On the final night of the Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (HMG) festival, the composer’s music filled Kraków’s Church of St. Anne. In front of a magnificent altar depicting Christ’s birth, the Lutosławski Quartet performed the final piece of the festival, Górecki’s first string quartet. The audience was an eclectic mix. In the pews, toddlers clapped their hands to the music, hipsters listened studiously, and some early attendees for the coming Mass, bundled in shawls, looked on with curiosity. When the piece ended, a little girl waddled on stage looking for her father, violinist Marcin Markowicz. She found him and wrapped herself around him. He tucked his violin underneath his arm, took a bow, and picked her up. Another year of the Henry Mikolaj Górecki festival had just come to an end.
The annual festival is now in its fourth year and it is the only festival in the world dedicated to Górecki. From October 17th-26th, a group of distinguished Polish musicians performed six concerts before audiences across Kraków free of charge. The festival also included conferences on music theory and the state of contemporary Polish music, featuring scholars and music critics from across Poland. HMG has stiff competition, both in its home city of Kraków, and throughout Poland. Compared to Warsaw Autumn, one of Poland’s most prestigious music events, which features composers and performers from around the world, HMG is avowedly Polish — the musicians, much of the music, and the venues.
In early 2010, festival director Michał Kwiatkowski wrote a letter to Jadwiga Gorecka, Górecki’s wife, with a simple question: would Jadwiga accept a festival in honor of her late husband? She liked theidea and gave her consent, though the request surprised her. “You want a festival in Kraków,” she asked Kwiatkowski, “but why? He lived in Silesia.” Kwiatkowski responded, “If they won’t do it there, I’ll do it in Kraków. I want to celebrate his name here.”
Now considered one of the giants of 20th music, Górecki was relatively unknown until his third symphony was re-released in 1992 to international acclaim. Górecki wrote his “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” in 1976 and while Polish critics acclaimed it as brilliant, its popularity within Poland was limited, and outside the country, almost nonexistent.
In 1992 the piece was re-released on the American imprint Nonesuch Records. Almost overnight, Górecki became known internationally. The record has since sold over one million copies, making it one of the best selling contemporary classical records in history. The piece topped charts in the United States and Britain (but never Poland) and was featured in dozens of plays, films and commercials. Górecki’s sudden popular success confounded critics. What was it, they wondered, about this little known Polish composer, working for most of his life from behind the Iron Curtain, which had made him an international phenomenon? Kwiatkowski doesn’t have an answer, but in Górecki he sees a Polish sensibility that has gone under-appreciated and is worth celebrating. “I can’t understand why no one has done this before me,” he said.
“No one really saw his genius here in Poland. He was brilliant, but he couldn’t sell his appeal at home,” Kwiatkowski explained. Górecki was known to be an intensely private man and he shunned public appearances and rarely travelled to promote his work. He hardly cared about being celebrated in communist Poland, which gave him the freedom to compose what he wanted: he was both a devout Catholic and an anti-communist. In 1987, he composed a choral piece to celebrate Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Poland and, as a result, his work was further censored. Authorities favored other, less overtly “Polish” composers, like Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski. Since the fall of communism, Górecki has not achieved the popularity of his contemporaries. “Górecki needs to have someone promote him,” Kwiatkowski said and he is in fact the one who has taken on the task. “The first time I heard Górecki’s piece was when I sung it in school. It’s very honest music. You don’t have to complicate something to make it beautiful,” he added.
While Górecki is the festival’s inspiration and namesake, the festival also celebrates other Polish classical music, past and present. Throughout the festival, audiences had the opportunity to hear the best classical music Poland has to offer. “Polish folk music was an important influence for Górecki, but tradition shouldn’t stop the process of searching for new sounds,” said Dagna Sadkowska, a member of the Kwartludium Quartet, which performed a series of works by modern Polish composers.
One of the festival’s joys is its melding of the young and the old, the modern and the classical, the religious and the secular, all in honor of Górecki. On October 25th, the TWOgether Duo (Magdalena Bojanowicz and Maciej Frąckiewicz) performed at Kraków’s Cloth Hall. On the building’s second floor is a small museum with long, narrow galleries. Flanked by the massive historic paintings of Polish artist Jan Matejko, the duo performed contemporary Polish music surrounded, quite literally, by Poland’s cultural past. “Poland was always experienced in high culture,” said Paweł Nowicki, a member of the Kwartludium Quartet, “we had the Renaissance, we had Chopin, Szymanowski, and contemporary composers like Górecki…this festival is about our heritage.”