When music meets nation: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s music as an example

březen 2012 Hana Šišková Studie 2012

The earliest traces of musical nationalism can be found long before its rise in the 19th century, but Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and essentially his idea of Geist des Volkes or Volksgeist, eternal innate nature of a nation expressed in its language and folklore, represented the real watershed and the base for the growth of musical nationalism. The Volksgeist raised up into the realm of high art created the real elevated national art. A massive wave of collecting and publishing folklore followed these notions and many anthologies of folk songs appeared and helped to built national consciousness among people. Folk melodies and dances were transferred from a local to a national level and were incorporated into artificial music in order to help to create a nation. Soon many composers found the use of pre-existing folk material unsatisfactory and wrote music in the manner of folk tunes using their typical idioms.

The ability to carry the national message was recognized in both vocal and instrumental music but it seems that certain musical forms could be easily tailored to the nationalist needs such as adapted folk songs and folk dances, opera in a national language (which became an essential need for any nation, especially when drawing the thematic material from sometimes artificially manufactured ancient national mythology), symphonic poem with the form given by its extra musical programme often inspired by national history or nature, and choral music with the new wave of oratorical works which were given a unifying national meaning.

In the course of the 19th century the paths of musical nationalism were turning in accordance with the socio-political development of individual European states. The nations struggling for their existence and independence continued in this course in order to create their own national identity and awareness by dint of “the national” in music, while in the musical “powers” a new search for national spirit shifted the focus from folklore to (even recent) national musical history with its big composer “stars” as the source of the innate national spirit, e. g. in Germany to L. van Beethoven, in France (as reaction to germanification and Wagnerism) to J. P. Rameau (Taruskin 2001).

That different forms of both aforesaid lines (folklore as the source of “the national” and the concept of the “national spirit”) were evolving according to the geopolitical transformation in the 20th century, is easily detectable. The key features are the use of folklore as raw source material for the creation of the personal artistic style applied by Stravinsky (and later by Bartók) creating, together with neoclassicism, the French counterweight to German universalism, later Nazi abuse of music with the use of both folklore and the “national spirit” concept in the first half of the century and subsequently the post-war East-West division of Europe marking the music with the demand for high art to incorporate compulsory maximum of
“folksiness” within the Soviet bloc and the turn to atonal avant-garde as the musical idiom of Western Europe.

After the Second World War the 19th century primordial understanding of a nation as natural phenomena was widely rejected and substituted with the new concept of a nation as a constructed community and product of modernity. B. Anderson’s nation as an “imagined community” (Anderson 1991) or B. Curtis’s “nationality is an idea” (Curtis 2008) help to create space for much more diverse options for perceiving musical nationalism in the broadest context, as expressed by P. B. Bohlman’s proposition that “we can experience nationalism in music in any music at any time” (Bohlman 2004). Therefore when examining a musical work in terms of nationalism, what is to be taken into account is not only the musical material and the content of what is generally perceived to be related to the nation in the given milieu (either connected to the folk idiom or the national “spirit concept”), but also the composer’s intent, the audience’s perception, the context in which the music is used, and any other circumstance that can cause it to be perceived as nationalistic.

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s (1933–2010) music provides many possibilities for examining the interaction between a nation and music because much of his music originates in his ties to his native country, Poland, and its culture. For Górecki, drawing on the national tradition was a kind of creative necessity which together with a minimum of used material and a maximum of expression created his individual compositional style. Numerous inspirational sources such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin as well as Szymanowski, Bartók and also Polish folk music can be seen in his early compositions. After 1956 Górecki turned his attention towards West-European avant-garde that took Polish music, especially the young generation of composers, by storm. Even in this experimental period he exploited Polish national traditions and from the 1970s onwards national elements prevailed and played a crucial role in his work. Górecki used many types of media to transfer the national tradition.

Polish folk music became an inspirational source for many Polish composers of the 20th century, including Górecki. Early in the 1950s he bought Adolf Chybiński’s collection of folk songs Od Tatr k Baltyku (From the Tatras to the Baltic) and during his studies he became familiar with the folklore-inspired music by Szymanowski and other Polish composers. His proximity to Bartókian nature brought him even closer to drawing on the folk material. In his vocal music he builds on folk music from different regions, such as Opole, Mazowsze, Kurpie or Pomorze, while the instrumental music is mostly associated with the highland Podhale region. Górecki’s personal bond to Podhale lasted for most of his adult life and A. Thomas even calls Podhale Górecki’s spiritual home (Thomas 1997, p. 117). His first visit to the Tatra mountains in 1958 was just a prelude. A year later he spent his honeymoon in Zakopane and later he travelled around Tatras and collected folk songs. From the late 1970s he spent a great deal of time in a rented house on the banks of the Czarny Dunajec river and later in a village near Zakopane. In Podhale Górecki made friends with many outstanding folk musicians; playing with them, learning folk-fiddling from them, absorbing the highland music which became a fundamental constituent of the nature of his music.

Numerous examples of the Podhale folk idioms can be found in Górecki’s music, especially in his compositions from the 1970s onwards. Influence of a short phrase highland melody of limited range of pure fifth is especially distinguishable in e. g. Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu (Three Pieces in Old Style, 1963) (Ex. 1), in String Quartet No. 2 (1991) or in Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (Little Requiem for a Polka, 1993). Many examples from Górecki can illustrate the folk-like movement of melodic line led in parallel thirds (minor or major) and sixths, such as the second movement of Lerchenmusic (1984–86), the second movement of String Quartet No. 2 (1991), String Quartet No. 3 (1995), Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (1993) and many others. Górecki himself admits that his motto, the tone structure of E–F#–G or E–G–F# (Ex. 2) constantly emerging in more than 10 of his compositions (Thomas 1997, p. 87), originates in highland music (Thomas 1997, p. 111).

Folk-inspired modality, especially the Lydian mode with sharp fourth seems to be an integral part of Górecki’s music since his early compositions including Obrazki poetyckie (Poetic Pictures, 1954–55), Variations op. 4 (1956), or Piano Sonata (1956), later String Quartet No. 2 (1991), Kleines Requiem (1993) and many others. Occasionally the mode oscillates between the Lydian mode and “góralska skala” (highland mode) composed of the Lydian first tetrachord and the Mixolydian second tetrachord (e. g. C–D–E–F#–G–A–B–C). Highland sharp fourth also appears in other compositions such as Euntes ibant et flebant (1972), Trzy tańce (Three Dances, 1973) and others.

Perfect fifths, a frequent folk music interval, occurs in a number of Górecki’s works. It plays a crucial role in Muzyka staropolska (Old Polish Music, 1969) (Ex. 3), in Symphony No. 1 (1959), composed with the use of a free serial technique, the perfect fifths A–E at the end of the composition sound like an allusion to highland folk music as well as the fifths used in String Quartet No. 3 and other works.

Other typical idioms of Polish folklore with plentiful examples from Górecki’s music could be listed including pedal tones in Symphony No. 3, Lerchenmusik or Quartets, ostinatos and division of the ensemble in the manner of a highland folk band (the melodic line accompanied by ostinanto) in Quartets, motoric rhythm in Harpsichord Concerto (1980) and highland dance in its second movement or juxtaposition of double and triple meter in Three dances (1973).

Górecki’s music also draws on other folk dances from different regions; the mazurka dance appears in early Five Mazurkas and Variations (1956), later in unpublished Mazurki (Mazurkas, 1980), the krakowiak dance as well as the mazurka dance can be found in many composer’s songs. Kleines Requiem employs a dance of Czech origin, the polka.

Górecki’s sets of folk songs for a capella choir derive from different sources, but particularly from folk song collections by Oskar Kolberg (Kolberg 1961), Jadwiga Gorzechowska (Gorzechowska 1967) and Maria Kaczurbina (Gorzechowska – Kaczurbina 1969). The songs come from a variety of Polish regions, but from regions of Pomorze, Kurpie and Mazowsze in particular. The songs, mostly in homophonic texture, maintain their original form and melody. Górecki employs folk dance rhythms such as the mazurka, the oberek or the krakowiak and tempo and character changes in accordance with the lyrics. Szeroka woda (Broad Waters, 1979), a solitary song Wislo moja, Wislo szara (My Vistula, Grey Vistula, 1981) and Ach mój wianku lawendowy (O My Garland of Lavender, 1984) have been published, while Wieczór ciemny sie uniza (Dark Evening Is Falling, 1981) and Idzie chmura, pada deszcz (Cloud Comes, Rain Falls, 1984) remain unpublished as well as Trzy kolysanki (Three Lullabies, 1984) for which Górecki did not draw on pre-existing material but managed to create original music in an utterly believable and convincing folk-song idiom.

In his most popular work, III Symfonia pieśni zalosnych (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, 1976), which is to be discussed later, Górecki utilized the folk song Kajze mi sie podziol mój synocek mily (Where Has He Gone My Dear Son) from Opole region.

Górecki himself considered the Polish folk tradition and religious tradition to be “two sides of the same coin” (Thomas 1997) and another group of the national elements in his music carries a close link to Polish sacred music. His unpublished song collections Pieśni kościelne (Church Songs, 1986), Pieśni Maryjne (Marian Songs, 1985) and Pod Tvoja obrone (Under Your Protection, 1985) used as a source Śpiewnik kościelny (Church Song Book) compiled by Jan Siedlecki in 1878 (Siedlecki 1990). Choral treatment of material similar to religious folk songs can be found in Górecki’s Dwie pieśni sakralne (Two Sacred Songs, 1971) and in other compositions for the capella choir. In those Górecki does not exploit existing song material, but the music is composed in the manner of Polish church song. These include modal Euntes ibant et Flebant (They who Go Forth and Weep, 1972) with the text from the Book of Psalms, meditative Amen (1975) with only one-word of text, and Totus Tuus (1987) based on John Paul II’s motto and composed for a performance during the Pope’s third pilgrimage to Poland.

The citation of pre-existing music material plays a specific role in Gorecki’s music and it appears so naturally that it seems to be an integral part of the composer’s personal style. This can be either from ancient and Renaissance Polish music or from compositions by outstanding Polish composers, and it has become another medium of the national tradition. Gorecki’s interest in old music started in his student years and translated into his early compositions such as Pieśni o radości i rytmie (Songs of Joy and Rhythm, 1956, 1969) by allusions to Bogurodzica (Bogurodzica is Poland’s oldest notated music, an early medieval hymn to Virgin Mary, sung by Polish troops going into battle), also referred to in Symphony No. 1 (1959). Górecki’s open turn to the Polish medieval and Renaissance periods arrived at the moment when he was at the height of his experimental period. He composed Choral w formie kanonu (Chorale in the Form of Canon, 1961) just between Scontri and Diagram IV in serial technique and its canon is drawn from Polish Renaissance choral composition for four voices Juz sie zmiercha (Already Dusk is Falling), also known as Modlitwa, gdy diatky spać ida (A Prayer for Children Going to Bed) by Waclaw of Szamotule (published c. 1556) (Szweykowski 1973). Górecki exploited this cantus firmus also in String Quartet No. 1Juz sie zmierzcha (Already it is dusk, 1988) and Muzyka staropolska (Old Polish music, 1968), where he also derives from one of the oldest Polish organum Benedicamus Domino (c. 1300) (Thomas 1997). Two years after Choral he wrote Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu (Three Pieces in Old Style, 1963) with many folk-like allusions but primarily in the third piece with almost untreated citation of an anonymous Pieśń o weselu najaśniejszego króla Sygmunta wtórego (Songs of the wedding of King Zigmunt II) from the 16th century. Anonymous 15thcentury song Laude digna prole appears in a brief fanfare Wratislawiae Gloria (1968) and in coda of extensive Copernican Symphony No. 2 (1972). Salve, sidus Polonorum (2001), composed for the 1000th anniversary of the death of Bishop Wojciech (Czech saint, patron of Poland and Bohemia), contains melodies and texts of two chants from the 15th century to St. Wojciech.

A citation of music fragments taken from outstanding Polish composers’ works provides another medium of Górecki’s patriotism. He refers to F. Chopin and K. Szymanowski whose music strongly relates to Polish folk music and who are perceived as creators of Polish national music. Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 19 No. 4 (1832–3) was written shortly after Chopin had gone to exile as a result of the 1930–1931 uprising. Górecki, who would always pay attention to wider context of works, was certainly aware of this fact when referring to the first chords of the mazurka in his own music, at first in coda of Canticum Graduum (1964) and then in the third movement of Symphony No. 3 (1976) (Ex. 4). K. Szymanowski became a big influence on Górecki from his youth. His Romance (1955) and Variations (1956) show strong signs of the influence. Apart from short references to Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto in Beatus vir (1979), Górecki paid tribute to his role model by citing Szymanowski’s “highland” ballet Harnasie (Highland Robbers, 1931) in Concerto-Cantata (1992) and by refering to Szymanowski’s First Quartet in his own Quartet No. 3.

Language is an inherent component of the identity of any nation and a musical setting of an artistic text in national language possesses strong ability to draw attention to nation. Górecki composed numerous songs for a choir or a solo voice with accompaniment based on texts by Polish composers including Cyprian K. Norwid, Stanislaw Wyspiański, Maria Konopnicka, Juliusz Slowacki and Kazimierz Przerwa Tetmajer, who was himself an enthusiastic mountaineer and admirer of the Beauty of Tatras, which was reflected in his poetry. Many of Górecki’s songs exploit texts by Julian Tuwim and the poet’s satiric aphorism, written just an hour before the author’s death (1953), creates the principal choral line of Górecki’s avant-garde Epitafium (1958).

Admiration of the nature of a country through an artistic work is another way of voicing one’s national feelings. Górecki spent much time hiking in the Tatra mountains and he attempted to capture the atmosphere of the mountains in his music. Sounds of highland wind were the inspiration for Harpsichord Concerto (1980) (Ex. 5), while in contrast, the second movement of Symphony No. 3 is supposed to ilustrate the silence of a mountain landscape (Kostka 2002).

In two collections of songs for a capella choir Górecki turns his attention to Polish rivers Vistula and Narew. Szeroka woda (Broad Waters, 1979) contents five adapted folk songs (collections of folk songs by Jadwiga Gorzechowska and Maria Kaczurbina) and only No. 3 doesn’t deal with a river theme, Wislo moja, Wislo szara (My Vistula, Grey Vistula, 1981) is a solitary folk song well known throughout Poland.

So far we have searched Górecki’s music for the elements which are customarily considered to emphasize the relation between music and nation. In the following part we are going to examine all of the other elements that cause the music sound or be perceived as nationalist.

When meeting nationalism music becomes a powerful political tool. National/nationalist composers want their music to sound national/nationalist. This brings us from the questions What? and How? to Why?. To be able to satisfactorily answer the question of Górecki
s intention for some of his works it is essential to realize the complexity of the problem.

in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was not an easy place to live. Its political and economical situation was in deepening crisis, tensions between the Communist Party and the Church were cumulating, and increasing repressive measures were adding to the general dissatisfaction. The 1968 student demonstrations as well as the 1970 unrest caused by an announced jump in prices were suppressed by force. The intensifying crisis led to a wave of strikes and to the establishment of the independent trade union movement Solidarity in 1980. As the response to this situation the martial law was announced in late 1980 (revoked 1983), the Solidarity was banned and a myriad of repression followed. Change of the conditions occurred after the collapse of the national economy in spring 1989 and after the first free election in the same year.

Zofia Helman (Helman 2000) explains Polish composers
turn to the national tradition in the 1970 for two reasons. She asserts that after the short storm of avantgarde Polish composers including Górecki became more aware of the fact that Polish music is not a separate phenomenon and it can remain a part of European music despite the use of folklore elements. This view can be agreed with on the condition that this is one of many possible reasons which should be examined comprehensively.

The religion creates an integral and essential part of Polish national identity. Helman sees the 1970s turn towards the religious tradition as the reaction to the political suppression. This was not the first moment in Polish history when the Church opposed the state and the situation sharpened with the elevation of Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow to the papal throne in 1978, which gave rise to hopes for freedom throughout Poland.

In 1977 Górecki found himself in the middle of this tension when he was commissioned by Cardinal Wojtyla to write a work for the 900th anniversary of the
assassinationof Bishop (later Saint) Stanislaus of Krakow. St Stanislaus, generally regarded as Polands patron saint, had long been a symbol of the Church in conflict with the State. Górecki selected the text from his beloved Book of Psalms and in his Beatus Vir (1979) for baritone solo, mixed choir and large orchestra; he stressed the role of common humanity. The premiere took place on the occasion of the Popes first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, and it became Góreckis personal triumph as well as a manifestation of the general desire for freedom. This was the culmination of almost perpetual conflict between Górecki, who had been the Rector at the Higher School of Music in Katowice since 1975, and the Party authorities. As the result he resigned from the post and for many years he became a target of ostracism from the public life.

Another Górecki
s sacred Polish chant inspired work, Miserere (1981) was written as a personal “protest song” against the brutal crackdown of the Communist militia against Rural Solidarity members (sister organization of Solidarity) in Bydgoszcz in March 1981. This openly political work was not to be performed until 1987, when it was premiered within the Bydgoszcz Music Festival in Wloclawek, where the body of Jerzy Popieluszko, a catholic priest murdered by agents of the communist internal intelligence agency, had been found in 1984.

In Górecki
s first quartet Juz sie zmiercha (Already it is dusk / Already dusk is falling, 1988) the composer turned for the third time to Waclaw of Szamotules evening hymn (Szweykowski 1973, p. 13). In the text, warning about the forces of evil, Górecki read a hidden political parallel to the communist evil in post-war Poland (Thomas 1997, p. 129) and this became the principal idea of the quartet. This extra-musical association makes the quartet highly political and ranks it alongside the political comment of Miserere.

It can be questioned whether the response of Polish musicians to communist oppression is a question of nationalism. At least two arguments can be given to support the opinion that nationalism is one of the elements in the play here. Firstly the enemy was not only the inner one – the Communist Party, but also the outside one – the communist USSR, in whose sphere of influence Poland found itself after World War II, which was confirmed by the victory of the Polish Communist Party in the manipulated elections in 1947 (Brooker 2000). Secondly in the field of art including music the communists as well as their opponents used the “national” means to support their intents and goals against the other side, which makes this struggle the subject of our interest.

In the post-communist period Górecki wrote a short choral composition that is probably his most patriotic, political and nationalist composition, Pieśń rodzin Katyńskich (Song of the Katyń Families, 2004). It is written to commemorate the mass execution of thousands of Polish army officers by the Soviets in the Katyń forest in Russia. The Soviets later accused the Nazis of the cold-blooded massacre, and in Poland Katyń was a forbidden topic until the end of the Cold War. The Soviets continued to deny the responsibility for the atrocities until 1990. In 2004 Russian officials announced that all the information about the Katyń massacre would be transferred to the Polish authorities. Górecki used as the text Tadeusz Lutoborski
s poem, which begins with the opening words of the Polish national anthem, and then turns to Katyń reminding the Poles never to forget. The melody reaches its highest pitch at the moment when the text speaks of the “Polish Holy Father”. Then the music, up to the moment in minor modality and in low register, ascends and becomes brighter. At the end the national anthem appears again.

When reflecting on composer
s intent it is necessary to mention one more Goreckis work in which the composers purpose is not very clear. In Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (Little Requiem for a Polka, 1993) Górecki employs the national dance of Bohemian origin, the polka dance. We can only guess whether the Requiem is dedicated to a Polish girl or to the polka dance which appears in the third movement. Górecki kept quite private the reasons for this peculiar title, although he said it reflects his sadness at the breakup of Czechoslovakia (1992) (Thomas 1997, p. 144).

Symphony No. 3
as a conclusion

In his most famous work III Symfonia pieśni zalosnych (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, 1976) Górecki utilized many of the above mentioned media to transmit the national message. In his pre-compositional research he looked for inspiration in different collections of Polish folk songs and found the folk song Kajze mi sie podziol mój synocek mily (Where has he gone my dear son) from the Opole region with the text from Silesian uprisings 1919–1921. By accident he came across a short sentence from 1944, scratched on a wall in “Palace”, the Gestapo prison in Podhale, by an imprisoned young Polish woman saying: “O Mamo nie placz nie – Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Tyzawsze wspieraj mnie” (Oh Mama do not cry – Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always). Then looked for the third text and chose a verse from an anonymous fifteenth-century Polish manuscript in which the Virgin Mary talks to her Son dying on the Cross. Górecki used each of the three texts for one of the movements of the symphony. He also used pre-existing musical material of a Lenten song Oto Jesus umiera (Lo, Jesus is dying) from Siedlecki
s Śpiewnik kościelny (Church Songbook) (Siedlecki 1990) and combined it with a religious song Niechaj bendzie pochwalony (Let Him be praised). The musical material is full of folk music allusions, modality, pure fifths, and sharpened fourths; there is a melodic link to Szymanowskis Stabat mater and chords taken from Chopins Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4. Górecki even pronounced his intent for the second movement “to be of a highland character, not in the sense of pure folklore, but the climate of Podhale...” (Thomas 1997, p. 91). Polish folk songs, folk music idioms (Ex. 6), Polish text, Polish religious tradition, the citation of Polish composers music, Polish history, the nature of Polish mountains, all this woven into three slow movements of highly emotionally evocative music.

All these characteristics predestined the music of the symphony to appear in numerous movies. Due to films directed by Bent Staalhoj (Requiem, 1989, and re-edited version titled Songs of Sorrow, 1994) and by Tony Palmer (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, 1993) fundamentally changed the symphony
s perception. The movies connected the music with horrifying period footage from the concentration camp Oświecim (Auschwitz) and Songs of Sorrow even added pictures of neo-Nazi skinheads.

At the moment when it was written, only the second movement had specific links with World War II, namely with the solitary suffering of a Polish girl in Podhale, but through the movies all the symphony became related to mass extermination in Auschwitz, which necessarily associates suffering of the Jewish people during the war. The music, originally referring to Polish national tradition, set into the new context eventually changed the subject of its reference to the different ethnical group, to the Jewish people.

Górecki claimed that the symphony has no further associations with the war then the origin of the 2nd movement text (Thomas 1997), but in the first part of the Palmer
s movie we can see the composer talking about his school trip to Auschwitz and walking in the snow in Auschwitz with the 3rd Symphony as the background music. It seems that the composer accepted and even supported the new connotations given to his work by its perception and the new context.

The given examples of interactions between music and nation show that not only the musical material itself, but also all the possible connections can influence these interactions. Music with national elements does not necessarily carry nationalist content, while music with no national elements or with national elements linked to a certain nation can in a different context create associations with another national or ethnic groups. This adaptability of music, given by its extraordinary ability to evoke emotions, makes music a powerful tool in the service of nation.


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Ex. 1: Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu (Three Pieces in Old Style), 2nd movement, 1–4.

Ex. 2: Beatus vir, Molto Lento Dolce, 56–60.

Ex. 3: Muzyka Staropolska (Old Polish Music), 1–6.

Ex. 4: Symphony No. 3, 3rd movement, 1–5.

Ex. 5: Harpsichord Concerto, 1st movement, 1–4.

Ex. 6: Symphony No. 3, 1st movement, 1–7.

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