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Henryk Górecki and the symphony that struck an international chord

November 16, 2010 |  9:00 am

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For a fund drive during the summer of 1992, KCRW, the Santa Monica College public radio station, ordered 25 copies of a newly released Nonesuch recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 as a membership premium.

General Manager Ruth Seymour aired a little bit of this slow “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as the Polish composer subtitled his 54-minute score for soprano and orchestra. Written in 1976, it sets texts of lamentation, including a prayer inscribed on the wall of a prisoner’s cell in a Gestapo headquarters in Poland.

Seymour told her listeners to stop what they were doing, light a candle, maybe pour a glass of wine and attend to this important minimal, modal music. Many subscribers said they pulled over to listen. Those 25 premiums were snapped up in an instant. More were ordered.

It didn’t take long for both public and independent radio stations around the country to get wind of this. And by winter, London had jumped on the Górecki bandwagon, as well. The royal family reportedly lighted candles, poured wine and listened, along with bankers chilling out and punk rockers as they came down from amphetamines. One British radio station played the symphony daily for weeks on end. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano on the recording (which also featured David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta), was ogled like a rock star when walking through Piccadilly Circus.

The recording, which sold more than a million copies, reached No. 6 on the U.K. top 10 pop chart and was the No. 1 classical recording in the U.S. for a full year. Hardly a week went by in 1993 without an orchestra somewhere in the world playing Górecki’s Third Symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s contribution to the Los Angeles Festival that summer was a performance of the symphony at the Hollywood Bowl.

Read more about Górecki and the often-overlooked West Coast connection to the composer, who died Friday: "An Appreciation: Henryk Górecki."

-- Mark Swed

Recent and related: Henryk Górecki dies at 76; composer of "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"

Photo: Henryk Górecki acknowledges applause after conducting his Third Symphony at USC in 1997. Credit: Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times

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