Henryk Górecki, a once obscure Polish composer who went on to become a crossover phenomenon like no other, has died in Katowice, Poland. He was 76.
The composer had been ill for some time, but lived long enough to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor, which was presented last month.
Górecki was best known for his Symphony No. 3, which was composed in 1976 and sold more than a million copies in a 1992 recording featuring the soprano Dawn Upshaw. That album topped the classical charts in Britain and the U.S., and for a time, it nearly topped the British pop charts, becoming one of the world's best-selling pieces of contemporary classical music. Yet it was an unlikely success story.
Quiet and monumental, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," as it is subtitled, is an hour-long piece for soprano and orchestra that quotes old religious and folk texts as well as a message written on the wall of a Nazi prison cell. At the core of the piece is a slow, deliberative canon, the theme of which is adapted from an old Polish folk song.
The recording became emblematic of the well-marketed “Holy Minimalism” movement of the early 1990s, and it found broad appeal in listeners who also turned to Gregorian Chant and the music of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.
Born in 1933 in Czernica, near Poland's gritty coal-mining city of Katowice, Górecki studied composition and then joined the staff of the state academy of music in Katowice. He developed a spare, cerebral early style that put him at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde.
During the 1960s, his music grew more eclectic and by the 1970s, he developed the monumental, religious approach for which he became famous.
Górecki ran afoul of the authorities in the late '70s, resigning his post as provost at the music school in Katowice to protest the government's refusal to permit Pope John Paul II to visit the city. He later composed the choral work Miserere in remembrance of police violence against the Solidarity labor movement.
The composer’s protests were given added weight by virtue of the fact that he rejected Western modernism and created a new musical language that was rooted in anti-authoritarian ideals.
Górecki’s popular breakthrough came in 1992, when the aforementioned recording of Symphony No. 3 by the London Sinfonietta with Upshaw was released on Nonesuch. Although other recordings of the symphony followed, Górecki resisted temptation to compose again in that style.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Górecki was especially focused on choral and chamber music. The 1990 String Quartet No. 1, Op. 62 ("Already It Is Dusk") and the 1995 work Songs Are Sung were written for Kronos Quartet and further enhanced his reputation.
Górecki's Symphony No. 4 was to be premiered in London in 2010, but the event was cancelled on account of his illness.