Symphony Study 54 | Górecki: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

by Glenn on October 6, 2016

Henryk Górecki (1933–2010)
Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Lento (sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile)
Lento e largo (tranquillissimo, catabilissimo, dolcissimo, legatissimo)—Molto lento
Lento (cantabile, semplice)—Lento e largo—Molto lento—Largo ben tenuto

First performance: 4 April 1977,
Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio
Stefania Woytowicz (soprano)

First thing: The name of the composer is pronounced Goretski. I didn’t know that. I’m sure it was some of what I hope was mild and benign xenophobia that kept me from figuring it out. I’m embarrassed to think about the number of times I have seen his name without bothering to figure out how to pronounce it.

I think I was a little afraid of this one. The sub-title, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” doesn’t exactly draw you to it (I have the same reaction to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder—“Songs on the Death of Children”—and I love MAhler). And I seem to recall this music having something to do with Nazis and that made me a little wary, not because I thought there would be something wrong with the composer or his music, but that it might take me to a dark place. I was right about the Nazis but quite wrong about the dark place.

I saw this recording years ago. It seemed like it was everywhere. Turns out it was. Michael Steinberg tells the story:

“In April 1992, Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of Górecki’s fifteen-year-old Symphony No. 3 conducted by David Zinman and with Dawn Upshaw as the soprano soloist. Within a few weeks it was at the top of the classical charts in the United States and Great Britain, and in Britain it rode high on the pop charts as well. In two years more than 700,000 copies were sold, which is at least 400 times the expected lifetime sales of a recording of a symphony by a relatively unknown twentieth-century composer.”

Steinberg wonders how many of those copies have actually been listened to or have just been played in the background at parties.

This is absolutely gorgeous music. Stunningly beautiful, peaceful, transcendent. And surprisingly tonal, making this atypical of Górecki’s music (as I understand it—this was my first exposure to his music as far as I remember).

The only thing: it’s very slow … the whole way, which begs the question of how one programs this, or if you program it. Steinberg surprised me by saying this might be music meant for recording only. He went on to say,

“In some ways, this is more a piece for the living room than for the concert hall. If you really want to sink into the music, you can do that more easily at home—no coughing, no dropped programs, no distractions from the stage.”

In the history of the symphony there is a thread of works that take you to the heights—from Beethoven’s Fifth to Mahler’s Fifth, for example. This symphony takes you to quiet waters. Steinberg writes, “To many, this music, with its slow, patient unfolding, represents sublime metaphysical calm; others experience only maddening stasis.” In a way, you have to surrender your expectations about this piece based on more bombastic symphonies. This is an inward journey, not a climb to the peaks. As Steinberg puts it, “[T]he listener’s temperament and musical metabolism” will have something to say about whether you enjoy this music. “Not everyone can slow down to Górecki’s pace.”

Here is what Górecki had to say about this symphony:

“I can tell you that what I write is my commentary on what is happening around me. I don’t live in an ivory tower. I participate in life—the war that went through here, and then that damned Communism, and now all this social upheaval and the changes that are bombarding us. I am not a person who can be different. I absorb these things. My music is my commentary.”

The first movement is a giant arch of sound—27’ long. Right at the end a brief moment of dissonance, but then it’s resolved quietly.

The second movement is the most poignant. The text is “a prayer inscribed on the wall of a prison cell at Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland, by the eighteen-year-old Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna.” In translation, the text reads:

“Mother, no, do not cry,
Queen of Heaven most chaste
Help me always.
Hail Mary.”

While avoiding hysteria, there is a wail to this music near the end of the movement that goes right through you.

The third movement is a folk song—a mother mourning her son who had been lost in battle. I thought it was hard to place the tune in a context. It was both familiar and foreign—Where does this melody come from? Originally, Górecki was going to use a folk tune, but Steinberg quotes Górecki about his ultimate choice: “I composed one of my own, in the style of folk song and using part of a church hymn.”

I’ve listened to this symphony three times, now. My first hearing wasn’t quite fair, during a sleepless night I closed my eyes and let this wash over me. The effect was hypnotic. I didn’t go to sleep, but I wasn’t exactly conscious.

My last listening was a version on the NAXOS label with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Some thoughts on these two recordings.

In terms of overall quality I rate them equal. The difference is in preference.

The Zinman/Upshaw recording is warmer and more close-miked. It’s intimate, but quite comfortable, like a down comforter on a cold night. The control feels rather tight.

The Wit/Kilanowicz has more space—a larger room with more reverb. Somehow it’s a lonelier recording. There’s shelter, but the shelter of, say, a monastery, not a home. And it’s perhaps a little less precise from time to time.