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(Soundbite of music)

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're listening to the work of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, the second movement from his Symphony No. 3. It became a surprise hit on the British pop charts when it was released in the early 1990s. We play it for you now because Henryk Gorecki died today.

NPR's Tom Huizenga has this remembrance.

TOM HUIZENGA: Gorecki will forever be remembered for a single piece of music -his third symphony, which he called the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." At the heart of the music are three texts, each about saying farewell.

One of them was found scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison. Gorecki turned these texts into haunting laments, backed by simple, slow-churning surges of gorgeous music.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")

HUIZENGA: Gorecki was little known outside Poland in 1976 when he wrote this symphony. It was criticized at the time for its simplistic style. A few recordings of it had been made, but nothing prepared the composer for the sudden explosion of popularity and radio airplay. The 1992 recording, made by conductor David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw, sold over a million copies. Huge for a classical record.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")

HUIZENGA: Gorecki studied composition at the Academy in Katowice in the 1950s. Early on, he was part of a group of Polish avant-garde composers who wrote music in the dominant atonal style of the day. But he eventually abandoned it for the more reflective, gentle and transcendent style found in the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs."

Why did the symphony move so many people, even those who knew nothing about classical music? In an NPR interview, Gorecki couldn't put his finger on the reason why. Instead, he could only talk about the many letters he'd received about the music. The most incredible one from a 14-year old Swedish girl, a long-term burn victim, who lost her mother when their house caught fire. From her hospital bed, she poured out her heart in a letter that Gorecki paraphrased through an interpreter.

Mr. HENRYK GORECKI (Composer): (Through translator) I have a tape recorder and I have your tapes and albums, and I listen to them and I live only because you write such music. So you have to live and you have to write such music, because I only live because you're writing such music because I can listen to it and it brings some joy in my life.

HUIZENGA: Gorecki's Symphony made him the most talked about composer in classical music for a few years, but he never delivered another piece that caught the imagination of the public like the symphony did. You could call him something of a one-hit wonder. But oh, how wonderful the music is.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")

HUIZENGA: When Gorecki came to NPR it was only three years after the hit recording of his symphony was released, but the composer downplayed his fame.

Mr. GORECKI: (Through translator) I will be extremely happy if some people 100 years from now would listen to some of my notes, because it's not a question of being famous and popular. It's a question what you did and how you did it.

HUIZENGA: Gorecki had been suffering from a variety of illnesses, including a lung infection. He died today in the hospital in his home city of Katowice. He was 76.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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