Henryk Gorecki, Polish composer of surprise hit 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,' dies at 76

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki directs the Kronos Quartet during a rehearsal in Katowice, Poland, in 2007. His
Polish composer Henryk Gorecki directs the Kronos Quartet during a rehearsal in Katowice, Poland, in 2007. His "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" topped the pop charts in Britain in the early 1990s. (Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:10 PM

Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer whose hauntingly beautiful Symphony No. 3, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," became a recording phenomenon of the early 1990s, surpassing Madonna and Michael Jackson on the British pop charts, died Nov. 12 at a hospital in Katowice, Poland. He was 76 and had a lung infection and other ailments.

Mr. Gorecki (pronounced go-RETZ-kee), who was also a leading voice of Polish dissent under communist rule, was as surprised as anyone when his lyrical symphony for orchestra and solo soprano captured the public imagination and shot up the charts. The 52-minute composition contains three movements, each with an achingly plaintive lyric sung in Polish.

When the symphony was first performed in 1977, it received unfavorable reviews. Critics complained that Mr. Gorecki, whose music had been aggressively dissonant in his youth, was no longer a serious composer.

In fact, he had found a more simplified and melodic approach, built on his love of the rich Polish folk tradition and the great composers of the past.

His Third Symphony had been recorded twice in Eastern Europe and was used in the credits of Maurice Pialat's 1985 film "Police," but it didn't take off until 1992, when the Nonesuch label released a new recording featuring the limpid voice of the American soprano Dawn Upshaw. Her performance with the London Sinfonietta, conduced by David Zinman, touched an immediate nerve with listeners who found it a work of profound spiritual depth.

"There are several reasons for the popularity of Gorecki's music," critic Joseph McLellan wrote in The Washington Post in 1995. "He is less concerned with the structural subtleties or stylistic innovations that preoccupied so many composers in the post-World War II generation. Instead, his music communicates pure emotion."

The Upshaw recording sold 800,000 copies in three years and reached No. 6 on the British pop charts, overtaking albums by Madonna, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. In the United States, it was on Billboard's classical charts for almost three years and spent 38 weeks at No. 1.

Mr. Gorecki was the first living classical composer to have a pop hit in Britain and the first to have an album reach No. 1 on the U.S. classical charts.

"It is a wonder, a miracle," he told Gramophone magazine in 1993. "But I must not think about this too much, I must not take it to heart because it will spoil me."

Mr. Gorecki, who subtitled his work the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," used a different Polish text in each of three movements. The first consists of a liturgical work from the 15th century, "Lament for the Holy Cross," sung over a hypnotic figure that begins in the double basses and slowly builds.

The text of the second movement is a prayer written during World War II on the wall of a Nazi prison in the Tatra Mountains of Poland, near Mr. Gorecki's childhood home.

"No, Mother, do not weep," an 18-year-old girl scratched in concrete. "Most chaste queen of heaven, support me always."

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