MUSIC / Record breaker: Three months ago he was a household name in only a handful of households. Now Henryk Gorecki is the first living composer to top the classical album chart, and fast climbing the pop one. How has he done it?

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A MAN goes into a music shop in Brussels. He is grey-haired, late-middle-aged, with a pronounced limp. In every other way he is nondescript - until he reaches the counters where the sheets of music are kept. He pulls them out and piles them up, ravenously, like an orphan in Hamleys. His face, which all morning has been a caricature of solid central-European peasantry, starts to gleam. He laughs. Someone mentions lunch; he laughs some more.

His name is Henryk Gorecki, pronounced Goretski, and a shop is a fitting place to find him. He's a composer, and until this year he was a pretty obscure one, reputed to be a recluse in the mountains of Silesia. Then something happened which has already grown weary with telling. If you don't know that Gorecki's 3rd Symphony is in the pop Top 10, outselling Madonna, and seldom not to be heard on Classic FM, you must be a recluse yourself.

It has been trumpeted as the ultimate breakthrough in cross-cultural communication, the ultimate proof that classical music was finally reaching a mass market, the ultimate fable of rags to riches, and the making of a modest man who is variously reported to be bemused, gratified and unimpressed by his success - a religious man whose only ambitions were spiritual, and who thought Madonna was the mother of God.

The truth is more prosaic. Henryk Gorecki is adjusting quite comfortably to fame. He was in Brussels to judge a composers' competition and take a sensible interest in the city's chocolate shops. No one pestered him for autographs and he was not mobbed in the street, although he spent some energy trying to shake off a reporter from a British Sunday paper who, he complained, 'didn't know what a string quartet was - stupid woman'.

The laughter in the music shop had come as a surprise. Gorecki takes the burden of being an artist in modern Poland very seriously; and there is no escaping that burden in his music, which tends towards a monumental scale of address and grandly tragic gestures that reduce the pace to a funereal stealth. The 3rd Symphony has three movements, all marked Lento (slow), and a subtitle, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, that relates to texts sung by a soprano soloist. One of them is the fragmentary prayer of a young girl carved on the wall of a Gestapo cell near Auschwitz during the German occupation, and its emotive charge is representative of the concerns of a whole generation of Polish artists. 'These have been hard times for my country,' says Gorecki, in a slow, solemn voice that matches his music, 'and for those of us who have spent most of our lives subject either to the Germans or the Russians. Never free. We have all been through the same thing, and what can we do but comment on it? Artists in Poland are delivering not just art but experience. Principally, the experience of pain.'

GORECKI'S pain started early. He was born in 1933 in the unlovely Silesian coal-mining belt of south-west Poland, and his mother died when he was two, leaving him to be brought up by his father, a railway clerk. During the occupation the whole family became resistance fighters. 'My grandfather died in Dachau, my aunt in Auschwitz, which was close to where we lived, and my uncle in another camp. Of course, I was very young; but I knew what

was happening. And when the war ended it merely meant a change of masters.'

Gorecki feels no sympathy for Russia. He has never visited the country, and shrugs off any idea of cultural affinity between it and Poland. 'Let me tell you two stories. In 1831, when the Russians came to Poland they burned Chopin's house and threw his piano on to the street and smashed it. In 1917, during the Revolution, they did the same to Szymanowski's house. These are the greatest Polish composers; and for me, Chopin is the greatest of all composers. What more can I say?'

One thing that went right was that Gorecki came to maturity as a composer in the mid- Fifties, at the time of the Polish Spring, when the Soviet grip relaxed and there was sudden access to the new music of the West. Like many Polish artists hungry for forbidden fruit, he threw himself into the disciplines of modernism and attracted a respectable notoriety (acknowledged by Boulez, Stockhausen and the Darmstadt avant-garde) with a batch of scores that were violent, brash and 'difficult'.

'I remember these times with pleasure because they were a great reawakening for Polish music, and they began with the Warsaw Autumn Festival of 1956 which went on to be an annual symbol of resistance to the Soviet system. Looking back, I don't know how we got away with it year after year: to the Soviets we were terrible radicals. They used to send Russian composers over for the Warsaw Autumn but they always came with minders and they weren't allowed to speak with us. I remember leaving a concert when a voice behind me said: 'Mr Gorecki, don't look round, please carry on walking, I just wanted to say I admire your music'. He was a Russian composer who didn't dare be seen addressing me to my face. Can you imagine the farce of having to hold an innocent conversation about music behind your back because this was so subversive?'

In 1963, though, Gorecki gave every appearance of going soft. He reached 30, he got married (which may or may not be significant), and he started to write tunes: specifically, a work called Three Pieces in Old Style which gave his music a disarmingly simple melodic character which has dominated it ever since. Instead of complicated dissonances, there are basic modal harmonies rooted in music of the distant, medieval past and slow repetitions: often alternating chords that saw backwards and forwards with hypnotic regularity while a gently flowing vocal line stretches across them. Critics call it Holy Minimalism, hinting at some relationship with the glossy, hi-tech repetitive music of composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams in the United States, but more particularly with the European spiritual equivalent of John Tavener and Arvo Part.

Gorecki doesn't care for either comparison. 'I'm not a minimalist. I barely know what minimal music is: you can't buy American scores in Poland. I've never met John Adams, although I know he conducts my music sometimes. And Tavener? Maybe I've heard some Tavener, but I couldn't say what.'

He is equally dismissive of attempts to analyse the overnight transformation in his style. To critics it was a suspect move, and the story he tells about being challenged to write a melody and wanting to prove that he could is unconvincing. Total changes of artistic direction are not so superficially accounted for. Did he feel in 1963, as many composers have come to feel since, that modernism was a temporary diversion from the mainstream? Was he calculating for the bigger audience that easier music could hope to reach? He says he doesn't know.

'For me, the music never changed. It's deceptive, this idea that what I write today is easier than it was before. With so-called difficult music, orchestras can get away with playing badly: no one notices. With my music now you notice, and so it's more challenging to play, not less. If the avant-garde is what truly challenges, then who is to say I am not the avant- garde?' A fair point, borne out by the premiere of the 3rd Symphony, which took place in a fiercely modernist festival at Royan, France, where its lyrical archaism must have been the most disconcerting thing the audience was faced with. By such means are the certainties of new and old turned on their heads. But his denial of common ground with Part and Tavener is harder to accept. Not only do they share the phenomenon of being living classical composers who have acquired cult status beyond the universe of classical concert- goers, they have done it with essentially the same resources: slow, spare, simple, ancient- sounding music that would be shallow if it did not come with the applied intensity of a spiritual objective. They are both, for want of a better term, religious composers; and that dimension of their work is held to be one reason for their appeal, quite apart from being easy listening.

Gorecki too is probably definable as a religious composer, although he doesn't care to talk about it and is evasive when pressed. Certainly, he is a religious man who writes religious music and has, in the past, made a political stand by doing so. He has a long association with the Pope, that began with commissions for liturgical choral works when Karol Wojtyla was still a cardinal in Warsaw; and there have been other scores to commemorate successive papal visits home, born out of a loyalty that at one point cost Gorecki his job as head of the music academy at Katowice. It was in 1979 and there was a row over whether the Pope should be invited to visit the city. The Party said no. Gorecki argued yes. 'And there was a major collision. They forced me to resign, and thereafter I was treated as though I was dead. My name was removed from the records. My students weren't allowed to say they had studied with me. And if I hadn't resigned I really think they might have killed me, although it would have been a bit messy. It was serious business to take on the Party.'

That Gorecki did take on the Party, and did it again in Miserere, a large-scale work commemorating police violence against Solidarity, makes him a hero; but does it make him a religious composer? Much of his oeuvre - including string quartets, concertos and instrumental music - has no obvious religious programme. But his work invariably harbours transcendental qualities that invite some kind of spiritual reading; and in his roundabout way he doesn't deny the possibility. 'Bach said his music existed in service to God. I don't necessarily say that. But if you heard my work and thought it served God, I'd be happy.'

ONE THING you can hardly avoid asking Gorecki now is whether being in the pop charts makes him happy; and again, you don't get a straight answer. It certainly strengthens his position in Poland, where he has always been overshadowed by Penderecki and Lutoslawski, two composers for whom he has no warmth: 'Poland divides up, one half for Lutoslawski, the other for Penderecki: I have nothing in common with either. They do not like my music and I am not interested in talking about them. I prefer to talk about what I like: the sun, the mountains.' Something clearly went wrong there in the past, and he won't be drawn on it.

But reports of Gorecki's hermit-like obscurity have been exaggerated. Tony Palmer, who is making a film on him for the South Bank Show, rang the Polish state record company for information recently and received the magnificent reply 'Gorecki? Never heard of him'; but the fact is that he has been fairly faithfully recorded over the years and enjoys a long-established reputation in the contemporary music world. He hasn't travelled much, but that started to change in 1987 when the British- based music publisher Boosey & Hawkes signed him up and began to promote him more effectively. In 1989, the London Sinfonietta held a weekend festival of his music at the South Bank, including an acclaimed performance of the 3rd Symphony. It continued to champion him through to recording the 3rd Symphony last year: the one that all the fuss is about, that averages 8,000 sales a day (a figure most contemporary orchestral CDs achieve in a year), and that went gold this month - Warner Classics was just arranging the presentation of a silver disc when sales topped 100,000 and a respray had to be ordered.

So Gorecki is no new discovery. Nor is his symphony. It was written in 1976 and had been recorded three times before the Sinfonietta CD, once as a soundtrack spin-off from Gerard Depardieu's film Police after the extract used for the title sequence brought an avalanche of enquiries. And that was in 1985. Quite separately, and in a different recording, it took America by storm in 1989. British audiences in fact are only catching up.

The big question is, why? Why does this piece appeal so potently to so many listeners? Warner chooses to think it's a simple matter of quality and has been issuing statements that proclaim Gorecki's 3rd as one of the supreme masterpieces of music history. More realistically, they describe its soothing peacefulness as the perfect wind-down to a hard day - which relegates it to muzak status. The truth is probably midway. Gorecki is a technically astute composer with a genius for building and sustaining massive forms from limited material, for organising time and convincing you that however slow, however repetitive, his music proceeds exactly as it has to and for not a moment longer. There is a sense in which he and his co-gospellists of spiritual simplicity can genuinely be said to be cleansing the congealed palate of contemporary music with something fresh, astringent and effective at a deeper level than easy listening. And for Gorecki himself the 3rd Symphony has always been a key work: 'I knew that 17 years ago when I was writing it. I knew then what I had.'

What he didn't know was that it would be an open cheque to a comfortable life. Even now its earning power hasn't fully registered: it looks set to be not just a best-seller but a long- runner, a musical answer to A Brief History of Time. He is 60 this year, in uncertain health, and living not on a mountainside but in the grim industrial city of Katowice with his wife and two children. 'Not by choice. My children are students, they need to be here. But myself and my wife, if we had the chance we'd move to somewhere green - the Tatra Mountains where we rent a house for holidays.' Surely, I suggested, he could buy a house there? He screwed his face up, stroked his chin and gave me the feeling that this was a very stupid question. 'Houses in the Tatra are expensive.'

(Photographs omitted)