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.

As soon as a young or not-so-young composer in the post-Górecki era has been convincingly reified as an export article, the marketing managers can begin to dream of an acceptable Return On Capital Invested, even if the music itself still refuses to. In those sectors of the music-publishing industry where for the last eighty years the only (strictly speaking) profitable composers have been dead ones, the change is appreciable though not yet epoch-making; but for most living composers, market-share and ROCI calculations may already have a stronger bearing on the hereafter than the ancient and comforting art of cooking the books.

Many years ago a fellow American was rash enough to remark to the composer and critic Virgil Thomson that a certain distinguished composer of highly complex music had no real public to write for. ‘Nonsense,’ snapped Thomson, ‘he has the international Modern Music public to write for.’ But that was another age. Within a market system more extensive and powerful than any that Thomson and his contemporaries can have had nightmares about, the means of catering for the often startlingly expensive tastes of that justly discriminating public can no longer be taken for granted. In that sense, the popular success of Górecki constitutes a threat distinctly different from that of a Philip Glass or a Steve Reich – not to mention Michael Nyman, the most candidly and astutely ‘commercial’ of Post-Modern British composers.

Even at the lowest level, the real benefits (if not the cost-benefits) of performing Górecki’s Third are quite distinct from those of performing, say, Glass’s Low Symphony or Nyman’s The Piano Concerto. Mysterious as the mind of Górecki may seem to be (not least to himself), it is nothing if not a musical mind; and nothing – literally nothing – can have been further from it than the idea of writing a 50-minute work that can be adequately rehearsed by an undistinguished conductor and orchestra in a single session, and then played to an audience of more or less traditional music-lovers who will gladly pay to hear it. A ‘symphony’ of this kind threatens no one apart from composers of works half the length that require perhaps six times as much rehearsal from the very finest musicians before a ‘Modern Music public’ furnished with complimentary tickets can decently be asked to attend performances.

Such are the circumstances in which hostility to Górecki and all he is taken to stand for is encouraged to flourish. What is peculiar to Górecki, and what appears to alarm the faint-hearted in the Modernist camp no less than the admirers of (say) Tavener or Arvo Pärt, is his spectacular independence from market considerations of any sort. Fact and fiction can safely take the same country road towards the wooden cabin near the Tatra Mountains where the penurious and persecuted Górecki was first discovered by a wandering scholar called Adrian Thomas; and fact and fiction can then return together to the industrial grime and sulphurous smoke of Katowice where, in the time of martial law, Górecki was for some while under virtual house arrest, and where he completed in 1981 his marvellous Miserere in honour of the Solidarity victims of Bydgoszcz.

Sooner or later, some of the fairy-tales may fade away. But the best of the music will not, for it is built of stone and wood with a master hand, and it is built like no other music of this or earlier ages. So profoundly self-educated that it may seem to deny the very existence of those colleges and conservatories in which the young Górecki spent many arduous years, it is a music without social graces or pretensions. It is – to be as blunt as Górecki himself – the music of a villager from one of the industrial belts of Eastern Europe, and hence the music of a quite exceptional representative of a doomed peasantry. ‘Genius or charlatan?’ cried the huntsmen of the Fifties as they set off in pursuit of Olivier Messiaen. ‘Caspar Hauser or country bumpkin?’ their more knowing successors might ask of Górecki today.

Whether derogatory or neo-Romantic, reach-me-down notions of the primitive misrepresent Górecki’s music and its timeless but assiduously reconsidered truths about the nature of harmony, tonality, modality and, above all, form. Inconceivable in terms of the computerised techniques of the minimalist composers, and remote from all other aspects of information technology, it is nevertheless a music that resolutely refuses to simulate, let alone reconstruct, a musical past with which Górecki is wholly conversant. There is nothing in his music – not even the prehensile ‘first subject’ of his Third Symphony – that suggests a Post-Modernist yearning for some mythical ‘return to melody’, which in fact none of the Modernist pioneers had relinquished except in order to return to it on their own terms.

With Górecki the melodic aspirations are invariably subservient to the rhythmic and formal dimensions, which in turn are governed at the highest level by the power of the tonal/modal cadence. Schoenberg’s hope that ‘messenger-boys’ might some day whistle the tunes from his Violin Concerto may have vanished along with the messenger-boys themselves, but the linear basis for it was always stronger than the harmonic one. With Górecki, melody either arises, arabesque-like, from the modal harmony, or creates its own harmony, whether modal or chromatic. Never is the ultimate goal a ‘big tune’ or even the semblance of one: it is the categorically finite cadence – the temporary victory of an inwardness whose formal commitment to ‘the eternal life’ is perhaps stronger than the implied belief in it.

Whatever his personal beliefs, Górecki refuses to speak of them, and likewise refuses the label of ‘religious composer’. It is enough that his loyalties are to Poland and its Church; the rest is a private matter. No one as familiar as he with the workings of the secret police and their informers is likely in today’s liberated world to announce to a press conference that in his heart of hearts he is, or is not, an agnostic. It was only in 1991 that Górecki finally brought himself to read Primo Levi’s testimony from Auschwitz; and because there was no Polish translation of it, he had had to read it in the language he had learnt as a schoolboy and Untermensch in his native Silesia. (Even in Germany, nearly half a century after the events described by Levi, the edition had been hard to come by.)

The images of the Holocaust which were fundamental to Tony Palmer’s well-meaning misinterpretation of Górecki’s Third Symphony in his TV film The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs fatally imposed an air of equivocation on a score whose spiritual position is far removed from 20th-century politics, and determinable only through the settings of archaic and contemporary prayers and folk-poems, not one of which has any bearing on the Holocaust or its implications for Catholic Poland.

The fact that Górecki had taken the text of the central prayer from a graffito on the wall of the one-time Gestapo prison in Zakopane is extraneous to the content of the prayer itself. Palmer’s treatment of it was among other things a disquieting reminder that among Górecki’s unfulfilled projects is an open-air Mass to have been performed in 1967 at the dedication ceremony for the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial – naturally an international ceremony, but one dominated by party dignitaries and Gomulka himself. It was the only commission in any way connected with the Communist apparatus which Górecki had accepted; and after working on it for more than a year, he abandoned it, and Penderecki took his place.

In the singular capacity of music to serve the worst as well as the best interests of the state without appearing to, there lies some assurance of the survival under market systems of certain exceptionally expensive relics from 18th and 19th-century music-making. Since the time of Frederick the Great, that servile role has been recognised at the highest levels – by Hitler and Stalin at all times, by Neville Chamberlain no less than by Hitler at the time of appeasement, and even by Thatcher when the need arose.

For Górecki the role of composer laureate of contemporary Poland may still be sufficiently ill-defined and uncertain as to seem at once innocuous and comical. Altogether more problematic for him are the medals for valour in the face of the Modernist Enemy (Boulez, Birtwistle, William Glock, and so forth) that are now readily available and all-too-lightly awarded. False recognition and media success on those crypto-political terms could be far more ignominious and damaging to a real artist than the neglect which our society reserves for many fine ones, and which indeed Górecki himself experienced for so many years.

There remain, for Górecki, the increasingly puzzled and vulnerable millions, including the ‘housemaids and window-cleaners’ to whom Boulez is said to have referred à propos of Górecki’s current popularity. Rightly indifferent to the politics and economics of the music business, they find their spontaneous reactions questioned if not derided on every side. But until they learn to trust the experts less, or the experts learn to trust them more, it will always be so, as it has been for most of our century. Sixty years ago Constant Lambert’s famous lament in Music Ho! about ‘The Appalling Popularity of Music’ was concerned with the ubiquity of wallpaper music in recorded or radio form, and not with composers like Puccini, Rachmaninov or the symphonic Gershwin, whose popularity already appalled most of Lambert’s contemporaries and friends. When the post-war battles for musical power began in earnest, the relegation of Lambert’s beloved Sibelius and coolly admired Britten to a dismissive footnote in Adorno’s seminal Philosophy of New Music was a representative act of war, like the coupling of Britten and Menotti in German opera criticism of the Fifties.

If the phenomenon of Górecki’s Third Symphony and its ‘appalling’ popularity has any immediate ancestor in the post-war period, it is that of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a work that has survived the critical firestorm that enveloped it as soon as it emerged from the ruins of Hitler’s Germany. Today one of the most widely performed and poorly accredited works in the choral repertory, Carmina Burana, has somehow detached itself from the remainder of Orff’s achievement, and hence from his significance as a precursor of so-called minimalism – though a less genial one than the inspired and masterly Ravel of Bolero.

In the late Fifties, and at a time when his own music had become almost excessively hermetic, the Spanish-born and Cambridge-based Schoenberg-pupil Roberto Gerhard paid tribute to the innumerable music-listeners the world over who ‘lay no claim to understanding (in any logical sense) the music they enjoy’. Some, he continued, are ‘amazingly perceptive’: ‘Only think of the meagre audiences of cognoscenti that would be left us without that great body of pure amateurs. True, they must be led through the maze of the contemporary scene by an informed élite. But in the last resort their response will also be the ultimate test of that élite.’

The potentially devastating force of that final affirmation has notably increased in the years since élitism became a punishable misdemeanour, and Adult Education lost much of its funding. Encouraging though it is, the prospect of a book by the pioneer of Górecki studies, Adrian Thomas, can be most effectively realised only in the immediate context of today’s music listeners. Many of them may be just as ‘amazingly perceptive’ as Gerhard believed. But now it is the mercenaries who are summoned to defend them, and when that happens the old élites and the new have to stop fighting among themselves for their own survival. Their perceptions, if any, may be neither more nor less ‘amazing’ than those of the millions. But they are certainly very different; and their influence is undiminished.

By far the most winning section in John Carey’s study, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), is his apologia for Arnold Bennett, a figure not without parallels in the history of British music and British criticism. Like his hero, Carey enjoys the sport of intellectual-baiting, but doesn’t take it too seriously (though his recurrent characterisation of Hitler as an intellectual is a trick that would have recommended itself to the Führer’s Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment). It is when Carey turns to Bennett’s representative belief that ‘everyone is an artist, more or less’ that the hypothesis of the ‘worthwhile best-seller’ discovers a certain dignity.

Bennett’s case against ‘the dandyism of technique’ in the Modern Movement was in every respect better grounded than the conservative-reactionary position characteristic of British musical life in his own day and for many years after. It was only in the Sixties that Modernism became a force that the British musical establishment had to reckon with – whereupon the dandyism Bennett had deplored decades earlier promptly began to assert itself in the field of music journalism. Especially with writers whose own grasp of the métier was somewhat tenuous, technique, of a sort, became a kind of fetish, and among the outstanding talents in the European avant-garde, one above all was hailed with religious fervour: Pierre Boulez.

There is some truth in Klaus Geitel’s recent observation that no French musician since the time of Lully has exerted as much power and influence as Boulez has. Both directly and indirectly, his is as much a musico-political and hence an economic power as it is a musical one. Yet the very nature of his exceptional gifts has ensured that his progeny are legion. For every Boulez – but there is only one – there are innumerable minor figures whose savoir faire in compositional and other respects is not unworthy of his own. Without the burden of real musical substance their indomitable Kapellmeistermusik effortlessly follows the trade winds and arrives on schedule in that haven where the New Music establishment still conducts its business and awards its not inconsiderable prizes.

No such accolades await Górecki, however many implements from the stone age of serialism and the iron age of post-serialism are yet to be discovered in even the most plain-speaking of his music. These things are of no account to the general listener, nor should they become the means of soliciting spurious credit elsewhere. Their interest for musicians must be strictly proportionate to the total and immanent sense of the music. If Górecki is indeed the composer his critically informed admirers (and his devoted pupils) take him for, neither his Third Symphony nor its ‘appalling’ popularity could conceivably be heard as a death-knell for music of any other sort. In no sense the volte-face of a disillusioned Modernist, as popular legend would have it, the Symphony is just one of the expressions (and not necessarily the strongest) of an ‘essential’ Górecki latent in his earliest works and manifest for the first time in the aptly named and quite un-Biblical Genesis cycle of thirty years ago.

Genesis is the meta-tonal work of a fanatical reductionist – never a minimalist – and the Three Pieces in the Old Style are its modal antithesis. Although the dialectical relationship is fundamental, and a direct consequence of the Collisions (Scontri) of 1960, the musical world remains largely oblivious of it. A year or so ago the British recording label Olympia issued a CD of Górecki’s non-tonal music from the Sixties, and titled it The Essential Górecki. Suspecting Olympia of trying to cash in on the Elektra Nonesuch success without proper regard for the Trade Descriptions Act, reviewers ignored the fact that Górecki himself had supervised the programme, and wondered in what sense any of these works (including Collisions and part of the Genesis cycle) might be essential to the composer of the Third Symphony, let alone to the multitudes who now constitute his audience.

Such are the familiar rifts in our music-culture which Górecki has revealed from a new angle. Yet the seismic shocks that all forms of culture, high and low, have experienced in the Nineties are not only warnings of what is to come, but also signs that rifts can close as well as open, and that yesterday’s collisions can herald tomorrow’s interactions. ‘Schoenberg is Dead!’ Boulez had famously declared in 1951, with a Nietzschean thrust that may have helped conceal his royalist ambitions. Today, from precisely the opposite side of the largest rift of all, the sixty-year-old Górecki knows just as well as the almost seventy-year-old Boulez that Schoenberg is nothing of the sort.