ffff and More Make Meaning

Opus OsmA Prague Composer/Pianist Explains How Gorecki Made Lerchenmusik

In the mid-1980s Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) composed and revised a 45-minute European minimalist chamber work in three movements. Lerchenmusik for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Opus 53 was the incredible result, and lucky listeners at the Contempuls 2012 Music Festival heard it beautifully performed by the MoEns ensemble Nov 16 in Prague.

It’s almost impossible to describe Lerchenmusik adequately in mere words. But here’s a hint: parts of the score are marked ffff – and since a single f (forte) means “play loud,” you can imagine what the dynamics are, quadrupled. And this fortissississimo is followed by the instruction crescendo.

With all this sound, you might think Lerchenmusik would have to be performed by a full orchestra. But no. Almost unbelievably, it achieves its profound passion and meaning with simply the piano, clarinet, and cello.

We asked MoEns pianist/composer Hanuš Bartoň if perhaps they considered adding instruments for their performance of the work at Contempuls 2012.

Hanuš Bartoň

“This piece was composed by Górecki for this certain ensemble; it’s not possible to change the instruments,” he explains. “The tempo of every part is very exactly indicated in the score; therefore, we try always to follow the requests of the composer.”

(In fact, in a 1994 interview, Górecki explained, “I do not force anyone to listen or to play Górecki. But if you want to play Górecki and you want to listen to him, then you must play the Górecki the way I want it played.”)

Even with only the three instruments, Lerchenmusik achieves an engrossing, full range of sound and emotion. Mr Bartoň reveals how: “The piece uses mainly extreme dynamic levels and ranges – from the lowest possible dynamics to the highest, and lowest and highest possible tones of every instrument,” he tells Opus Osm.

Even so, the resulting sound sometimes seems to create sounds that go well beyond the capabilities of a mere three instruments, even evoking a kind of percussion. How is this so?

Deceptively Simple Elements
Mr Bartoň responds, “Whereas in classical music melody, rhythm, and harmony are superior, and the orchestration or ‘sound quality’ is subservient to them, Górecki understands the power of simple elements. He simply lets them last for a very long time. Melody and harmony are always present, but they’re subservient to the orchestration.”

Watch the dynamic range, from dramatic to peaceful, in an excerpt from Górecki’s Lerchenmusik Recitatives and Ariosos Opus 53 performed by MoEns Nov 16, 2012 at the annual Contempuls 2012 Music Festival, Prague

For example, at certain moments Lerchenmusik reminds us of a joyful toddler discovering that he can change sound by banging on a piano to create a loud noise; and then, it seems the clarinet sings with multiple voices; and the cello makes soulful, arresting sounds beyond the normal capabilities of the large wooden box. Yet, “All instruments use only the traditional techniques,” according to the MoEns pianist. “Some unusual sound effects arise due to the use of extreme registers and dynamic levels. Some chords, and the specially-used shape of them, can produce harmonics.”

‘Collision of Chords’
Harmonics? He explains that Górecki often uses a combination of a major and minor chord played together (such as A flat major and F sharp minor) which produce harmonics – additional tones which aren’t actually played by the instrument. “This ‘collision of different chords’ happens especially in the highest dynamic level, when the piano uses the pedal. Then almost all the piano strings sound, not only the tones written in the score. It’s not accidental, it’s the composer’s intention,” he tells us.

Mr Bartoň concludes, “Górecki didn’t need to decorate his music with ornaments or complex structures. His music is simple but artful. I believe that every listener must ‘understand’ Górecki’s music, although” — and here he echoes the Polish composer himself – “not everybody has to agree with its esthetics.” — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Photos and video: Miroslav Setnička

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