Why it’s important to get the facts straight around Górecki’s Third Symphony
Private, yet wildly popular, a composer of violent expressionism and heart-on-sleeve spirituality, Henryk Górecki was always going to attract stories around his life and work. Following his death on Friday many of these, some true, some exaggerated, have resurfaced in his obituaries.
Some of the most misleading information came from BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme. Kirsty Lang interviewed the documentary maker Tony Palmer, who made a film on Górecki for the South Bank Show in the early 1990s, and his contribution was passionate and moving. However, it was in Lang’s introduction to Górecki’s career that the script rather fell apart. (Download an mp3 of the Górecki segments of the show here.)
Górecki’s Third Symphony is the work by which he is by far best known, and unsurprisingly it formed the focus of the memorial. It was composed in 1976 but achieved unprecedented worldwide fame in 1992 after a recording by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta on the Elektra-Nonesuch label was championed by Classic FM and broke into the pop charts. According to Front Row, the Communist authorities had suppressed the work such that it couldn’t be heard in the West until after the Berlin Wall fell, and the Sinfonietta performance was Górecki’s long-awaited first chance to record the work.
But neither of these statements is true. The Third Symphony wasn’t suppressed, in or out of Poland: its first performance was at the prestigious 1977 International Festival of Contemporary Art in Royan, France, and it was performed later the same year at the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music. And the Sinfonietta recording was far from the first: it was first recorded on the Polish state record label, Polskie Nagrania in 1980, and there were several subsequent releases and rereleases before it was taken up by Elektra-Nonesuch.
Moreover, word about the symphony was already circulating among musicians and artists long before 1992: the industrial group Test Department included excerpts from a recording of the symphony as part of a musical collage played on their ‘Unacceptable Face of Freedom’ tour of 1985–6, and it appeared in the soundtrack to Maurice Pialat’s 1985 film Police, starring Gérard Depardieu. The first British performances took place in 1987 and 1988, with the BBC SO and the City of Birmingham SO. In an interview with The Wire magazine in 1991, composer Steve Martland indicated that UK musicians had been trading tapes of the symphony for some time.
Highlighting such errors is more than musicological nitpicking. These details matter because they feed an over-simplistic Cold War mythology: in Front Row’s version of events, the Communist authorities suppress a work of great artistic beauty that only finds a voice in the triumph of capitalism. In fact, the Third Symphony was well-known in Poland through the 1980s. It was in the West that it had to be distributed underground, like samizdat literature, through pirated recordings. At Royan in 1977, Western critics turned against the symphony, questioning whether it even belonged at a festival of modern music, and one composer (possibly Boulez), is reported to have cried ‘Merde!’ as it ended.
The intersections of art and politics during the Cold War were far more complicated than black–white, right–wrong, West–East dichotomies would suggest. As the generation of artists who lived through that time start to leave us, let’s show them enough respect to get the story straight.
Luke Howard has written extensively on the reception history of the Third Symphony; this post draws in particular on his essay ‘Production vs. Reception in Postmodernism: The Górecki Case’, in J. Lochhead and J. Auner, eds.: Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought (Routledge: New York and London, 2002), pp.195–206.