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Henryk Gorecki, composer of 'Sorrowful Songs'

By Matt Schudel
Matt Schudel

I think I had the same response that many people had when they first heard Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs": I was utterly stunned and deeply moved by its dark, lyrical beauty. Gorecki's hit recording -- and that's what it was -- seemed to emerge from nowhere in the early 1990s and quickly became a classical music sensation.

When Gorecki died this week, he was still the only living classical to have been on the pop charts -- hitting No. 6 in Britain -- and to have been No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart. The Nonesuch recording of the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" recorded in London in 1992 -- with two Americans, soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor David Zinman, in the principal roles -- was instantly popular with listeners and has inspired artists in other genres. Many people have uploaded the recording to the Internet, often supplemented with translated lyrics and works of art.

Musically speaking, the symphony is a rather simple work, built on layers of strings and quiet horns in a canon style, with the soprano singing Polish lyrics above the instsrumetal foundation. One of the revelations for me in writing about Gorecki was that he began his career as a composer of dissonant avant-garde works, then developed a more lyrical style that derived largely from his love of Polish folk music.

"There is one theme through the whole of my work," Gorecki said in 1989, in a quotation I didn't have room to include in the obituary. "There is folk music in all my pieces from the beginning, not tunes so the audience can recognize them, but so that if they have their eyes closed they can smell it."

While writing about Gorecki's life, I was listening to his Symphony No. 3. I have to say it never fails to touch me to my core.

By Matt Schudel  | November 13, 2010; 12:29 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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