a cultural attachée whose job was to represent Polish culture and art. And the attachée would say: “Sorry, we do not have it.” This is tragic, or rather, it was tragic. I experienced it myself when people asked: “Is he still alive? Wait a minute, in which century did this Górecki live? Who is he? Is he alive? Is he dead?”

Now, after some gloomy jokes, let me change the subject to a much more serious matter. Here, beside me, you see a very humble man. This modest person is one of the most eminent musicologists in the world, one of the best experts on Polish music. He is not Polish. He is English. His name is Adrian Thomas. I think that he is the most amazing expert in Polish music in general, not just contemporary Polish music. I wish that every nation, every state had such a great friend somewhere in another nation, as Poland has in Adrian Thomas. I am not saying this because he wrote a book about me: we have known each other for 25 years. We know each other like brothers. [2] Thomas is an expert in the music of Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Lutoslawski, and the whole of contemporary music. I had the honor and opportunity of witnessing how much Adrian did for Poland and Polish music during the three years when he was the head of music for BBC 3. He did something no one had done until that time: he literally saturated the British airwaves with Polish music, from Bogurodzica to the most recent works. There were concerts and broadcasts, and all of this was done by just one man. If we had had two of his kind, I just can’t imagine what would have happened. So, here I would like to offer to him an expression of my utmost gratitude, not a “homage,” since he’s still alive, but the highest praise that one can give, for all that he did for Polish music. I admire him and am infinitely grateful to him for everything.

Nonetheless, we have not yet made a mark in the world. Even today controversies arise in the world as to whether Chopin was a Pole or a Frenchman. Even Chopin is doubted. Yet, we know that Chopin was Polish. We know that we have an enormously rich and wonderful history of music. We should be proud of it. That is almost everything I wanted to tell you today. Let me add one more thing: Poland has a truly amazing publication that you should know about, because not many people are aware of it and in general it is not well-known. I’m talking about a collection of folklore, including descriptions of music, folk costumes, food, and stories. This collection was written by Chopin’s friend, Oskar Kolberg. [3] There are almost 100 volumes in this series: he literally dedicated his life to this cause. We could have a great time browsing through, reading, and exploring this collection. And now let me ask a question: where can I buy it? Where can I see it? Where can I touch it? This is a fundamental, great thing. During his life, Oskar Kolberg published about sixty volumes of the series. He managed to do it without a phone, without a car, without a plane, just with a pencil and a piece of paper in his hand. Now the final volumes are being published very slowly and with great difficulty: issuing the whole set has already lasted for several decades. And this in the time of satellites, rockets, and space flight… Kolberg’s collection of folklore is fundamental for Polish culture. I know it, Adrian knows it, but few people know it.

This is why it is so important to have a library such as the Polish Music Reference Center where you can come and read Kolberg’s books. There is much more in the collection than Kolberg, of course. But whom should we thank for that, here on the West Coast of the U.S.? No doubt, Dr. and Mrs. Wilk. I have been in touch with them for many years, but from afar I could not even imagine how much they did for the cause of Polish music, for my cause. Without their work we would be much poorer. Nobody forced them to do what they did! They could have done something else with their lives: they could have gone into business, sold their products, earned a ton of money. But they chose differently. They chose to sacrifice their own time, their own income to tell the world, and California of course, about Polish music. I offer to them the greatest homage I possibly can. [Turns to the Wilks] I wish you many more years of such fruitful and wonderful efforts and I am profoundly grateful and very happy that I could be your guest in this beautiful home. For it is your “fault,” Maja, Wanda and Stefan, that I came to California. From Katowice, from Podhale it is extremely far to travel. For me it is the end of the world! So thank you very much from all my heart. I am very grateful for all that you did for me.

Today I brought some music that we are going to present to you with my friend, Andrzej Bachleda. Let me add two sentences about my songs. The two earliest songs I composed a very long time ago, over 40 years ago. These songs were written even before I started my composition studies and they were left in the drawer for a very long time. I am a great admirer of the poetry of Maria Konopnicka, which is so slighted by Polish literary critics. In Polish literature textbooks Konopnicka is considered a third, fourth-rate poet. I do not understand it. For me, her poetry is great, simple, and profound. I have always liked and respected her, and loved her work. Therefore I loved writing music to her poetry. After over 40 years I returned to her texts and wrote one more little song to her poem, thus completing a cycle of three songs that I am not ashamed of. These are the songs that I would like to present to you tonight.[4]

Bachleda at the Wilks residence in Los Angeles, October 1997. Photo by Vladek Juszkiewicz.


[1]. The lecture took place in the home of Dr. Stefan and Mrs. Wanda Wilk, Studio City, and preceded a short recital of Górecki’s songs by Andrzej Bachleda, baritone, and Henryk Górecki, piano, as well as a reception for the invited guests. “Friends of Polish Music” is the name of fund-raising organization (Mrs. Wanda Wilk, president) associated since 1982 with the USC School of Music. The donations from the evening were given to Ars Musica Poloniae Foundation, a private cultural foundation created by Dr. Stefan Wilk to promote Polish music and its place in American culture. Diane Wilk Burch serves as the Foundation’s president; AMP grants have been given to the Polish Music Center, as well as scholars and students from Poland researching Polish music in the U.S. [Back]

[2]. Górecki uses here a slang expression “znamy się jak łyse konie” [we know each other as bold horses], meaning a knowledge resulting from a long and close friendship. [Back]

[3]. Oskar Kolberg, Dzieła wszystkie [Complete Works], 68 volumes. Wrocław-Poznań: Polskie Towarzystwo Ludoznawcze, 1962-8. Originally published in 1857-1888. [Back]

[4]. Three Songs of Konopnicka, op. 68 (1954/95) for voice and piano: “Przez te łąki, przez te pola” [Through these Meadows, Across these Fields], “Kiedy Polska” [When Poland], “U okienka, u mojego” [By my Little Window]. Premiered on 28 May 1995 in New York (together with Two Songs, 1954-55) by Andrzej Bachleda – baritone, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki – piano. [Back]