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Henryk Gorecki

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Henryk Górecki

Biography

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (6 December 1933, Czernica, Poland – 12 November 2010, Katowice, Poland) was a Polish composer of contemporary classical music.

Górecki's family lived modestly, though both parents had a love of music. His father Roman was an amateur musician, while his mother Otylia played piano. Henryk developed an interest in music from an early age, though he was discouraged by both his father and new stepmother to the extent that he was not allowed to play his mother's old piano. He persisted, and in 1943 was allowed to take violin lessons with Paweł Hajduga, a local amateur musician, instrument maker, sculptor, painter, poet and peasant philosopher. In the early 1950s, Górecki studied in the Szafrankowie Brothers State School of Music in Rybnik. Between 1955 and 1960, he studied at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice.

In 1965 Górecki joined the faculty of his alma mater in Katowice, where he was made a lecturer in 1968, and then rose to provost before resigning in 1979 in protest of the government's refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice.

Around this time, he came to believe the Polish Communist authorities were interfering too much in the academy's activities, and called them "little dogs always yapping". As a senior administrator but not a member of the Party, he was in almost perpetual conflict with the authorities in his efforts to protect his school, staff and students from undue political influence. In 1979, he formed a local branch of the "Catholic Intellectuals Club", an organisation devoted to the struggle against the Communist Party (Polish United Workers' Party).

In 1981, he composed his Miserere for a large choir in remembrance of police violence against the Solidarity movement. In 1987, he composed Totus Tuus for John Paul II's visit to Poland.

Górecki's music covers a variety of styles, but tends towards relative harmonic and rhythmical simplicity. He is considered a founder of the New Polish School. According to Terry Teachout, Górecki's "more conventional array of compositional techniques includes both elaborate counterpoint and the ritualistic repetition of melodic fragments and harmonic patterns."

According to critic Alex Ross, no recent classical composer has had as much commercial success as Górecki. He became a leading figure of the Polish avant-garde during the post-Stalin cultural thaw. His Anton Webern-influenced serialist works of the 1950s and 1960s were characterized by adherence to dissonant modernism and influenced by Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki and Kazimierz Serocki. He continued in this direction throughout the 1960s, but by the mid-1970s had changed to a less complex sacred minimalist sound, exemplified by the transitional Symphony No. 2 and the Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).

Górecki was largely unknown outside Poland until the late 1980s. In 1992, 15 years after it was composed, a recording of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs with soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor David Zinman, released to commemorate the memory of those lost during the Holocaust, became a worldwide commercial and critical success, selling more than a million copies and vastly exceeding the typical lifetime sales of a recording of symphonic music by a 20th-century composer. Apart from two brief periods studying in Paris and a short time living in Berlin, Górecki spent most of his life in southern Poland.


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