While leisurely gliding home on the New Jersey Turnpike this rainy afternoon, I gave up on the rock album in the CD player and tried the radio. Listener-sponsored, free-format rock? I don’t think so. Classic rock? Definitely not. Fortunately, Columbia University’s WKCR was playing something beautiful. It was a slow-moving work featuring a soprano and orchestra. If I’d heard the piece before, I didn’t remember what it was.
After 20 minutes or so, a young woman with very precise diction softly announced that we had been listening to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The orchestra was the London Sinfonietta and the soprano was Dawn Upshaw.
When I got home, Wikipedia kindly revealed that Henryk Górecki was a 20th century Polish composer. He wrote the piece in 1977, but neither he nor it became famous until 1992 when the very recording I’d heard was released. The album went to the top of the classical charts and has now sold more than one million copies, “vastly exceeding the expected lifetime sales of a typical symphonic recording by a 20th-century composer”.
Regarding its surprising commercial success, Gorecki once said: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music…. Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them”.
One interesting aspect of this story is that, although Polish critics considered it a masterpiece, Gorecki’s Third Symphony didn’t fare well at all when it was first heard outside Poland, at least partly because it was a departure from his earlier dissonant compositions:
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, recordings and performances of the work were widely criticised by the press outside Poland.The symphony drew hostility from critics who felt that Górecki had moved too far away from the established avant-garde style…The world première … was reviewed by six western critics, all of them harshly dismissive. [One wrote] that the symphony “drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes”. Górecki himself recalled that, at the premiere, he sat next to a “prominent French musician” (… probably Pierre Boulez), who, after hearing the twenty-one repetitions of an A-major chord at the end of the symphony, loudly exclaimed “Merde!”
Nevertheless, the 1992 recording caught fire and may now be “the best selling contemporary classical record of all time”. (Maybe I’ll even buy a copy for cruising the Turnpike.) Since this is the age of Spotify and YouTube, however, a base financial transaction is no longer necessary in order to hear great music in the comfort of your own home:
A final note from Wikipedia: The popular success of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs “has not generated similar interest in Górecki’s other works”. Thus, even in the world of contemporary classical music, it is possible to be a one-hit wonder.
Henryk Górecki died in 2010 at the age of 76 in Katowice, Silesia, Poland.