‘The planets aligned!’ How Górecki’s Third Symphony stormed the 90s pop charts

A profoundly mournful classical work, written by one of Poland’s leading avant-garde composers, vied with REM and Paul McCartney to become a huge bestseller in 1992. Those involved recall a truly surprising hit

“Oh crikey, what can I get for Harriet?” asked an ad in this newspaper three days before Christmas 1992. Alongside images of albums by Enya, Prince, Madonna and REM was one featuring the silhouette of a praying woman and a little-known name not usually featured alongside these multimillion selling artists: Henryk Górecki.

The album in question featured a recording of Górecki’s Symphony No 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a 55-minute work for orchestra and soprano written in 1976. Its three movements, all slow, set Polish texts that reflect on motherhood, religion and death, including a prayer that was inscribed on a wall in the Gestapo’s headquarters in Zakopane by an 18-year-old female prisoner.

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