Immerse yourself in Henryk Gorecki at the Barbican

The Polish composer shot to worldwide fame with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, but there is much more to learn about the avant-garde artist, says Michael White

Readers with long memories might recall that back in 1992 a strange thing happened in the modern history of serious music.

A composer virtually unknown outside his native Poland suddenly became world famous – for a single piece he’d written fifteen years before without people taking too much interest in it.

His name was Henryk Gorecki. The piece was his Third Symphony, known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And what happened was that a recording of the score by the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman, with the light, bright, poignantly pure singing of Dawn Upshaw as soprano soloist, went viral after it was taken up on Classic FM.

Listeners were drawn to its slow-moving, spacious otherworldliness. Largely contemplative, it was the very model of ‘relaxing’ music that was Classic FM’s mission statement. And its melancholic narrative of human casualty in time of war – with quotes from desperate, despairing texts discovered scrawled across the cell wall of a Nazi prison – touched collective nerves.

The disc sold over a million copies: more than any other 20th Century symphonic work has ever managed. And Gorecki, a committed Catholic who had always been opposed to Poland’s communist regime, found himself a leading light among the loose group of composers (like John Tavener and Arvo Part) fondly described as Holy Minimalists: all of them producing tuneful, spare and spiritually motivated music.

For Gorecki this was unexpected. As a young man he had been a fully paid-up member of the Eastern European avant-garde, delivering tough, uncompromising scores. His transition to the kind of music that made him famous is explored in a whole day devoted to his work at the Barbican.

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The latest in the BBC’s distinguished series of so –called “Total Immersions” in the output of a single composer, it starts at 11am with talks and discussions, then runs through the afternoon with a string quartet recital, a documentary film, and a concert of choral works by the BBC Singers - ending with an evening BBC Symphony Orchestra concert of Gorecki’s 2nd Symphony, his Harpsichord Concerto, and the first hearing outside Poland of the Kyrie from a Mass setting that remained unfinished at his death in 2010.

For anyone who bought and loved the 3rd Symphony disc but never delved further into the composer’s world, this “Immersion” is a diary date that will reveal all. Turn up as a novice, leave an instant expert.

The Gorecki Total Immersion Day runs from 11am, Sat Oct 3, Barbican. Details:

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