Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

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Polish composer famous for the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ dies

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Composer Henryk Górecki has died in Katowice, Poland, at the age of 76.

It was in 1992 that Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, made the Polish composer a household name. He had, in fact, written the haunting work in 1977, but it had gone relatively unnoticed until memorably recorded by soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman 15 years later.

The Symphony, which over three movements movingly sets a fifth-century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II and a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her dead son, became an instant favourite on the just-launched Classic FM, selling more than a million copies and going on to receive several further recordings since.

Górecki himself was born in Silesia, Poland in 1933 and became an orphan following the death of his mother soon after. Brought up in Katowice, where he both studied at and joined the staff of the State Higher School of Music, he initially composed in a modernist style, influenced by the likes of Nono and Stockhausen, but also drawing on folk elements in his music. Works such as his First Symphony (1959) and Scontri (1960) for orchestra helped to establish his reputation, if not exactly bringing him fame and fortune.

However, in the 1970s, he turned towards the ‘monumental’ minimalism for which he became best known, not just in the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ but also in works such as his carol Totus Tuus (1987). Though none of his other music would come close to matching the popularity of Symphony No. 3,  Górecki's later years saw him enjoy a close collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, for whom he wrote a number of works. The premiere of his Fourth Symphony, scheduled to take place earlier this year, was shelved due to illness and the work was still unperformed at the time of his death.

Jeremy Pound