Henryk Górecki was a Polish Western classical composer whose sombre Symphony No. 3 (1976) achieved enormous international acclaim in the late twentieth century. Górecki learned music at the Katowice Music Academy in Poland. Górecki's early compositions, which were sometimes atonal and brutal, were influenced by the works of Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1963, when he was asked to write basic melodies, he composed Three Pieces in Old Style for orchestra, which marked a shift in his compositional style. His subsequent job, which was often focused on dramatic themes and cast in rather slow tempi, was marked by folk songs, medieval music, and references to his Roman Catholic religion. In 1975, Górecki was named provost of his alma mater, Katowice's Music Academy, but he resigned four years later in protest when the government declined to allow Pope John Paul II to visit the capital. He then went to Kraków to perform his choral service Beatus Vir for Pope Benedict XVI, as well as write new works for future papal visits to Poland. Górecki's Miserere, a choral composition, was composed in 1981 to honor a Solidarity (Polish labor union) activist who was beaten by militia; but, due to tumultuous political conditions, the piece was not performed until 1987.
In the United States, only Monologhi (1960) by Górecki was available until 1991. However, by the end of 1993, a half-dozen other Górecki compositions had been published and released on a major international label. The pervasive curiosity in Górecki's music may have been influenced in part by Poland's liberation from communist rule in 1989. (Several of Górecki's early works have been characterized as anticommunist symbolism.) The hugely popular recording of his Symphony No. 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, orchestrated by David Zinman, in 1992 was a significant factor in the composer's rise to popularity. At a moment when the typical classical album sold only 15,000 copies, the album sold more than half a million copies worldwide. Górecki, who had hardly traveled outside of Katowice, became an international star overnight, attending news conferences in London, Brussels, and New York City, and becoming the focus of a British television special. Symphony No. 3 is composed of three movements in sluggish lento and largo tempos, both of which are performed at low dynamic speeds. It's built on a modal canon that builds from low strings to the soprano voice, which enters with pastoral harmony, implying a ray of light in otherwise dark shadows. A 15th-century monastic song, a folk tale, and a prayer scratched into a cell wall by a child tortured by the Gestapo are among the documents. Some listeners can associate the repetitive orchestral lines with minimalist techniques (a compositional style employing extreme simplicity of form). Critics praised Upshaw's work in particular, though support for Symphony No. 3 was not universal. It was panned by others as being too basic. Górecki composed or revised approximately 15 works between the turn of the century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the majority of which were voice compositions and small group parts. The Song of Rodziny Katynskie, Opus 81, for unaccompanied chorus, was finished in 2004 and performed in Kraków in 2005 by the Polish Radio Choir.
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