Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was born on December 6 1933 in Czernica near Rybnik into a poor Silesian family of Otylia and Roman Górecki, who had been cultivating a generation-long tradition of home and amateur music-making. However it was him who made his passion his way of life. It must have been a great passion, since his daughter Anna – a respected pianist, his son Mikołaj – a composer, and his grandchildren Jaś and Emilka – violinists have all fulfilled themselves in music.
Music was his choice. On his second birthday his mother died, leaving him a piano. He used to sneak in to the instrument and play. When he was 10, he started to learn how to play the violin with a local, self-taught musician. In 1951, after graduating from junior high school, he started to work as an elementary school teacher. His family wanted him to start economic studies, but he wanted to study music. When he was refused admission to music schools in Rybnik, Bytom and Katowice (because he was too old), he enrolled to a music centre. After one year he was accepted to a pedagogical class in the Secondary Music School in Rybnik. At last he had the opportunity to learn how to play professionally the piano, clarinet and violin and to catch up with the knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation and folklore. He learnt music in Rybnik and at the same time taught history, mathematics, biology and nature in Rydułtowy Radoszowy. He was also determined enough to travel two hours by train to Katowice to concerts of the Silesian Philharmonic on Fridays. He sometimes missed the last train and spent the night in the waiting room of the railway station. He returned in the morning just to go to the school to conduct lessons, because he had to earn some money. He spent the time in the train on studying scores. He got the first score -Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – for the table tennis racket, which he liked so much.
He did not focus on music only – he also loved sport. He found it very easy to establish contacts with children. A few years ago, this composer, welcomed so warmly anywhere in the world, was a guests to five concerts of the Young Philharmonic. Young learners gave him a standing ovation when he spoke highly of playing football, hinting at the same time that visits paid to a philharmonic (at least once a month) were equally useful and interesting.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki graduated from the school in Rybnik in just three years. He also tried his hand at composing, therefore he could provide a substantial portfolio of his works when applying for admission to composer’s studies under the supervision of Prof. Bolesław Szablewski at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice. He was a third-year student when on February 27 1958 a unique concert was held on the stage of the Silesian Philharmonic – a monograph concert of a student. Six of his works were performed for the first time. He completed studies with the highest distinction in 1960. He continued his education in Paris, which was a prize for the 1st place in the Young Artists Competition of the Association of Polish Composers for his Monologues.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s passion for music reveals his Silesian determination and consistency – not being a dumb-ass as Kazimierz Kutz would say, but stubbornness in acting against all odds. These qualities are also desirable nowadays.
The university concert in the Silesian Philharmonic on February 27 1958, witnessed by Witold Lutosławski, and participation in the Warsaw Autumn in 1958 were his musical debut. His permanent presence in the Warsaw Autumn in the next years confirmed the fact that he was an extraordinary personality of his generation (beside Tadeusz Baird, Krzysztof Penderecki and Wojciech Kilar) which was to transplant the achievements of the world avant-garde onto the Polish ground. The Genesis I – III cycle by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki constitutes classics of the Polish sonorist school. The aesthetic and stylistic breakthrough and a little deviation from the avant-garde tendencies came in 1965 with the Chorus op. 21 for orchestra, in which the Composer combined two contrasting techniques: the medieval one and the 20th century Twelve-tone one. Muzyka staropolska [Old Polish Music] for wind, brass and stringed instruments was composed in 1969. In this work, the composer referred to the Antiphonary by the St. Clare nuns of Stary Sącz and to the song Już się zmierzcha [It Is Growing Dusk] by Wacław of Szamotuły. It is an exceptionally static piece lasting for about half an hour. Since then this feature has become a characteristic of Górecki. There was also another change – the composer turned to the vocal and instrumental genres, to the (generally) religious texts. On numerous occasions he referred in his works to old or folk music, mainly of the Polish Tatra Highlands. Therefore these compositions are characterized by a distinct melody and traditional, almost simple, harmony with repeating themes and phrases. Owing to this feature, Górecki’s music is often associated with minimalism or is referred to as the new simplicity.
The world premiere of Ad Matrem performed during the Warsaw Autumn in 1972 was an aesthetic shock for everybody. Since then the human voice and word has become an integral element of his artistic expression. The means, reduced to a minimum, give here a maximum expression. In the subsequent works, the increasingly more limited means of the composer’s language refer to the increasingly more serious problems of human existence.
After four decades of artistic work, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki gained worldwide fame in 1993 thanks to the fourth (!) recording of his Third Symphony. 850 thousand records were sold in one year – which was the largest release in the history of contemporary music phonography. This huge interest in his works had remained with him. The Third Symphony ”Symfonia pieśni żałosnych ” [”Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”], dedicated to his wife and created in 1976 at the request of Südwestfunk Baden-Baden, shocks with its authenticity and depth of experience. The composer referred to three texts: fragment of the 15th Lament świętokrzyski, inscription scrawled on the wall of a cell of a Gestapo prison in the town of Zakopane by an incarcerated girl and the Silesian lament Kajze mi się podzioł mój synocek miły [Where has he gone, my dear young son] created during the Silesian Uprisings. This moving piece with a gentle soprano is not only a tribute to the victims of violence, but it also carries a clear Christian message, a glimmer of hope for the resurrection.
Another great work by the composer was a powerful psalm in honour of St. Stanislaus the Bishop – Beatus vir. The work was commissioned by the Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, and it was performed for the first time before the Pope John Paul II. It became the first link in the cycle devoted to the Polish saints.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki has won many international and national prizes, among others: first prizes during the Paris Biennale of Young Artists (for the First Symphony ”1959”) and the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers (for Ad Matrem), First Degree State Prize (1970), awards of the Minister of Culture and Art (1965, 1969, 1973), Awards of the Association of Polish Composers (1970), Awards of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (1992), St. Brother Albert Award, Herder Award. He was the first winner of the W. Korfanty Award, given by the Upper Silesia Association since 1993. In 2003 he won the award of the Katowice Bishop Lux ex Silesia. He has also received many awards of the Katowice city and Province.
His music has evaluated from Bartokowski vitalism, through serialism and punctualism, sonorism and bruitism into new simplicity and new spirituality. It has always remained completely original and unique with great power. The musical language transforming in time was only a tool for the Composer. The essence of his art was bearing testimony to the Supreme Truth.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki had been working at his university – State Higher School of Music (the present Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music) since 1965, since 1968 as a lecturer and four years later as a assistant professor. In 1977 he was conferred the title of an associate professor. Andrzej Krzanowski, Eugeniusz Knapik and Rafał Augustyn studied composition under his supervision. In 1975 he was nominated to the position of the Academy rector, four years later he resigned both from this function and from work in the academy.
In a period of time from 1977 to 1983 he was vice president of the K. Szymanowski Music Association. In the years 1980-1984 he was president of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia in Katowice.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki received Poland’s highest decoration – the Order of the White Eagle (2009). He was also knight of, among others, Commander’s Cross with Star (2003) and Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1994), Gold Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis, Ecce Homo Order (2000) and the highest Vatican order for lay persons – The Order of St. Gregory the Great (2009).
He was the first honoris causa doctor in the history of the Academy of Music in Katowice (2003). He was also conferred this title by the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw (1993), the University of Warsaw (1994), the Jagiellonian University (2002), the Catholic University of Lublin (2004) and the Academy of Music in Cracow (2008), universities in Michigan, Victoria and Montreal. He was a honorary citizen of Zakopane (1994), Rybnik (2006), Katowice (2008) and Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski (2009).