Miserere, by Henryk Górecki

In 1994, when I was living and teaching in the Chicago area, one of my graduate students, a member of the Lira Chamber Chorus, invited me to one of the group’s concerts at St. Mary of the Angels Church on the northwest side of Chicago. The entire concert would be devoted to new choral works by Henryk Górecki. I had never heard of him and found it intriguing that an entire concert would consist of the works of one living foreign composer.

For most of the program, the Lira Chamber Chorus made up only part of a massed choir, collaborating with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus. I don’t remember if my student had told me how large the chorus would be. I do vividly remember how hard it was to find a parking place and how far my wife and I had to walk from our car to the church. We got there in plenty of time before the concert started, but the only available seats were at the back of a very large church.

What an unexpected response to new music! At least I didn’t expect it. Organizers of the concert certainly hoped for it. The three choruses spent several days after the concert recording all of the music in the same church: Miserere, Amen, and Euntes ibant et flebant by the massed choirs and Wislo moja, Wislo szara and Szeroka wodo by the Lira Chamber Chorus alone. (My apology to anyone who knows Polish: I don’t know how to make the proper l-bar in the first title.)

I have no idea what Górecki thought about these latter folksong settings, which as I understand the Polish government required all Polish composers to write and publish, but I thoroughly enjoy them. It was for the Latin works, however, that I bought the recording as soon as it became available.

Later I learned that Górecki, like his compatriot Krzysztof Penderecki, had started composing under the influence of the postwar avant garde. Like Penderecki, he began to find that style every bit as oppressive as the socialist realism championed by the government of communist Poland. Both composers sought a more expressive style of music that would build on the traditions of Western music without copying or imitating the past.

Górecki composed the Miserere as a private protest against the government’s violent response to a sit-in in the town of Bydgoszcz in March 1981. It did not become possible to perform it until 1987. Like many of his unaccompanied choral pieces, Miserere has a very short text (Domine Deus noster, miserere nobis, or, Lord our God, have mercy on us) and a very slow tempo.

With the choir divided into eight parts, the piece begins very softly in the second basses. After a while, the first basses enter with their own melody. Voices continue to enter, from bottom to top, each with its own melodic identity, until the entrance of the first sopranos–some 20 minutes after the piece begins.

After this slow build-up, the music has become quite loud. The texture changes briefly to four parts, but continues to build in intensity until the words “miserere nobis”  are sung for the first time three minutes before the end of the piece. In giving each voice its own melodic identity over the course of a long build-up, Górecki set a very complicated compositional challenge for himself, but the overall effect for the listener is a profound and heartfelt simplicity.

(You can purchase the recording using the Arkiv Music button to the right of this post. The easiest way to find it is to search by composer, then chose Amen, the top piece on the works list, and from there click on either of the Chicago choruses.)

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