Henryck Mikolaj Grecki, who died on 12 November 2010 of a long standing illness, stands proud in Polish musical history as a composer continuing a long musical dynasty whose roots lie in the music of Chopin. Not only that, he managed the tricky feat of appealing to a crowd schooled largely outside of music, without the need or inclination to change his style. He achieved this mostly through the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, his third work in the idiom, made famous in a recording by Dawn Upshaw, David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta.
As is so often the case, examination of his full compositional output reveals much more to his personality than this work alone. Grecki is often placed alongside composers such as Arvo Prt, Sofia Gubaidulina and Giya Kancheli as an example of ‘holy minimalism’, but that ignores much of the more radical, avant garde music he wrote as the Polish composers explored their new found musical freedom in the 1950s and 1960s.Together with Lutoslawski, Panufnik and Penderecki, he explored and helped reawaken a national pride in the music of his country, expressed through scores such as Old Polish Music and Three Pieces In Old Style, including hints of folk music amongst the emotive outpouring.
Like many of his contemporaries, and particularly Arvo Prt, Grecki’s earlier compositional life bears little resemblance to that which made him famous. The First Symphony typifies this, being a work of extremely well organised chaos, moving from thudding side drum comments to briefly poignant string asides, including even a harpsichord, all often happening within the context of the same musical paragraph. The third movement chorale is distinctly chilly, especially when the low bass notes spell out a sinister passacaglia. It could hardly be more different to the sound world of the Third Symphony, but draws for its processes and thinking a form of admiration similar to the works of Boulez and Webern, whom it mimics in its attention to miniature detail. The arguments are played out in much smaller structures than the Third Symphony, and the percussion interlude of the final movement demonstrates an understanding of rhythm not levelled at the composer too often.
Gradually religion asserts an ever greater presence in Grecki’s music. Even in a work such as Lerchenmusik, a sprawling 40 minute piece in three movements for clarinet, cello and piano, there are explicit references to chorales and chants. Anticipating the music of Kancheli, it moves suddenly from a low murmur on the cello to a full blooded, fractious piano figure, releasing a considerable amount of energy in an oft-repeated musical hook. Such a juxtaposition of emotional extremes brings a keen tension to the music, one also explored in the Kleines Requiem fr eine Polka and the Kronos Quartet’s recording of the string quartets, in particular the second, subtitled Quasi Una Fantasia, which begins with an obdurate, oft-repeated chord that sounds like somebody sawing repeatedly at a piece of wood, containing as it does the acidity of some of Shostakovich’s more driving motifs.
It is, inevitably, the Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by which he will be most commonly remembered. At just under an hour in length, this stands as Grecki’s biggest work, and has to be experienced in full for its hypnotic spell to be fully appreciated. Eastern European composers of this time found a way to score their harmonies very low in the aural spectrum, and this is a technique that Grecki made his own, illustrated by the rising clumps of double bass notes at the beginning. This uncommon stillness provides the basis for a seed that gradually germinates through the half hour span of the first movement, ending at the other end of the spectrum with weightless violins. The way Grecki uses the solo voice, so beautifully expressed by Upshaw and a number of other interpreters, notably Polish soprano Joanna Kozlowska, can melt the hardest of hearts.
There are other vocal gems in Grecki’s canon. Totus Tuus finds a way of suspending time seemingly indefinitely in its second half, while the Miserere does likewise over a longer span of time.
Those new to the composer’s music will perhaps spot his influence through advertisements and TV soundtracks, the Third Symphony inspiring a number of composers to copy its dense string textures and radiant harmonies. Yet exploration of his output reveals a brightly burning and individual voice, proud of his heritage but above all religiously devoted and focussed.
A Fourth Symphony remains to be heard, the work due for its premiere by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in April but delayed by the composer’s illness, which was eventually to claim his life. Once heard, it will round off the output of an extremely important voice in 20th and 21st century music, one who has successfully crossed the boundaries between musical styles and cultural conflict.