Górecki’s Millions

David Drew

About ten years ago, an eminent composer of Schoenbergian leanings unblinkingly remarked that modern music, like socialism, democracy and the BBC, might be among the luxuries which the European middle classes would soon have to live without.

Six or seven years ago, only Alfred Jarry’s immortal King Ubu could have entertained the idea of the Polish State Symphony Orchestra touring 13 English towns and cities with a programme featuring a slow-motion 50-minute ‘symphony’ by a dissident composer whose name was unknown outside his native Poland. In that twilight era before General Jaruzelski retired for ever behind his sunglasses, Krzysztof Penderecki was still the foremost musical representative of official Poland, while the strictly unofficial Lutoslawski was, for most musicians in the West, the true and only Polish master.

Two and a half years ago, Elektra Nonesuch – a Time-Warner subsidiary – released their CD of Górecki’s Symphony No 3. At about the same time – on 24 April 1992, to be precise – the city editor of the Daily Mail set his readers ‘two simple questions’: ‘1. Are you in favour of the working classes subsidising the pleasures of the middle classes? 2. Are you in favour of the abolition of government grants to the arts?’ If, he continued, your answer to both questions is a strangulated ‘no’, then ‘you have some explaining to do.’ His own answer predictably took the form of a populist attack on the intelligentsia, the avantgarde and the soup-kitchens of the ‘dependency culture’.

It was of course coincidental that the attack – based as it was on well-tried Anglo-American models – was launched from that particular quarter just as the eminently middle-class traditions of the BBC’s Radio 3 were being challenged, and methodically subverted, by commercial radio in the shape of the newly established Classic FM. It was largely thanks to that ‘upstart’ station and the expertise peculiar to its commercial objectives that the Górecki CD soon reached the top of the classical charts, and moved into the pop ones.

The reaction was swift and widespread. Readers of the Times were promptly assured by one of the staff music critics that he was quite uncontaminated by the marketing of the Górecki CD, wholly ignorant of the work itself, and henceforth determined to give it the widest possible berth. Before long, disavowals and denunciations had become commonplace in the ‘quality’ press, while persons of real or imagined consequence within and beyond the musical world were losing no opportunity to anathematise the composer, his symphony, and the apparently rampant commercialism associated with it. From that day to this, scarcely a word of dissent has been heard from the loftier heights of our musical republic.

And yet by this spring, five hundred thousand record-buyers in the USA and another two hundred thousand elsewhere had been confident enough or foolish enough to invest in Górecki’s ‘dreary piffle’. Who’s to tell how few of them, or how many hundreds of thousands more, have ever heard the piece from start to finish? The question would not interest the city editors, but as a rhetorical device has long been popular with the cultural authorities.

If in the homelands of the Austro-German symphony a more principled resistance to the Górecki invasion is to be expected, the German version of the notes accompanying the Elektra Nonesuch CD provides some encouragement for it: by an oversight of the sort to which even the most scrupulous translators are prone, the British author’s reference to the ‘millions’ embraced by Schiller’s and Beethoven’s vision in the finale of the Ninth Symphony – and implicitly by Górecki’s humbler vision in his Third Symphony – has been so rendered as to suggest that the figures relate to hard currency rather than human beings. Which, indeed, they may.

For those bold spirits who continue to produce CDs of New Music in the traditional Modernist sense, such sums are unimaginable. Content with worldwide sales of two or three thousand units, overjoyed with the occasional nine or ten, and disappointed only when fine reviews of outstanding CDs attract, at best, a few hundred customers, they have been among the last to decry the mammoth successes of Górecki and other composers outside the Modernist mainstream. For somewhere in the distance they now seem to glimpse a flickering hope of better times to come.

Indeed the novel sight and smell of substantial cash-flow from the work of living composers has intoxicated some of the captains of the music industry. Even as orders for ‘the next Górecki’ were heard in the boardrooms, the ever-striking figure of John Tavener emerged once again from his meditations, and the ‘buy British’ campaigners set to work. His Apocalypse was yet to come; and when it did (in August at the Albert Hall), Union Jacks were unfurled in the national press, while recollections of the happy times of Elgar and Vaughan Williams encouraged proposals that after Sir Michael Tippett, the next candidate for composer-laureate and international standard-bearer should be Tavener.

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