Henryk Gorecki

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Born: Czernica, Poland, 6 December 1933

Genre: Classical

It is tempting to classify the composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki as a one-hit wonder, and, by the definition of the popular music world, he is one. But classical composers are not usually judged by the sales standards of the pop music world; Górecki's outsized and unexpected success in 19921993 with his Symphony no. 3, op. 36 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs ), was unprecedented for a living classical composer.

The work was written in 1976, and though it became fairly well known in Poland, not until it was recorded on Elektra Nonesuch by the American singer Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, did it become a sensation. The recording sold more than 1.2 million copies internationally, took up residence on both the American and English pop charts, and was the first (only) recording featuring music by a living classical composer ever to top the Billboard charts. By listener request, excerpts were played day and night on the English station Classic FM, and it was Gramophone's Best-selling CD in 1993.

Certainly the performance helped make the symphony a hit. Upshaw's long, clear notes are translucent, and the performance is ripe with gravitas. But the composer seems to have tapped into a combination of mysticism and simple musical textures that resonated with a great many people. The music gets some of its inspiration from Polish music of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, mixes in fragments of texts gathered from a variety of sources, and tethers it all to a musical structure that makes it seem like the music is slowly, inevitably unwrapping itself. The tone is melancholy, contemplative, and, in the end, oddly reassuring. Even listeners not normally given to responding to classical music seemed to form a bond with the Symphony. But Symphony no. 3 is not representative of most of Górecki's work. Indeed, earlier in his career, Górecki had a reputation as a rebel more likely to pitch musical fits than write a simple melody.

Górecki studied with Boleslaw Szabelski at the State Higher School of Music (PWSM) in Katowice from 1955 to 1960, and, after some postgraduate study in Paris, came back to teach at the State School, becoming Rector from 1975 to 1979. Although he has traveled, Górecki has spent most of his career in southern Poland.

In the 1950s and 1960s he was considered among the most adventurous and difficult of the Polish avant-garde composers. Along with Penderecki and Serocki, the group tried to incorporate as much dissonance and harsh sound as possible. Their style became known as "sound mass composition" a process that stripped away traditional musical elements of rhythm and pitch in favor of pure sound. Górecki's Genesis cycle op. 19, written in 19621963, and Scontri op. 17 (1960) feature aggressive clashes of sounds piled up against one another. Yet the music was tightly and rigorously planned out.

In the 1970s Górecki moved away from such raw aggression and began exploring spirituality as an element, trying to draw emotional and spiritual links through his music. His work became more tonal and melodic, less dissonant. This turn to a mellower sensibility is evident in his Symphony no. 2, op. 31 (Copernican )(1972).

After surprising his colleagues in the 1970s by radically simplifying his work, Górecki began expanding his compositional material in the 1980s and 1990s, introducing contrasts of tempo, dynamics, and harmonic language that took him far away from Symphony no. 3. He builds on spiritual themes in works such as his Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka, op. 66 (1993) for fourteen instruments; the works echo composers such as Chopin and Szymanowski as well as traditional Polish and Czech music.

Górecki has written more than seventy works, including pieces for orchestra, orchestra and voice, chamber music, choral music, and solo instruments. Despite his success with Symphony no. 3 and a general shift in the compositional world away from dissonance, Górecki is considered somewhat outside the mainstream of contemporary music.


Symphony no. 3, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," Opus 36 (Nonesuch 1992); Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka, Opus 66; Lerchenmusik, Opus 53 (Philips, 1995).


Monologhi, op. 16 (1960); Scontri, op. 17 (1960); Symphony no. 2, op. 31, Copernican (1972); Symphony no. 3, op. 36, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976); Lerchenmusik, op. 53 (1984); Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka (1993).

douglas mclennan

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Górecki, Henryk (Mikołaj) (b Czernica, Rybnik, 1933). Polish composer. On leaving school in 1951, became primary school teacher. Began formal music studies in Rybnik, 1952. Rector of Katowice Cons. 1975–9. Won first prize at several composers’ competitions. His Beatus Vir was first perf. at Kraków in 1979 on occasion of Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland. Górecki was among Polish composers who took advantage of relative ‘thaw’ in 1950s in relations with West and came to know mus. of Xenakis, Stockhausen, Nono, Messiaen, and others. But his own mus., initially influenced by Webernian serialism and later by clusters, has never made use of elec. instr. and has developed a highly individual style, going back for inspiration to 14th-cent. Polish chants, to Palestrina's polyphony, and to the richness of the Wagnerian orch. His 3rd Sym. (1977) achieved worldwide popularity, perhaps because its reliance on modal and triadic structures and its preoccupation with slow tempos are in strong contrast to the dissonance of many contemp. works.

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Górecki, Henryk (1933– ) Polish composer. His early works were influenced by Webern and serial music, but his later output, such as his third symphony (1976), is inspired more by medieval Polish chants, Renaissance polyphony, and the richness of the Wagnerian orchestra.