Polish composer who was diffident about his fame, despite achieving huge popularity in Western Europe and US
Published 14/11/2010 | 05:00
Henryk Gorecki, who died on Friday aged 76, was a Polish composer who achieved immense popularity in Western Europe and America in the Nineties thanks to the ethereal splendour of his Symphony No 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which briefly reached No 6 in the British charts, just behind Paul McCartney.
He was also an important political voice in Poland, for example writing his controversial Beatus Vir for Pope John Paul II's return to his homeland after being elected pontiff in 1979. During the dying days of communism, Gorecki was seen as an agitator by the authorities and was frequently followed and had his phone tapped.
He started his musical life as a pioneer of the Polish avant garde and his work was often dismissed for its violence, both in its sound and in the manner of its performance. However, the success of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs -- indeed much of the composer's later success -- comes from the opposite: simplicity and religious minimalism. Gone are the complex, jarring chords of the modernists; instead, Gorecki finds a new voice with a calm and serene sound that is focused in conventional tonality.
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was conceived as a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. In each of the three movements a soprano sings a Polish text: a 15th-century lament; a message scribbled on the wall of a Gestapo cell; and a Silesian prayer of a mother searching for her son.
The work was written in 1976, but in 1992 it was released on the Nonesuch label sung by Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman.
Not only had the political landscape changed in the intervening years, but so too had the economic and musical landscape in the West. It soon became the most successful recording of a new composition in the history of the classical record business. As the cultural commentator Alex Ross wrote: "It is not hard to guess why [Gorecki] and several like-minded composers achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the Eighties and Nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture."
But there was much more to Gorecki and his music. Works such as Three Pieces in Old Style (1963) and Muzyka staropolska (Old Polish Music, from 1969) often draw inspiration from the folk music and traditions of the Tatra region, the highest part of the Carpathian Mountains and once a northern outpost of the Ottoman Empire.
He remained unrepentant about his politics and his seeming volte-face in musical style. "I've always fought for what I wanted to fight for," he once said. "Some people take an automatic gun and shoot. I can only fight with my notes on the page."
Gorecki was born in Czernica, near Rybnik in the coal-mining region of Silesia, on December 6 1933. His mother, a pianist, died when he was aged two.
Musically, the boy was a late developer and enrolled at the conservatoire in Katowice only at the age of 22, when he studied composition with Boleslaw Szabelski, a pupil of Szymanowksi. His Symphony 1959 was awarded first prize at the Paris Youth Biennale in 1960 and was followed by further prizes in his homeland.
Such acclaim was not always forthcoming. One London-based critic referred to Genesis, a gritty exploration of sonority, as "Darmstadt seen through the waters of the Vistula". At the 1967 Cheltenham Festival his Refrain was described thus: "The experiment might better have been conducted in private."
After the success of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which sold more than a million copies, Gorecki was finally able to purchase the Mercedes that he had long dreamed of, as well as a cottage in his beloved Tatra mountains. However, the composer remained as diffident about fame and travel as ever.
He is survived by his wife, Jadwiga, whom he married in 1959, and by a son and a daughter.