Feature

Henryk Górecki, 1933–2010

The composer who shed dissonance and found success

In the waning days of Poland’s communist regime, composer Henryk Górecki was often followed by government agents, and his telephone was bugged. The outspoken Górecki considered the attention a perverse tribute. “Some people take an automatic gun and shoot,” he said. “I can only fight with my notes on the page.”

Górecki made a career of confounding expectations, said the London Daily Telegraph. Born into a musical family in the coal-mining region of Silesia, Górecki suffered from tuberculosis and a hip injury as a child. A “late bloomer” as a result, he enrolled at the conservatory in Katowice at age 22 and trained in the reigning high modernist style. His early compositions, with their dissonant chords and jarring rhythms, “were often dismissed as violent.” By contrast, the work that earned him lasting fame, his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, for soprano and orchestra, was an exercise in “simplicity and religious minimalism.”

The 1976 composition is an homage to victims of the Holocaust, said the London Independent. Based on three Polish texts, the symphony sets them to melodies from Polish folksongs. Its tunefulness and emotionalism struck Górecki’s academic colleagues as “heretical,” but Symphony proved wildly popular. In 1992, when a recording was finally released in the West, it quickly became one of the best-selling classical records in history. The acclaim–and revenue–from the composition had little effect on Górecki, though he did indulge in a Mercedes and a cottage in the Tatra Mountains. “I am an old man,” he said, “not a star like Woody Allen or Michael Jackson.”

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