Henryk Gorecki - Symphony No.3: Sorrowful Songs
In 1976, Henryk Gorecki continued his move away from the avant-garde movement within which his first works were lost and having hinted at it in his earlier works, finally wrote the symphony that would act as a catharsis for his feelings as regards man's inhumanity to other men. Given his nationality, Gorecki's work not only looked back as far as a Polish prayer from the fifteenth century but also to more recent events, even to those that would still have been fresh to those who survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. Unsurprisingly, Gorecki's third symphony is an oppressively dark work but it is one of the major symphonies of the last century as well as being the composer's key work. It is also one of the most remarkable fifty-four minutes of music you are likely to hear.
Gorecki's third symphony is not, as might otherwise be expected, a single piece of music that builds on a series of motifs. Instead, befitting its proper title - Symfonia Piesni Zalosnych, or Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs - Gorecki's third symphony is formed by three pieces of music, which form a symmetry around the prayers sung by soprano Dawn Upshaw. The first song of the three is likely to be considered by many to be the major song within the symphony, if only for its length, but its twenty-six minutes, as well as its structure, are matched by and contrasted with the combined lengths of the second and third songs. This first song - Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Cantabile - is a cyclical work, which has been folded around a prayer from the collection of Lysagora Songs of the Holy Cross Monastery from late in the fifteenth century and that sees a mother lament for the loss of her son, "My son, my chosen and beloved / Share your wounds with you mother." If it can be thought of as reaching a peak, it does so around 16m30s before fading back to the instruments that not only open the song but also close it - the double basses - the slow, funereal build of which give the song its feeling of being capable of crushing the listener.
Without the use of contrast to offset this song, the second song - Tranquillissimo - uses a prayer that was found scratched on a wall in cell no.3 in the basement of the Gestapo's headquarters in Zakopane alongside the signature, "Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna 18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944" and which ends with the words, "Support me always / Zdrowas Mario (Ave Maria)." Again, the song is of the loss of life and the relationship between a mother and her child but unlike the first and third songs, this takes the point of view of the child who has been separated from her mother and who knows they will never seen her alive again. If anything, the music here contains even less hope than that of the first song - more recent history hits harder than that of five hundred years ago - but its nine minutes are less uncomfortable than the twenty-six of the first.
The third song - Cantabile Semplice - uses a folk song in the dialect of the Opole region of Poland in which, as with the first song, a mother mourns the loss of her son in which she assumes he as died at the hands of the enemy during an uprising. As expected, the music is much the same as before but one never tires of the slow pace of the symphony. Without there being obvious changes in tempo, the music offers subtle changes such that there is the development of a dynamism that is difficult to predict. Indeed, as one looks at a still image within which one begins to see small, flickering changes, however imaginary, the slow build of music within this symphony becomes more complex with each listen.
What is surprising then is that this is still the most commercially successful classical recording to date such that it crossed over from the classical charts into the standard top 40. There is undoubtedly a number of reasons for this - both the music and the recording is wonderful but there being this recording on a major label can only have helped - but the success of this recording is to be celebrated with the knowledge that it is not only difficult and uncommercial but it was released with neither any obvious simplification of its message nor with any obvious star appeal to promote it. Instead, this is evidence that, occasionally, record buyers do get it right and, if this originally passed you by, it is surely time to correct that error.