Górecki was born in Czernica, in southern Poland. He did not study music seriously until he was in his twenties, when he began to study in Katowice. Later, while continuing his studies in Paris, Górecki was able to hear works by Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen which were suppressed by the Polish government. Górecki eventually became a music professor in Katowice, but he resigned his post in the late 1970s in protest against the government's refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit the city.
Górecki's music covers a variety of styles, but tends to be harmonically relatively simple. His first works were in the same avant garde style as that of Pierre Boulez or other serialists, but his later music is more often compared to minimalism, often being labelled as "holy minimalism". Like Arvo Pärt, with whom he is also compared, his works often reflect his Catholic religious beliefs.
Górecki's best known piece by far is his third symphony, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is written in three movements for orchestra and soprano solo. The words of the first movement are from a 15th century lament, the second movement has words found written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane, and the third movement is a folk song. The music throughout is slow and contemplative, with the first movement an extended canon for strings taking up around half of the entire playing time. A typical performance of the work lasts about fifty minutes.
The work was written in 1976, and premiered the following year. A recording of it released in 1993, with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman and the solo part sung by Dawn Upshaw, became a best seller.