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Henryk Gorecki RIP

Date Published: 19-11-2010

The death of Henryk Gorecki has robbed the world of one of the major
composers of our time. There is a good case to be made which says
the 20th century began, from a musical point of view, with Stravinsky’s
savage Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring. What followed was
the bloodiest – and most savage – century in all recorded history. Hitler
usually gets the blame; but how about Stalin who slaughtered, in peace
time, at least 30 million of his own citizens? Or Chairman Mao who
famously said “who cares if we lose a million or two or ten”? Or Pol Pot
and his Killing Fields in south-east Asia? Or Mladic?

Gorecki’s Third Symphony, commemorated in Tony Palmer’s
extraordinary film, is - in these terms - the appropriate conclusion to
such a barbaric century. Banned for almost 20 years in his communist
Poland when Gorecki was a ‘non-person’, the music eventually achieved
worldwide success with the Nonsuch recording, Dawn Upshaw and the
London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman. It was a sign that its
message had finally struck home. In excess of several million sales for a
classical CD can’t be without significance.

When in the last movement, having watched a passing rabble of cock-
happy soldiers devastate her village, the singer begs them: “why did you
kill my son? Where is my son”? over and over again, what mother from
the beginning of time, mothers whose sons have been pointlessly killed in
Afghanistan or Bosnia or Iraq, has not cried out in just such agony?

When Palmer’s film, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with the same
cast, was released on DVD, the BBC’s Music magazine (which gave the
DVD an unprecedented 10 stars) wrote: “it reduced me to tears and made
me feel sick in my stomach and in my soul.”

“I wrote the music as a witness….and a warning”, Gorecki says in the
film. That says it all.


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