It is said that when a Los Angeles classical radio station first played the Symphony No. 3 (”Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki in the early 1990s, cars could be seen pulling to the side of the freeways, because the drivers’ eyes were full of tears.
In the early 1970s Polish composer Henryk Gorecki was still beloved by the practitioners and devotees of avant-garde classical music, as his early works had hit all the right notes: modern, experimental, atonal, dissonant, serialist. Gorecki was “a fiery figure, fashionable only among a small circle of modern-music aficionados.”
True, a couple of Gorecki’s more recent choral pieces had made some folks in that world nervous, wary, as the composer seemed therein to be distancing himself from noise, nonsense, and chaos. But none of these people were prepared for his Third Symphony, which debuted at Royan in France on April 4, 1977.
For Gorecki, like such classical composers as Beethoven, Debussy, and Dvorak before him, had been drawn into the traditional folk music and stories of his people. And from these, and from plumbing the depths of what it means to be human, Gorecki with his Third Symphony fashioned a work transcendent—mournful, aching, beautiful.
The symphony was savaged. All six critics who reviewed the Royal premiere condemned it. Heniz Koch complained that it “drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes,” while Dietmar Polaczek dismissed it as “simply adding to the decadent trash that encircle[s] the true pinnacles of avant-gardism.” The Third Symphony was pronounced an embarrassing failure, Gorecki scorned as a man who had unaccountably gone off the rails.