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Henryk Gorecki, Polish composer of surprise hit 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,' dies at 76
The final movement, with echoes of melodies by Chopin and Beethoven, includes the words of a Polish folk song in which a mother mourns the loss of her son in battle.
The total effect is a powerful mood of despair mixed with hope that many listeners interpret as a commentary on the Holocaust or on the repression Poland faced under communist rule. Mr. Gorecki stepped aside to allow people to hear what they wanted in his music.
"Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music," he said. "Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them."
Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki was born Dec. 6, 1933, in Czernica, a small town in the Polish region of Silesia. His mother died when he was 2, and several members of his family were killed in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Mr. Gorecki showed little interest in music until his teens, when he traded a table tennis paddle for a score of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which he studied obsessively for years. He taught in a primary school while attending music school and then enrolled in a more advanced conservatory in Katowice, graduating in 1960.
He was an important figure in the Polish avant-garde musical movement of the 1950s and began teaching at his alma mater in the 1960s.
After writing dozens of works in a jagged, percussive style, he began to reflect his newfound interest in folk music and lyricism with his Symphony No. 2, the "Copernican," in 1972.
After writing a work on commission for the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John II, Mr. Gorecki resigned his teaching position when communist authorities restricted the pope's travels in Poland in 1979.
Mr. Gorecki formed a group of intellectuals opposed to communist ruled and, in 1981, composed a choral work, "Miserere," dedicated to the Polish Solidarity movement.
After the fall of communism, Mr. Gorecki was free to travel, and he spent 1997 as a composer at the University of Southern California. Mostly, however, he stayed at home, where he composed late at night in a room filled with crucifixes and religious images. He wrote dozens of works for string quartet, chamber groups and orchestra, including "Little Requiem for a Polka" (1993) and the 1990 vocal requiem, "Good Night."
He had completed his Symphony No. 4 shortly before his death, but the scheduled premiere in London this fall was postponed because of Mr. Gorecki's health.
Survivors include his wife, Jadwiga; two children; and five grandchildren.
"When you think about the great composers, you have to be humble," Mr. Gorecki told The Post in 1995. "I will die without learning the secrets of Chopin, Bach, Mahler.
"What is it? You hear very simple sounds; you look at the notes in a Schubert song and there is nothing special, but it is a masterpiece. Why? A mystery."