x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obstacles did not quiet Henryk Gorecki or his music

The Polish composer Henryk Gorecki created the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

The Polish composer Henryk Górecki spent almost his entire life and career in southern Poland, discouraged from pursuing music by his father, poorly paid as a teacher, unable to obtain manuscript paper on which to compose and at odds with the country's communist regime.

Yet he managed to compose remarkable music for four decades and to produce, with his Third Symphony, one of the most popular contemporary classical recordings in the 20th century. The ensuing fame and fortune did nothing to change him.

Born in the coal mining area of Upper Silesia, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki was the son of a railway station employee. His mother died when he was two; he was plagued by bad health all his life and would say, "I talked with death often".

His late mother was a pianist but he was not allowed to use her piano, although he was permitted lessons. By the early 1950s he was teaching and studying music in Rybnik. At this time he began to compose.

Study followed under Boleslaw Szabelski, a former student of the great Karol Szymanowski. He wrote his First Symphony in 1959, graduated in 1960 and spent the last three months of 1961 in Paris, where he was influenced by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and met Olivier Messiaen. The folk tradition of his beloved Tatra Mountains inspired the pared-down Three Pieces in Old Style and Old Polish Music and became an abiding influence. His Second Symphony (Copernican), in Latin, marked the 500th anniversary of the astronomer's birth.

In 1972, he became rector of his old school in Katowice and in 1977 was made professor of the State Higher School there, although he was often as odds with the authorities. The year before he had composed his Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). Likened to the work of Sir John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, it was a radical departure for the dissonant dissident. It was an extended elegiac lament in three movements. The style was one of harmonious minimalism. The hypnotic ebb and flow of the music and the repetitive lulling words of the soprano produced a powerfully moving work.

In 1992, it was recorded by the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman with the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, and was a sensation. It went to No 6 on the mainstream music charts in Britain and sold more than a million copies, becoming one of the biggest sellers of classical music of all time.

Górecki had resigned his rectorship in 1979 in protest against the authorities' refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice.

The success of the symphony meant he could buy a much-dreamed-of Mercedes and a house in the mountains. "A day away from Katowice, where I write, is a day wasted," he said.

Ill health prevented him completing his Fourth Symphony. He is survived by his wife, Jadwiga, a son and a daughter.


Born December 6, 1933; died November 12, 2010