The aspect of this release that is immediately commented on in all the publicity and reviews is that this is a "drawer" work -- a piece a composer finishes and then sticks in a drawer rather than releasing it to the world. Kronos had already commissioned and received the first two string quartets (also available, on one disc, from Nonesuch) of Henryk Górecki (b. 1933), and when they commissioned this one as well, he responded quickly -- this monumental fifty-minute work (longer than the combined length of his first two quartets) was written in just two months and ten days -- this monumental fifty-minute work (longer than the combined length of his first two quartets) was written in just two months and ten days -- but then held onto it for ten years. Why? "I don't know why," he writes.
Perhaps he wanted, consciously or unconsciously, to put some distance between this piece and his Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," which though nearly two decades old by 1995, when this string quartet was finished, had recently (1992) found massive popularity (as discussed here) and thus become, by far, the piece most identified with Górecki. Both the Symphony No. 3 and the String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67 "Songs Are Sung" deal with grief, death, and song through slow music.
Throughout this work, Górecki uses repetitive motion -- rhythmic, motivic, harmonic, or all three. Sometimes it implies stillness (that's one of the neat paradoxes of music), sometimes it's quiet, sometimes it builds to an explosion that never quite comes (because it's pent up or choked off). Always there is grief, because what comes before the title ellipsis is "when people die," which one would be able to feel even if the booklet notes didn't provide the information that this work is inspired by a four-line poem by Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) about death.
Any work with a title is doomed to be considered programmatic. Granted, Górecki is not basing his work on Khlebnikov's poem, trying to embody it in music; he just found inspiration in its sentiment. Nor would it be fruitful to claim that the five movements of this piece correspond to the so-called five stages of grief. But anyone who has dealt with death will recognize the emotions that Górecki conjures musically.
In the first movement, a simple, mournful pattern is established over which a keening melody sings. The intensity climbs through increases in volume, density, and dissonance; one imagines old women rocking back and forth, wailing. But no closure can be achieved through this emotional outburst, so what seems to be headed for a climax is instead interrupted by silences, after which the quieter mourning of the opening returns.
The second movement continues this quiet mood, but seemingly in a more private or interior sort of mourning, and much slower; the rhythmic impetus is reduced to a near standstill -- one can practically see sorrow hanging in the air in the form of a minor melody in parallel thirds (over open fifths changing at a much slower pace); halfway through, it's transformed into a major melody in thirds, interrupted by some sour dissonance after which major and minor alternate. It's as though traditional modal folk fiddling were played back at a slower speed.
The third movement, by far the shortest at 4:22, is the only fast movement, seemingly the pivot on which the work turns. There are three themes, one that flows bittersweetly (and eventually with rests interrupting); one again redolent of folkish fiddling, but this time driven rather than sluggish, though still with a single-mindedness in its rudimentary motif that suggests obsessive-compulsiveness; one with the strings briefly rich and full.
One other reason, also utterly speculative, why Górecki could have had misgivings about sending this composition into the world is the question of whether this last theme works. It's a quote from Karol Szymanowski's First Quartet (1917). When it pops up, it disrupts the mood (deliberately, one assumes). This is not like Berg, in his Violin Concerto, weaving a familiar Bach melody into characteristically Bergian textures. No, an intact chunk of Szymanowski just crops up. It's stylistically so different as to be obviously jarring; in this context, with the other themes dark or abrasive, it seems cloying by contrast. Is it (privately) programmatic in origin or intent? Does it have meaning for anyone but Górecki? After it has appeared, the reappearance of the flowing theme is hesitant and interrupted, as though belief in it has been shaken. This would be a more normal work without the quote, but also paradoxically a less personal work.
The fourth movement starts with a repetition of the Szymanowski quote, but after that the parallel thirds idea from the second movement tries to establish itself -- and fails. A new theme in parallel thirds is set up by the violins, against repeated chords in the viola and cello, but harsh dissonances between the parts suggest that the piece's thought is about to spin apart, and the violins occasionally play in sevenths instead, suggesting psychic torment too great to bear, as though an effort to think positively keeps failing as grief distorts it. The theme in thirds reasserts itself vehemently, as if trying to convince itself with volume of what it wants to believe.
This struggle continues, at glacial pace, for the rest of the 11-and-a-half-minute movement, finally slowing so drastically as to evoke utter immobility, both physical and mental, a sort of numbness reminiscent of Shostakovich's last quartets. But it concludes with a small group of amens, which certainly the atheist Shostakovich would never do -- if he had, it would have been with the darkest irony, but for the Catholic Górecki they may signify genuine refuge.
Finally, the fifth movement brings what seems like quiet acceptance. Grief remains, but under control; some kind of closure may have been reached, or perhaps it's just resignation. The struggle continues, less anguished, more low-key, and the literal resolution is triads. The resolution is not final, however; the keening theme of the first movement returns. It is, however, capped by more triadic chords, quietly but insistently. A last moment of unease intrudes before the comforting chord returns, soothingly.
One last guess as to why the composer may have held back from giving this work to the world. When one has written something so emotionally devastating, could it seem too personal to share? Could it seem strike its creator as too much of a burden to ask others to bear, even for an hour? And yet, no work this moving should go unheard, no matter how unsettling, and as hard as it has been to get a handle on this quartet's import, after weeks of listening to it, over and over, nearly paralyzed by it for the past three days, I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who is, frankly, in awe of what Górecki has wrought.