Henryk Górecki: Harpsichord Concerto

Context

Henryk Górecki’s Harpsichord Concerto was composed at the request of Andrzej Chłopecki, head of Polish Radio Music Station. The commission came in 1980 at a time when Górecki was exploring pure instrumental music after more than a decade of dedicating himself to vocal and choral works. The concerto was written for the outstanding harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka, who, at the time, was an expert in contemporary music for the harpsichord. 

As well as the original harpsichord solo part, Górecki also wrote a piano version. Both versions of the concerto are still popular today, with the original harpsichord version being the most sought after. The premiere performance of the concert took place in Katowice in March 1980, with Chojnacka on the harpsichord and the Polish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra accompanying her. 

It’s often commented that the Harpsichord Concerto is placed between two starkly different works by Górecki. Before the concerto came his Third Symphony (1976) and was followed by Blessed Raspberry Songs, a setting of Norwid and Miserere (1981), which is a grand work for mixed choir. These surrounding works have sacred vein running through them, as well as being contemplative in mood. The Harpsichord Concerto is quite the opposite. With driving motor rhythms and vigorously dynamic playing from the soloist, the work stands out from Górecki’s other works at the time. 

Critics at the time were not quite sure what to think of the concerto. Górecki tried to help with this and called his concerto a prank. A work that is not too serious, and has fun whilst also displaying some of Górecki’s personality onto the score. One quote from musicologist Teresa Malecka explains this work well:

“Short, neat, instrumentally impressive. One feels tempted to say that this is a piece of light music, pleasant to listen to and, to my mind, satisfying to play. Given Górecki’s music of recent years, this work makes one surprised and shy. After his Symphonies No.2 and 3, after ‘Beatus Vir’, those greatest and most significant works of Polish music, here comes this striking trinket.”

 

The Music

Less than 10 minutes in duration, the bipartite concerto is composed with a string orchestra accompaniment. Both movements have immense energy throughout, which are driven by repetitive, motoric rhythms. The vigorous timbre of the harpsichord is somewhat amplified over the orchestra, which complements the chordal texture of the strings. 

Górecki’s use of dissonance throughout is colourful and adds to the subtle changes in the repetitive rhythmic structures. The mood of both movements are drawn from the highlander music of the southern Podhale region, which Górecki was a great admirer of. 

The first movement is spinning in motion and strangely at times it can sound like an organ is playing. This comes from the clash of sounds between the harpsichord and the strings. This powerful wall of sound makes the music sound quite demonic and foreboding, which is only amplified by the quick flourishes from the soloist. Interesting, the first movement finishes on open chords. 

The second movement’s tonality starts much more open than the first, however this soon changes when the soloist answers the phrase from the strings. Harsh dissonances cover the ensemble like a musical cloak. The energetic nature of this movement adds to the buoyancy of the music and this dichotomy of ideas is what really makes this work special. The concerto is distinguished as part of Górecki’s ‘reductionist’ style, which strives for a maximum economy of means. 

The consistent textures, ostinatos, harmonic movement and persistent motor rhythms manifests from the reductionist style. The subtlety shifting rhythms from quavers to semiquavers adds to the intensity of the concerto, and within around 9 minutes Górecki was able to create one of his biggest explosions in his output of music.  

 

Happy Reading!

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