An Appreciation: Henryk Górecki

For a fund drive during summer 1992, KCRW, the Santa Monica College public radio station, ordered 25 copies of a newly released Nonesuch recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 as a membership premium.

General Manager Ruth Seymour aired a bit of this slow “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as the Polish composer subtitled his 54-minute score for soprano and orchestra. Written in 1976, it sets texts of lamentation, including a prayer inscribed on the wall of a prisoner’s cell in a Gestapo headquarters in Poland.

Seymour told her listeners to stop what they were doing, light a candle, maybe pour a glass of wine and attend to this important minimal, modal music. Many subscribers said they pulled over to listen. Those 25 premiums were snapped up in an instant. More were ordered.


It didn’t take long for both public and independent radio stations around the country to get wind of this. And by winter, London had jumped on the Górecki bandwagon as well. The Royal Family reportedly lighted candles, poured wine and listened, along with bankers chilling out and punk rockers as they came down from amphetamines. One British radio station played the symphony daily for weeks on end. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano on the recording (which also featured David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta), was ogled like a rock star when walking through Piccadilly Circus.

The recording, which sold over a million copies, reached No. 6 on the Top 10 U.K. pop chart and was the No. 1 classical recording in the U.S. for a full year. Hardly a week went by in 1993 without an orchestra somewhere in the world playing Górecki’s Third Symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s contribution to the Los Angeles Festival that summer was a performance of the symphony at the Hollywood Bowl.

The West Coast connection to Górecki, who died last Friday, is often overlooked but worth noting. The San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet commissioned all three of the composer’s string quartets. USC sponsored “Górecki Autumn” in 1997, and the reclusive composer, to everyone’s great surprise, came and conducted his Third with the USC Symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned a Fourth Symphony, which is now left incomplete, as is a Fourth Quartet for Kronos.

Górecki lived a hard life. Born in 1933 in Poland’s coal-mining area near the industrial city of Katowice, where he lived most of his life, Górecki lost his mother at 2. He suffered a fall as a boy that kept him hospitalized for two years and left him with a permanent limp. He also developed tuberculosis as a teen. He had a weak heart. The war years were terrible. Devout Catholics, his grandfather, an aunt and an uncle died in concentration camps.

Górecki’s early music was that of a politically defiant modernist in communist Poland, writing adamantly clangorous scores. In the early 1970s, he turned to a more spiritual style, paring his textures and seeking the essence of fewer notes. That technique flowered in the Third Symphony, which premiered in 1977, and which was defiant in its own right — this time of the European modernist musical mandate.

The Third Symphony was thus 15 years old when the Nonesuch CD came out. There had been earlier recordings — dark, heavy Polish affairs. The piece had been used as the soundtrack for a 1985 French crime drama, “Police,” starring Gérard Depardieu. Nonesuch, however, tried something new, going in for crisp orchestral textures and Upshaw’s ethereal voice.

That had seemed a crazy notion to many hard-core Górecki fans at the time, but it proved a brilliant success. Rather than weigh a listener down, the symphony now rose above tragedy to elevate the spirit. Through an equally inspired marketing campaign, the label addressed this revelation not just to new music fans but to everybody. This was classical music at its democratic best.

At USC, Górecki said he too was initially opposed to Upshaw but that he came to fall in love with the heavenly lightness of her voice. Of course, he proceeded to do just the opposite at USC when he conducted the world’s slowest performance of his Third Symphony. But he plumbed unimaginable depths of expression and got great sonorities that had to be heard to be believed.

That, though, was Górecki, a man of many contradictions. He could be funny and fun one minute, explosive the next. In his “Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka” (Small Requiem for a Polka), a 1993 chamber piece, he alternates between mystical music of the starry sky and the circus.

Górecki sat in on a symposium about his music during the USC festival. He was restless. He smiled and scowled as speakers described his work and sometimes got up and walked around. During a question-and-answer session, he told the audience not to eat and drive. When you eat, he said, pay full attention to every aspect of your food. When you drive, observe the wonders of the world around you. For Górecki, profound meaning meant taking things to their end.

“There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals,” Kronos violinist David Harrington wrote Friday on hearing of Górecki’s death.

“He was known for his cancellations, as even the pope discovered. Kronos waited 12 years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that devotion to his muse.”

Such a right moment mysteriously arrived and the world fell in love with the Górecki Third Symphony for a year. May it happen again.