Henryk Gorecki: Sweet sorrow

A decade ago, the third symphony of an obscure Polish composer mesmerised millions. Roderic Dunnett on the impact of Henryk Gorecki's modern masterpiece
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Here was something diametrically at odds with most people's idea of "contemporary" music. It was a work that made its statement directly, with the simplest of gestures, a piece whose outpouring of pain and grief seemed to speak to a modern generation, a symphony imbued with an extraordinary spiritual quality.

The disc enjoyed staggering success, selling more than 300,000 copies. Other record companies, such as Naxos, followed, and today there are about a dozen versions in the catalogue. Lionised by Classic FM, the anguished second movement soon became one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever - even breaking into the non-classical charts. Some dubbed it "spiritual minimalism", and likened the work to Sir John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, or to the beguilingly patterned music of Arvo Pärt - although an even closer spiritual parallel might be Steve Reich's Holocaust elegy, Different Trains.

In fact, Gorecki composed his Third Symphony in 1976, almost two decades before he became known in the West. For him, it marked a turning-away from the aggressive modernism of works such as Collisions and Genesis, which embraced uncompromising dissonance almost for its own sake. Rather, it opened the door to pieces such as Beatus Vir (1979) and Totus tuus (1989), sacred choral works whose rich, warm sonorities have earned them a large and unexpected popular following.

One listener swept away by the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" on a first hearing was Nicholas Kenyon, controller of the BBC Proms, where it will be performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton tomorrow. "I really felt from the start that this was a masterpiece," Kenyon enthuses. "It had complete integrity and utter originality. It didn't sound in any way derivative; it hit a vital nerve and seemed to make a completely personal statement. Gorecki uses extremely small means to create a very big musical effect. The way he deploys such simple material is very daring; yet the work's cumulative impact - it runs for almost an hour - is shattering and overpowering.

"It will make an interesting comparison with another work we included in this summer's Proms, Tippett's The Vision of St Augustine - a work of amazing complexity, almost from the opposite end of the musical spectrum, yet one that touches on much the same issues of transcendence and eternity. I hope the Gorecki will benefit from the intimate atmosphere of our late-night Proms. It will be fascinating to see whether the work still retains its original power to move an audience deeply."

Yet why should a symphony with such patently simple chords and endless repetitions - the arch-like first movement, launched by dark, mysterious double basses, runs to more than 25 minutes - have such a searing effect? For many, the hypnotic ebb and flow of the music alone explains its hushed, imprecatory quality, which owes something to Gorecki's predecessor, Szymanowski. But for others, the profoundly moving, lulling words intoned by the soprano are crucial to the work's charged emotional intensity and universal appeal.

In the first movement, Christ's mother, Mary, addresses her dying son from the foot of the Cross; in the third, based on a folksong from Poland's Opole region, a mother weeps for her son whom she believes has perished in a conflict; while the piercingly sad central movement is based on a prayer incised on her prison cell wall in Zakopane in 1944 by 18-year-old Wanda Blazusiakowna, invoking the Virgin Mary and asking her mother not to weep for her.

David Atherton conducted the symphony's first UK performance in 1987, several years before it became fashionable. Atherton got to know the composer well, and has tirelessly promoted the symphony all over the world. "I first heard it in the early 1980s, long before Gorecki was well known in the West. Previously I had thought of him as the wild man of Polish music, writing incredibly dissonant and radical music. But I was immediately struck by its sheer honesty - it has a direct appeal and is written straight from the heart, with a means of expression both simple and profound. It pre-empted minimalism and was years ahead of its time.

"Sustaining an incredible intensity over such a long time-span is a phenomenal test of stamina and commitment for all the performers - it's one of the most individually gruelling, yet satisfying, works in the contemporary repertoire."

At the late-night Proms performance, the soprano soloist will be Susan Bullock, who makes her Royal Opera House debut in Wozzeck next season. The words of the symphony, she suggests, are not just intensely dramatic, but have a clear resonance for us today: "The first song is full of dark resignation; the second is strangely tranquil despite adversity; and the last feels almost conversational: 'Why did you kill my son?' the mother asks; 'Why shall I never see him again?' The mother's grief seems every bit as relevant now, in an age when we are confronted with suicide bombings and the pointless murder of young people in our inner cities, as at any time.

"There's an almost mesmeric quality to the music that really brings home the tragedy of the words. Other composers might have set the same texts in a kind of hysterical, emotional way; but these are so quietly effective, almost as if uttered in shock - reflecting the terrible numbness that comes when you realise someone you love has been taken from you for ever."

Gorecki's Third Symphony is performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 tomorrow at 10pm (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)