Henryk Górecki, 1933-2010: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

November 12, 2010, 9:04 PM ·

They're listening to a symphony on pop radio stations in Europe? I was incredulous when I learned of this improbable turn of events, in the early 1990s. But it was true. A recording of Polish composer Henryk Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" had made its way to No. 6 on popular music charts -- not classical -- in the United Kingdom.

Yes, pop radio stations in Europe were playing this symphony, and Americans also were snapping up CDs of a symphony of songs sung in a language many had never heard. Of course I had to investigate; I also bought the recording, which was made in 1992 and featured the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The composition had actually been written more than 15 years before, in 1976. Though Górecki said the symphony was about the ties between a mother and child, people have interpreted it in many ways, as a tribute to Holocaust victims, as a religious statement, as a political one.

I played this symphony a few later, in a beautiful and memorable concert dedicated to the victims of AIDS, a disease which had taken many lives and, at the time, seemed to carry with it a certain death sentence. The cure, or the medicine to cope, was not yet in sight then, in the mid-1990s. The concert took place at church in Omaha, Neb., with the beautiful soprano dressed in white -- and pregnant, somehow this seemed significant. Grieving friends and relatives of people who had died from AIDS lit candles, and the music was so appropriate, so moving. It's a concert I won't forget.

When I found this movement from the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," I had to listen to the end, and remember.

Here also is an excellent tribute to Górecki, put together by NPR.


November 13, 2010 at 01:58 PM ·

 Thanks for your blog on Henryk Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs".
I listened to the Lento and Largo movements on YouTube and found it to be very soothing. I then checked out the album from the link on your blog and felt like the other movements appear to be homogeneous. I only listened to the MP3 demos found on Amazons page.
I'm wondering what your feeling about the symphony as a whole is after having listened to the entire piece?


November 14, 2010 at 09:30 PM ·

Haunting music and a haunting video with the devastating slogan above the Auschwitz entrance; "Arbeit macht Frei" (Labour makes Free). A nightmare from which millions could not awake. 

November 17, 2010 at 05:47 PM ·

I picked up the Dawn Upshaw CD shortly after it was released - its initial plays on the radio grabbed my attention then and there.  The liner notes are captivating - they describe the first performance of the piece, and explain how the words were taken from a prayer written by a young Polish woman on the wall of the cell where she was being held by the Nazis.  It's one of my "desert island discs", and it's good to see it getting more attention, even if for such an unfortunate reason.

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