News arrived this morning from Poland about the death of Henryk M Gorecki (pronounced Gore- ET-skee) at the age of 76. Odds are, you either own a recording of his most famous work, or have never heard of him before. It all depends on where you were in 1992. Or whether you were into S&M.
Maybe I better explain…
In 1992 Nonesuch Records released a recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 – “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as it’s known. For reasons that no one, Gorecki included, could ever figure out, this recording – of a work that was already 15 years old and had been recorded twice before with no appreciable success – became a music phenomenon. And I don’t mean just a Classical Music phenomenon – this recording sold 700,000 copies in its first two years and has now sold over a million.
I first heard the Symphony in the mid-1980s. A French movie called Police used some of it in the film score, and when the soundtrack album came out, with a garish movie-poster cover and the composer’s name barely visible in the liner notes, I was struck by the beauty and the suspended, timeless nature of the work. “Sorrowful Songs” indeed – these three prayers/laments unfolded slowly, over achingly beautiful but very simple harmonies. The work was precariously balanced on the edge of collapsing under its own weight, like a bridge built too long. But it never did.
In the late 80s, another recording of the work came out that attempted to speed things up a bit so that the music didn’t sound quite so… imperiled. But while the architecture of the symphony came into focus, the magic fled.
Then came soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor David Zinman. They recorded the work for Nonesuch, and suddenly my “New Sounds” program here at WNYC had company – BBC 3, KCRW in Santa Monica, and other radio stations began playing this recording, and the classical sales records began to fall.
OK, so… I was asked to be on a panel at Lincoln Center in 1993 to discuss the Gorecki phenomenon. The pre-eminent, Oscar-winning American composer John Corigliano mused about the work’s return to a direct, simple style, that suited the emotional content so well. I wondered if the interest were part and parcel of the end-of-millennium interest in music as a spiritual act – the same interest that suddenly made hits out of Gregorian Chant and Hildegard von Bingen.
After the panel, an annoyed audience member came up to me and told me we were all missing the point. Picking up on the idea of the music being constantly in danger of collapse, he said it was that very tension that made it work. In fact, he claimed, the first converts to this music were the people in the S&M clubs, where that tension apparently set just the right mood.
Whatever. But the phenomenon that was the Gorecki Symphony #3 never really translated into great success for any of his other works. To use a pop term, Gorecki became a one-hit wonder. And why not use a pop term? This symphony reached lots of listeners who were not classical music fans, and certainly not modern classical music fans. (Not all of them frequented the dungeons of Manhattan either.) And that one hit is still an extraordinary, moving piece of music.