It does no disservice to Henryk Gorecki’s other work to call the Polish composer, who died today at 76, one of the 20th century’s great one-hit wonders. He had a productive career and was highly regarded both within Poland and in the tiny microcosm of people everywhere who keep an eye on 20th- and 21st-century composers for orchestra, chamber ensemble and voice. Tim Rutherford-Johnson surveys his career here.
But Gorecki’s death is mourned around the world today because of one work, his Third Symphony (there would, in the end, be no Fourth), “Symfonia piesni zalosnych,” Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He completed it in 1976. It was highly regarded in Poland and widely mocked within the tiny microcosm, and made no further waves until Elektra Nonesuch released a new recording in 1992 and Peter Weir used part of it in the soundtrack for the climactic plane-crash scene in his odd, lovely 1993 film Fearless.
Radio stations started playing it. It wound up selling a million copies. There’s a tale, perhaps apocryphal, of traffic jams in Los Angeles because drivers heard it on their car radio, started to weep and had to pull over. It’s a three-movement piece, the movements marked Lento, Lento and Lento — slow, slow, slow — each movement setting a text of death and mourning. Weir used an instrumental excerpt from the first, in Gorecki’s late style, repetitive, surging, simple and tonal. He was a close cousin to mystical European minimalists like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, a more distant relative of the Americans Philip Glass and Steve Reich.The text in that movement is a 15th-century lament: “Speak to your mother, to make her happy/ Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.”
The second movement hits you like a baseball bat. Its text is a prayer Helena Wanda Blzusiakowna wrote on the wall of Cell 3 of the Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane in 1944, when she was 18: “No, Mother, do not weep/ Most chaste Queen of Heaven support me always./ Hail Mary, full of grace.” Here’s a video of that part, performed at Auschwitz, the first time Polish authorities permitted a musical performance there since the Liberation:
The third movement — well, it can wait. Words scrawled by a teenager on the wall of a Nazi prison cell? Videos at Auschwitz? How maudlin. The symphony has its critics, divided approximately into people who think its undue pop fame detracts from his other work, and people who think he was just milking grief. No response can dismiss those criticisms entirely, but there’s no evidence Gorecki was any sort of publicity hound. Notoriety came from the blue, decades after the fact of composition, and after it did, he didn’t whip up a bunch of Holocaust-lite pieces to cash in. As for the limited interest in his other stuff, well, that’s never an artist’s fault, and even if you think this was his only masterpiece, those of us who have not yet produced even one masterpiece are in a poor place to carp.
There is, finally, the evidence of the music, which is haunting. Three weeks ago Anna Komorowska, the wife of Poland’s president, visited Gorecki in the cardiac-care ward of a hospital outside Katowice and inducted him into the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour. The medal recognized a piece that touched something mythic in the culture of a country too used to sorrow.
The obituaries in Polish newspapers today mention something Gorecki once told an interviewer: “Before I die, I want to know what music is.”