Sunday, November 28, 2010

Górecki, Chopin, and the Mountains

Gorecki in his studio, April 1998In the summer of 1997, I traveled to the mountain town of Zakopane, in Podhale (the Foothills) area of Tatra Mountains, to persuade Henryk Mikolaj Górecki to come to Los Angeles for a residency at the University of Southern California, called the Górecki Autumn. He conducted his Third Symphony, in a historical, legendary performance that lasted good 10 minutes longer than any other. . . I was his personal translator and accompanied him everywhere, like a substitute daughter (my middle name is hers, Ania).

We talked a lot (a short interview appeared in the Musical Quarterly in 1998), but for an in-depth musical conversation I had to go back to Poland. In April 1998, we shared a plate of his wife's beet soup, and hours of conversations about music. He played for me Chopin's Mazurka in A-minor op. 17 no. 4, his favorite one. He talked about musicological discoveries that excited him, though soon faded into obscurity in the academic world of changing theories and fashions. Here is a fragment of that interview I translated and published in 2003.

"Composing is a Terribly Personal Matter": Henryk Mikołaj Górecki in Conversation with Maja Trochimczyk (Katowice, April 1998), fragment of an interview by Maja Trochimczyk [1]

Maja Trochimczyk: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today. I have a lot of questions to ask. Where shall we start?

Henryk Górecki: I would like to share with you my excitement about a true musical revolution. Grzegorz Michalski first told me about this discovery which was announced during a small musicology session in Warsaw. During the session, Jan Węcowski - I'm sure you know him - revealed a bit about the mystery that he is working on.[2] In his study he proves that Chopin used Polish religious church songs in his works. I called him up and talked to him on the phone. He confirmed that - and I quote - "Chopin arranges old Polish church songs." But this has never been mentioned before! Never, in no books! Of course, we know about his use of the Christmas carol, "Lulajże Jezuniu," but this is just the beginning. I have never seen anything like it and I have seen a lot of research on Chopin; I have a lot of books. Nobody mentions it. But if this is true, and it has to be true, because Węcowski is a serious fellow and knows what he's doing - then we have a true Chopin revolution.

Węcowski told me: "Do you know what a tragic character Chopin really was?" Of course, we know all the cliches, all the banalities about the revolutionary etude, the struggle, the uprising, the bayonets. . . This is a 90 percent martial matter. We have attached this image of a revolutionary patriot to Chopin. At the same time we have this image of Chopin as a "ladies' man" who sits at his instrument and reflects about the lost Poland and does nothing really. All these obertas, kujawiaks, are nice, but nothing more than nice. But if you could prove that he actually used church songs, that have texts that mean something, not only the folk mazurkas, but also the expressions of folk spirituality, then we see how Chopin returned to the foundations, to the roots from which all the music grows.

Similarly you have Szymanowski using the material from Skierkowski's collection.[3] You know, if it weren't for Skierkowski, if it weren't for the Kurpian music, this Szymanowski would be very poor. In the end he found the material that he had been searching for. And Skierkowski helped him a lot with that. He went beyond górale music which is somewhat one-dimensional. It is rich, do not misunderstand me, but it is one-dimensional. One or two melodies suffice to give the whole technical image of this music. In contrast, Kurpian music is built from melodies, melo-structures based on intervals. It is much more complicated and it is certainly not accidental that Szymanowski turned his ear, so to speak, towards this region.

But we have to know that church songs are 90 percent folk songs. These are folk songs that were created over centuries: at first there were old plainchant melodies, already adjusted to the needs of the people. The pastor sang his music and the people listening to him transformed the music in their way. They wrote new texts, etc. It is also interesting that Węcowski is going to publish a Dictionary of Polish Church Songs simultaneously with his study on Chopin. Most probably a lot of these songs were already forgotten. Therefore, for me it is completely different. Or, not completely different. It is the Chopin revolution.

MT: How so? Why is it so important?

HMG: It is a revolution because the whole mystery of Chopin's craftmanship, of Chopin's music - of this amazing genius is - now explained. You know that geniuses do not fall from the sky. The fact that you have hearing, that you have memory is good, but it is not enough. . . Something else is needed for me to be "myself."

MT: Personality?

HMG: Yes, Chopin - who learned how to move his fingers quickly over the keyboard - had a good memory: he knew almost all music, he was sensitive, attentive, erudite, but that was not all, that was not enough. He knew all the piano literature, but in order to be "Chopin" he had to do something special within himself, inside himself. These sounds were in his mind; one person would say that they were in his heart, someone else that they were in his head. Composers are like that. Somewhere within us the music sounds, we are surrounded by these sounds. But what would one do with all that music? This is an incredible truth, an incredible discovery. It is clear that it was filtered through his education, his knowledge but that there was the source for his melodies. There is no other melody like Chopin's.

MT: It is often said that Chopin's melody is derived from the opera, especially from Bellini.

HMG: But it has nothing to do with Bellini! Look: Chopin's harmony naturally develops from his melodies. Just look how different he is from his contemporaries: Hummel, Spohr, Field. There are lots of them, but he is different. But he did not fall down from heaven here, he did not come out of nowhere. He knew the music literature. He had to know it. He collected all these new things and distilled them into his harmonic language. Bach also collected and distilled the religious music of his time. Chopin alone collected Polish songs. After Chopin it was all over. After Chopin one could not go further along the same path, because he did it with such genius. There were many other composers in his time: Kalkbrenner, Field... Hummel will remain Hummel, Bellini will remain Bellini. . .

But Chopin's music was not about Bellini! This is a half-truth that someone heard somewhere and which keeps recurring. But they do not repeat that Chopin played and remembered Bach's fugues and preludes until the end of his life. Nobody talks about the fact that once, after a concert he gave his favorite student the score of Beethoven's Fidelio, not Bellini. He bought this score for his student, so, he knew what Fidelio was. He also knew what Bach's fugues were.

Now, consider this: Bach's head was also filled with his Protestant chorales and with his own church songs. You can see it everywhere, every note of Bach's music stems from this source, not from the music of other composers that surrounded him. And now let us look at Chopin: It is truly amazing to discovered that he did the same thing as Bach, that he turned to his own religious folk songs for sources of material, for inspiration. I am very grateful to Jan Węcowski for his work on Chopin's use of Polish church songs. I regard musicological studies of this kind highly, studies that I can take and use, studies that teach me something.



[1]. The interview recorded on two 90-minute cassette tapes in late April 1998 in Gorecki's studio in Katowice, Poland. It was transcribed by Adrianna Lis and Blanka Sobuś, translated by Maja Trochimczyk and published online as "Composing is a Terribly Personal Matter:" Henryk Mikołaj Górecki in Conversation with Maja Trochimczyk (Katowice, April 1998) in the last issue of the Polish Music Journal, vol. 6 no. 2.

[2]. Jan Węcowski's article, "Religious Folklore in Chopin's Music," was published in Polish Music Journal vol. 2, nos. 1-2 (1999), online.

[3]. Władysław Skierkowski, Puszcza Kurpiowska w pieśni [Songs from the Kurpie Forest], 2 vols. (Płock: Wyd. Tow. Naukowego Płockiego, 1928-1934).


In the light of a recent fashion to bring Chopin's music entirely to the level of its relationship to the Italian opera of the early 19th century, Górecki's comments are fascinating. The interview continues, moving on to ancient religious anthems (Bogurodzica), the golden section, and the topic of motherhood and mothers, prominent in the Third Symphony. Since I dedicated to this topic a whole article, Mater Dolorosa and Maternal Love in Górecki's Music, I see no reason to further discuss it here.

In the interview, Gorecki described his own approach to composing. He spent hours and years crafting pieces with deep connections to the history and spiritual roots of Polish music. When Kronos commissioned the Third String Quartet, the work materialized 12 years later. He could have written 20 quartets in this time, but he worked on one, the right one - a piece of music in which every note is in its place, every chord belongs. There are no random fillers, materials "just so" - everything has its meaning and its function in the overall design. It may be deceptively simple, but being crafted so well, it will survive centuries.

The news of Górecki's death on November 12, 2010 was announced at the Chopin & Paderewski 2010 conference at Loyola University Chicago. It interrupted our proceedings (see event photographs onPicasa Web Albums). It made us pause and reflect on greatness. In an impromptu commemoration, I spoke about being his guide and translator on his tour of Los Angeles, of the visit to my small home, to the San Gabriel Mountains. I mentioned his lesson for students: "do everything right, one think at a time, if you eat, eat, if you make music, do so with a passion..." Górecki hated multitasking, he said: "do not do two things at once. It is better not to do it at all, because when your attention is divided you are doing both things badly..." This is a Zen maxim, almost, I thought later: "eat, when hungry, sleep, when tired..."


I thought of no better way of honoring the great composer after his death than by writing him an elegy. After posting it on Facebook, I read it at a workshop of Westside Women Writers. Millicent Borges Accardi, Jean Paik Schoenberg, Kathi Stafford, Susan Rogers, and Georgia Jones-Davis mostly liked it. Susan said, "A very beautiful poem. You have honored your teacher well. Your poetry is the fruit of your harvest, the glimpses of grace and the light which glimmers on the horizon and follows us out." She talked about waves of crescendo, the musical flow of ideas. Others focused on the turning point, one line announcing his greatness: "How do I know? He taught me..."

Millicent brought her recording of the Third Symphony; the rich harmonies filled the air, brightened by golden afternoon sunlight, while we read our poems. Moved by the beauty of the moment, I realized I needed to change the poem a bit. My friends' reactions showed that they simply do not know as much about Górecki or his music as I do. So I added some details. Here it is. The original version appears in the December issue of "The Voice of the Village" - a local newspaper in Sunland. As Poet Laureate of my community, I shared the news of Górecki's passing in our Californian foothills.


Mountains of Grief

"Euntes ibant et flebant..."
(Psalm 126:6, The Vulgate), for Henryk Mikołaj Górecki in memoriam

“Mom, don’t cry – Mamo, nie płacz –“

the soprano soars above
lush chords of the orchestra

Sorrow, endless sorrow

He grew up bitter,
alone at the keyboard,
waves of sound crashing all around him

His Mama, smothered with a pillow
on her hospital bed,
an orphaned child, sickly

With a leg damaged by illness,
limping gait – a great man comes,
truly great

How do I know? He taught me –

To do everything well,
with my whole heart, whole being,
dance despair into frenzy,
relish that last plate of barszcz

Laugh loudly, play the second fiddle
in góralska muzyka,
find Chopin's mazurka under my fingers

Look beyond the edge of grief,
toward the mountains,
shrouded by the clouds of unknowing

Sing lullabies of consolation,
weave music from strands of pain,
sudden glimpses of grace

Seek safety
in the cocoon of timelessness,
under gold stars on the blue cloak
of Mother Mary –
sixteen portraits on one wall
of his studio in Katowice

Give of myself fully –
an offering of daily bread,
beg for crumbs of mercy,
morsels of blessings

Carry the cross, my cross

Walk towards the glimmer of light
on the horizon,
bearing the fruit of my harvest

(C) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk



  • Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (6 December 1933 – 12 November 2010), Polish composer of: Piano Sonata op. 1 (1956), Euntes Ibant et Flebant op. 32 (1972), Third Symphony “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” op. 36 (1976), and Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, op. 66 (1993).

  • “Euntes ibant et flebant portantes semina sua – venientes autem venientes in exultatione…” “He went off, went off weeping, carrying the seed. He comes back, comes back singing.” Psalm 126: 6

  • “Mamo, nie płacz” – the first words of an inscription on the wall of a Gestapo prison in Zakopane by young Helena Błażusiak, used as text of the second movement of the Third Symphony.

  • “Barszcz” – traditional beet soup we shared in Katowice in 1998.

  • “Góralska muzyka” – folk ensemble of four strings playing music from the Tatra Mountains, Górecki’s chosen home. His last name means “of the mountains” and he settled in the village of Ząb in the Foothills area (Podhale) after spending most of his life in his native Silesia, in Katowice.


  • Photographs of Górecki and his parents' portraits in his studio in Katowice; photo of San Gabriel Mountains from the road to Lake Arrowhead (December 1996) by Maja Trochimczyk. Photograph of Maja Trochimczyk and Górecki by Jadwiga, his wife.
  • 1 comment:

    oriana said...

    Another fascinating post. Thank you, Maja, for bringing this information to us. Thank you also for the beauty of your posts, the images and the poetry. Oriana