Rob Cowan remembers the composer whose Third Symphony became a phenomenal hit
The composer who “talked with death often” has died at the age of 76. Henryk Górecki was almost a ‘one work composer’ but while others who have earned that rather dubious title have often done so with minor pieces, in Górecki’s case it was with a major symphony, his Third, a wonderful work, filled with pathos and integrity – that integrity easily proved by the fact that in spite of its rocketing success, until very recently there was never a Fourth. It was to have been premiered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra earlier this year, but the composer was too ill to finish it.
Górecki’s earlier works were Webern-influenced, and often very modernist in their language. Even the transitional Second Symphony was anything but an ‘easy listen’ whereas the Third (specifically in Elektra-Nonesuch’s recording with Dawn Upshaw, the London Sinfonietta and David Zinman conducting [Amazon]), which sold more than million copies, can be appreciated at various levels. Ostensibly, this ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ marks the memory of those lost during the Holocaust. For me it also marks the memory of Keith Shadwick, the writer and radio presenter with whom I co-hosted Classic FM’s weekly review programme ‘Classic Verdict’. I mention this because we had a regular ‘Sure Shot’ that Paul Gambaccini picked up the next day for his chart show, and we played the Zinman/Upshaw Gorécki Third at end of the station’s very first week on air. The time was apparently right for his yearning symphonic elegy, with its quasi-minimalist lines and echoes of Chopin.
A month before Classic FM hit the airwaves I appeared on Frank Bough’s LBC show with a small pile of classical CDs to review. The Górecki CD had just dropped onto my mat and I decided to play an excerpt from it. As I left the building, a telephonist ran up to me asking what I’d just played. “The phone lines are crammed,” she said, “crammed with people who want to know it was.” As it happens the Symphony had already been used for the end-title scene of the French film Police.
Needless to say, the clamour for works ‘that sound like Górecki’s Third’ was relentless, but Górecki himself never obliged. The pieces that followed after his Third Symphony often had the ascetic dignity of Schubert, a favourite composer. None of them sound even remotely like the Symphony.
When the Third’s success was celebrated, I had the privilege of meeting this modest, self-effacing man. He spoke quietly and was almost bemused by all the fuss. He once said, in an interview, “I do not choose my listeners. What I mean is, I never write for my listeners. I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them. I have something to tell them, but the audience must also put a certain effort into it. But I never wrote for an audience and never will write for one, because you have to give the listener something and he has to make an effort in order to understand certain things.”
It’s ironic that the very quality he most strove to achieve met, half-way, with the one he most wanted to avoid: ‘easy listening’. So you could say that the only 20th century symphony ever to hit the charts did so on a misunderstanding. Now perhaps we’ll honour his memory by making more of an effort.