Miserere, Op. 44 ( sample (help·info)) was written in 1981 by Polish composer Henryk Górecki. Written for large (120 voices) a cappella mixed choir, a typical performance lasts 35 minutes. The text comprises five words: 'Domine Deus Noster' (Lord our God), which are repeated for the first seven sections, resolved by a chorus of 'Miserere nobis' (Lord have mercy on us) in the eleventh and final section. Both lines of the text are formed as simple but imploring pleas.
Górecki wrote the work in 1981 as a protest against government intervention in the workings of the Polish Solidarity trade union - specifically, in response to the government-sanctioned assault of activists in Bydgoszcz. After martial law was enacted in December of that year, performance of the piece became impossible, and the piece was not performed until 1987. The first performance took place in Włocławek, central Poland.
Henry Górecki dedicated his Miserere to the city of Bydgoszcz. In March 1981, Bydgoszcz was the site of a confrontation between members of the opposition organizations Solidarity and Rural Solidarity (which were made up of an estimated one-third of the Polish population) and the Polish militia. The militia, sent in to remove the organizations from a prolonged negotiation with the Provisional Council, violently assaulted the organizations’ members. In the confrontation, some were seriously injured, inflaming an already unhappy Polish populace. After the incident in Bydgoszcz the opposition organizations had been outlawed and Poland had been declared in a state of martial law. During this period, no performance of the work would have been possible, and Gorecki placed the completed work out of sight. The work was finally premiered (with the composer conducting) in Włocławek on September 10, 1987 at the town’s music festival. Włocławek had been the site of the 1984 assassination of the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko by state police and made a fitting scene for the performance of a work dedicated to those so violently oppressed by their government.
Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Górecki began to compose larger scale works. At the same time, his music became both harmonically and melodically simpler in his writing than his previous serial compositions. Three primary musical influences also became apparent in his compositional style: Polish folksong, Catholic chant and the Polish music of the past, primarily the works of Karol Szymanowski. Out of these influences evolved two compositional kernels in Górecki’s music: Górecki’s “motto” motif (a rise of a minor third, usually on the first three pitches of the Aeolian or Dorian scales); and the “Skierkowski turn” (the Górecki motto followed by a descending half-step) named for the Polish folk music collector who influenced the music of Karol Szymanowski. Górecki’s motto and turn are essential motivic elements in the Miserere. In fact, the very first notes of the work are the motto and turn in A Aeolian (pitches A-B-C-B) sung in unison by the Bass II’s. There is also an abundance of sacred musical influence at play in the Miserere. The monodic opening is based on traditional Polish chant. The following two-part section with the added Bass I reflects the two-part sacred singing common in Polish religious services. The repetitive nature of each of the simple melodies is yet another example of chant influence. Finally, Górecki’s indication for a minimum of 120 singers in the chorus evokes the sound of congregational singing.
Like many other of his compositions, Górecki indicates the performance duration of the Miserere. The 37 minute-long work for large mixed choir is essentially all in A Aeolian in an arch form. It builds in intensity to a climactic point and then returns. Górecki composed the Miserere for eight voice parts (Sopranos I+II, Altos I + II, Tenors I+II, Bass I+II) with an additive structure. This means each vocal entrance is added over top of parts already present. Górecki scholar Adrian Thomas calls these sections “paragraphs.” Each section builds on the preceding paragraph but have their own distinctive character.
Miserere Op. 44 contains 11 sections delineated by the composer through approximate performance durations for each section. The first section begins with the second basses with the next highest part. The only departure from this formula is in Section 8 when Gorecki holds the expected first soprano entrance until Section 9.
- Thomas, Adrian. Polish Music since Szymanowski. Cambridge, 2005, p. 262.
- Thomas, Adrian. "Intense Joy and Profound Rhythm: An Introduction to the Music of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki. Retrieved on 3 March 2009.
- Thomas, Adrian. Górecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 103
- Gorecki, Henryk Mikolaj. "Miserere op. 44." Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictowo Muzyczne, 1990.
- Harley, James. “Charting the Extremes: Performance Issues in the Music of Henryk Górecki.” Tempo. New Series, 211 (Jan. 2000): 2-7.
- Maciejewski, B.M. H.M. Górecki: His Music and our Times. London: Allegro Press,1994.
- Moody, Ivan. “Górecki: The Path to the ‘Miserere’.” The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1792, Choirs and Trends (Jun, 1992): 283-284.
- Thomas, Adrian. Górecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Thomas, Adrian. "Intense Joy and Profound Rhythm: An Introduction to the Music of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.” Polish Music Journal. Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 2003.