Polish Composer Henryk Gorecki dies at 76

Famed Polish composer Henryk Gorecki died last week, November 12th, at a hospital in Katowice, Poland. Those familiar with Gorecki know will be remembered for his political activism and extraordinary musicality, but for those still in the dark….

Gorecki was born in Czernica, Poland in 1933. His mother died when he was two and Gorecki dedicated many of his earlier works to her memory. Although Gorecki was exposed to music as a child – both his parents were amateur musicians – he showed little interest until his teens.

Gorecki first enrolled in a music school in Rybnik, where he also began teaching young elementary students. Gorecki began composing here and became an important figure in the Polish avant-garde musical movement of the 1950s. He completed his 4 year degree in 3 and continued his music education at the Katowice Academy of Music.

Upon graduating from the conservatory in Katowice – with honors – , Gorecki took a teaching position. As a professor and academic, Gorecki received many honors, eventually becoming provost before he resigning in 1979.

Gorecki was also very involved in politics and was vocal critic of the communist rule in Poland. (In fact, the restriction of Pope John II’s travel in Poland – for who Gorecki had been commissioned and written a piece – was what prompted Gorecki to resign from his professorship.) Gorecki formed a group of intellectuals opposed to the communist rule and in 1981 dedicated his composition, “Miserere”, to the Polish Solidarity Movement.

With the fall of communism 1997, Gorecki was free to travel and spent some time as a composer at the University of Southern California. Mostly, however, he was at home writing music.

Gorecki’s most popular composition, his 3rd symphony which he calls “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” is a bit of a surprise (CD 6037). The 52-minute, 3 movement piece is a compilation of Polish texts and folk melodies for soprano and orchestra. At first critics complained that the once agrressive music of Gorecki’s youth was no longer “serious.”

People felt differently.

In 1992, when “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” was recorded with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman and with soloist American soprano Dawn Upshaw, Gorecki became worldly famous. The recording sold 800,000 copies in just 3 years, reaching No. 6 on the British pop charts, overtaking albums by Madonna, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. On the US Classical charts the recording spent 38 weeks at No. 1.

“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.”

Gorecki will be remembered as an incredible composer and Polish citizen. He is survived by his wife, Jadwiga; two children; and five grandchildren.

You can listen to Gorecki’s music at the AU Music Library. Check out:

CD 6037

CD 6729

You can read Gorecki’s obituary in the Washington Post.