“Oh crikey, what can i get for harriet? asked an ad in that newspaper three days before Christmas 1992. known who usually did not appear alongside these multi-millionaire artists: Henryk Górecki.
The album in question included a recording of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a 55-minute work for orchestra and soprano written in 1976. Its three movements, all slow, feature Polish texts that evoke motherhood, religion and death, including a prayer that was inscribed on a wall at Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane by an 18-year-old prisoner.
Unsurprisingly, the recording didn’t begin life with the intention of keeping Madonna and Prince company – but by the end of 1992, the symphony was soaring. For 11 weeks it was among the UK’s 40 best-selling albums, peaking at number six in early February 1993, between Paul McCartney’s Off the Ground and REM’s Automatic for the People. It topped the classical charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and total sales today have exceeded 1 million – an unthinkable figure and still unique in contemporary classical music. Thirty years after its release in April 1992, the album’s rise to fame has become legendary.
Górecki, born in 1933, began by writing dissonant, complex, non-commercial music, as expected of avant-garde composers of the time. His change of heart in the mid-1970s – to a simpler, more witty style – was not a ploy to reach the mainstream. In fact, this change simply alienated him from his peers: the Third Symphony was a flop when it premiered in 1977. But in 1985, David Drew of music publishers Boosey & Hawkes came across Górecki during a music festival in Warsaw. Back home, he listened, delighted, to one of the first Polish recordings of the Third Symphony.
Thanks to Drew’s enthusiasm, in 1989 the London Sinfonietta organized a series of weekend concerts featuring the music of Górecki and Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke. Robert Hurwitz, then president of the American label Nonesuch (part of the Warner stable), flew away for the weekend. He, too, had heard and enjoyed a recording of the Third Symphony before – and, considering that version to be “perfectly correct”, had no intention of recording it again. He was more interested in other works on view: “The Third Symphony was a sort of bonus for the weekend,” he says.
A hugely powerful live performance – the work’s London premiere – with soprano Margaret Field and conducted by David Atherton changed his mind. Critics agreed.
“The most imposing work [of the programmes] was Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, which brought together many elements of his musical personality. An impressive individual musical statement,” wrote Meirion Bowen of the Guardian. “The astonishing Third Symphony… at almost an hour of very slow music, could have become a test, and for some it obviously is. I can only say that I found it to have an intense physical impact, with its relentless tread and piercingly simple melodic lines,” Nicholas Kenyon wrote in the Observer.
“It really felt like a major event,” says Janis Susskind, who has worked at Boosey for 40 years and is now its chief executive. “You could just see the planets aligning, that there was potential to bring this remarkable symphony to a wider audience. »
Nonesuch’s subsequent recording featured the Sinfonietta (which, as was standard for such projects, received a one-time fee rather than receiving royalties), with conductor David Zinman and emerging American soprano Dawn Upshaw , whose piercingly pure vocal tone contrasted with earlier renderings.
“After the sessions, I thought, ‘This is better than I expected,'” recalls Hurwitz. “’I think it might be a hit; we might even sell 25,000 copies.
For the album to sell 40 times more was far beyond the dreams of anyone involved. The new commercial radio station Classic FM played a role. It had been launched in September 1992 and immediately put the shortest movement of the symphony, the second, into intense rotation. The recording struck a chord.
“Suddenly it reached music lovers and listeners, jumping over the heads of the keepers,” says Susskind. “It was exciting, actually. In classical music publishing there is no supernova – and it was a supernova.
The work has retained its place in popular culture. A recent recording featured Beth Gibbons of the band Portishead, and her strains have graced movie soundtracks from The Tree of Life to Suicide Squad. Now it’s set to become an opera of sorts – English National Opera has just announced a staging of the symphony, conducted and designed by Isabella Bywater, at the Coliseum in London in April 2023.
Górecki’s symphony was not completely alone aesthetically. Several other contemporary composers, including Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, displayed a similar spiritual bent (their music was sometimes known as “sacred minimalism”), and minimalists such as Steve Reich had already disrupted the status quo. But only Górecki’s album sold so many: a new classical mainstream did not emerge.
“For me, the success of the Third Symphony was an isolated phenomenon,” says The Guardian’s leading classical critic, Andrew Clements. “It just became popular, almost like a novelty record. »
Kenyon puts it this way: “What first minimalism, then these pieces” – like Pärt’s Passio and Tavener’s The Protecting Veil – “did was to show that there were other directions in classical music: there would no longer be a mainstream.”
Although enjoying his success, Górecki had the typical mixed feelings of a one-hit wonder – but he understood the impact of his hit. In a 1993 interview with Time magazine, he said, “Maybe people, especially young people, find something they need in this piece of music, something they’re looking for. »
Appearing on National Public Radio in the United States in 1995, he read a letter from a 14-year-old Swedish girl who suffered severe burns and lost her mother in a fire. She treasured her Górecki tapes. “I only live because you write such music,” she wrote.
As for Hurwitz, his passion is still there after 30 years. “In terms of text and hyper-emotional language, it could have been written today, about what happens to the next door neighbor in Górecki’s Poland,” he says. “When is there more need for painful songs than now? »