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Friday, November 12, 2010

Obituary: Henryk Górecki, 1933-2010

Henryk Górecki
The Polish composer Henryk Górecki, whose contemplative, minimalist music made him one of the surprise success stories of the late 20th century, has died, as reported by the Associated Press. He was 76.

He died in the cardiology ward of a hospital in his home city of Kawotice. The composer had been in poor health for most of 2010, which had forced a London orchestra to cancel plans to premiere his recently completed Symphony No. 4.

Górecki was one of the most successful members of a group of Polish composers that emerged in that country in the years following the Second World War. He was originally an experimental modernist, exploring atonal and serialist ideas in a manner similar to his compatriot Krzyztof Penderecki. However, Górecki changed direction in the early 1970s, adding minimalist and religious elements to his music. It would prove to be a winning formula.

The Symphony No. 3 (subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) was written in 1976, and received its premiere in 1977. It consists of three slow movements, sung throughout by a solo soprano. The texts are drawn from songs and serve as an elegy for those killed during the Holocaust. The work was savaged by critics at its premiere, and lapsed into obscurity until a French television program used one of its movements as a soundtrack.

In 1979, the composer received a commission from Karol Wojtlya, the Archibishop of Warsaw who would go on to become Pope John Paul II. That work became Beatus vir, a psalm for baritone and orchestra which commemorated the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, the bishop of Krakow.

In 1992, the Symphony No. 3 was recorded by the London Sinfionetta under the conductor David Zinman, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw. The CD became a runaway hit, selling over a million copies in the last two decades. This is an almost unheard-of level of success for any classical recording, let alone one of a work written after 1950. The recording has been referred to as a phenomenon of the CD boom of the 1990s, and continues to remain popular.

Henryk Górecki was born on Dec. 6 1933 in Czernica, a village in Silesia, a region of southern Poland that is also home to the German conductor Kurt Masur. He is survived by his wife Jadwiga, a piano teacher. His daughter, Anna Górecka-Stanczyk is a pianist and his son, Mikolaj is a composer.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.