It is said that when a Los Angeles classical radio station first played the Symphony No. 3 (”Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki in the early 1990s, cars could be seen pulling to the side of the freeways, because the drivers’ eyes were full of tears.
In the early 1970s Polish composer Henryk Gorecki was still beloved by the practitioners and devotees of avant-garde classical music, as his early works had hit all the right notes: modern, experimental, atonal, dissonant, serialist. Gorecki was “a fiery figure, fashionable only among a small circle of modern-music aficionados.”
True, a couple of Gorecki’s more recent choral pieces had made some folks in that world nervous, wary, as the composer seemed therein to be distancing himself from noise, nonsense, and chaos. But none of these people were prepared for his Third Symphony, which debuted at Royan in France on April 4, 1977.
For Gorecki, like such classical composers as Beethoven, Debussy, and Dvorak before him, had been drawn into the traditional folk music and stories of his people. And from these, and from plumbing the depths of what it means to be human, Gorecki with his Third Symphony fashioned a work transcendent—mournful, aching, beautiful.
The symphony was savaged. All six critics who reviewed the Royal premiere condemned it. Heniz Koch complained that it “drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes,” while Dietmar Polaczek dismissed it as “simply adding to the decadent trash that encircle[s] the true pinnacles of avant-gardism.” The Third Symphony was pronounced an embarrassing failure, Gorecki scorned as a man who had unaccountably gone off the rails.
Eight years later, in 1985, French filmmaker Maurice Pialat used a five-minute snippet of the third movement of Gorecki’s Third Symphony over the end credits to his film Police. A soundtrack album sold well, though buyers found little information there about the work or the composer. Meanwhile, the British industrial-music outfit Test Dept began using the symphony as a backdrop for concert video-collages.
Unaware that the Third Symphony had been pronounced anathema, people in Britain and France increasingly tried to get their hands on the work. BBC Radio 3 started playing it regularly in the late 1980s, as interest in all things Polish increased in the West, in those final days of the Soviet empire. Finally, in 1992, a 1991 performance of the complete work by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, was released in Britain and the United States by Elektra Nonesuch. And in 1993 director Peter Weir employed more than 10 minutes of the first movement of the Third Symphony for the climactic scene and end credits of his finest film, Fearless.
By the end of that year, the Elektra release of Gorecki’s Third Symphony had crossed over from the classical to the pop charts, where it outperformed people like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Those were the days referenced in the introductory paragraph to this piece, when drivers, confronted with the Third Symphony streaming from their car radios, pulled off the road, to settle on the shoulder. Because, from that music, water from the moon had clouded their eyes, and, for a time, they could see nothing but what it means to be in this world, and human. In the Third Symphony, “the orchestra,” John Rockwell once wrote, “breathes and pulses like a wounded organism.”
Observes this reviewer:
[T]his is still the most commercially successful classical recording to date, such that it crossed over from the classical charts into the standard top 40. [T]he 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[.]
The Third Symphony is modal and medieval, and has been described as a work of “holy simplicity.” Which I believe is also a term apt for my two other favorite 20th Century classical pieces: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, based on a 16th-Century Phrygian melody; and Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which, upon its first public performance, was accurately described as “show[ing] supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday,” and which came to Williams as he watched troop ships cross the English Channel at the dawn of WWI. As he stood scribbling notes for the piece, Williams was arrested by a British policeman, who believed he was jotting down secret code. Which he absolutely was. Just not of the type the policeman suspected.
The Third Symphony began with four Silesian folk songs presented, at Gorecki’s request, to the composer in 1973 by Polish folklorist Adolf Dygacz. Gorecki had become possessed of a desire to explore the traditional music from the area where he was born.
Of the pieces he received from Dygacz, Gorecki was most intrigued by a 19th Century melody involving a woman searching for the body of a son lost in war. “I do not know if a ‘professional’ poet would create such a powerful entity out of such terse, simple words,” Gorecki has said of this melody, known in Polish as Kajze mi sie podziol moj synocek mily. “It is not sorrow, despair or resignation, or the wringing of hands: it is just the great grief and lamenting of a mother who has lost her son.” This melody was eventually transformed into the third movement of the Third Symphony.
Later that same year, Gorecki became aware of an inscription left on the wall of a Gestapo prison in the southern Polish town of Zakopane.
“There was a man living in Zakopane who wrote a book on the villa where the Nazis had a prison. The book wasn’t very good, and the man who wrote it was an informer, but he collected everything that concerns the region. I haven’t seen the inscription because somebody probably painted over it. The only trace is in the photos in the book.” There were lots of fairly ordinary inscriptions in the book, he says, but this one stood out from all the others because of its poetry and the youthfulness of its author. The words in Polish read: “No, Mother, do not weep. Most chaste Queen of Heaven, Support me always. Hail Mary.” The signature read: “Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna, aged 18, detained since 25 September, 1944.”
Gorecki explained the importance of these words to him, to members of the USC Symphony Orchestra, preparing in October 1997 a performance of the Third Symphony:
I would like to add something here about the inscription. In prison, the whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: “I’m innocent,” “Murderers,” “Executioners,” “Free me,” “You have to save me”—it was all so loud, so banal. Adults were writing this, while here is an eighteen-year-old girl, almost a child. And she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself; whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair. This inscription was something extraordinary. And it really fascinated me: “Mother, do not cry, no. The purest Queen of Heaven, you always support me. Hail Mary.” Here the inscription ended and I added: “You are full of grace.” Not “Full of grace” as it is in the prayer, but “You are full of . . . “
It is around the words and the heart of Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna that the second movement of the Third Symphony was formed.
For the first movement Gorecki employed a mid-15th Century folk song from the southern Polish city of Opole, in which the Mother of God, speaking to her son on the cross, implores him to “share your wounds with your mother.”
Gorecki, correctly, always resisted easy interpretations of the Third Symphony. But because each of the three movements revolves lyrically around the loss of a child by a mother, he was unable to stop the incrustation of a critical consensus that the Third Symphony was “meant” to invoke the sorrow of a mother whose child has been sacrificed to cruelty, ignorance, violence.
Those who settled on this consensus ignored the facts of Gorecki’s own life. For Gorecki’s mother, a pianist, died at the age of 26, on December 6, 1935—her son Henryk’s second birthday.
Upon the belated success of the Third Symphony, Gorecki was informed that he had successfully tapped into “New Age music.” Gorecki replied that he didn’t know what “New Age music” was; neither, he said, did he know what a “New Age” is. He likewise dismissed suggestions that the symphony is cabined to Christian spirituality. Par-ticularly because of the second movement, he was informed that he had composed a work in memory of the Holocaust. He replied that in the 1960s he sought to produce a work in response to Auschwitz, but was unable to do so; the Third Symphony, he said, was not that work.
He also said this:
“Many of my family died in concentration camps. I had a grandfather who was in Dachau, an aunt in Auschwitz. You know how it is between Poles and Germans. But Bach was a German too—and Schubert, and Strauss. Everyone has his place on this little earth. That’s all behind me. So the Third Symphony is not about war; it’s not a Dies Irae; it’s a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”
Gorecki also requested that people not get too obsessed with the words, as the meat of the piece is in the music—in, as Rockwell expressed it, “the orchestra breath[ing] and puls[ing] like a wounded organism.”
What makes the Third Symphony great art is that Gorecki fashioned from his own pain a work that inflicts and transcends pain in everybody. One that, as Chia Han-Leon put it truly here, “radiates within its darkness a powerful and universal light.”
Han-Leon’s appreciation of the Third Symphony is very nice; I’ll quote here only the close of it, which addresses the final minutes of the third movement:
The story from The Kalevala depicts the mother looking for the body of her murdered son. Fortunately for Lemminkainen, through his mother’s unrelenting faith and love, she eventually recovers his shattered body, re-assembles it and brings him back to life.
But here, in the reality of the Holocaust, the mother cannot find her boy. She traverses great distances, as portrayed in the music with its insistent ostinato. Resigned, she asks the songbirds of God to sing for him, and beseeches the flowers to make for him a bed of peace for which he may sleep forever. By her love, the music surges into the radiant luminosity of A major—transcending all cultures, all peoples, all places, all time.
sing for him
little songbirds of god
for his mother
cannot find him
and god’s little flowers
may you bloom all around
so that my son
may sleep happily
It is now time for the little songbirds of god to sing for Gorecki himself, for god’s little flowers to bloom around his own vacated corporeal container, for Henryk Gorecki, son and father to us all, to sleep happily. Because Henryk Gorecki passed away yesterday at the age of 76.
His health was never good, and it was a triumph of the spirit that he lived as long as he did. Shortly after his mother’s death he was afflicted with tuberculosis; he’d been regularly visited by various assorted ailments and plagues ever since. His condition was not improved by the fact that his home in southern Poland became one of the most polluted places on the planet:
These days the composer works in a small house he bought 10 years ago, about a mile and a half outside Katowice. With a daughter, Anna, a pianist who recently made her London debut at Wigmore Hall, and a son, Mikolaj, who is a composer and student at the music academy, and his wife, Jadwiga, who is a piano teacher, there is not a lot of room for Gorecki in the family’s city apartment. “I couldn’t work with all that music,” he laughed.
At his house—a small garden, a few spruces and a hedge—he has a piano, some other instruments and some peace, increasingly interrupted by the telephone. But the industrial pollution that impregnated Katowice during the 40 years of Communism is overwhelming, even there. “The water is terrible and the air is foul—the whole area is the most heavily polluted place on earth. Changes take place in babies after they are born,” he says. He reveres the earth, displaying his big hands and remarking that his grandfather was a farmer. But he wouldn’t dream of growing vegetables in the garden. “It’s too polluted, but some people do grow them.”
Every three days his house shakes from tremors in the coal mines. “All the glasses shake and I think the house is going to fall,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for all this pollution it would be wonderful because there are a lot of pine forests, no humidity, no bogs, no marshes.”
Gorecki crafted a Fourth Symphony shortly before his death, but it was not performed in his lifetime; the scheduled premiere in London this fall was postponed because of his ill-health.
Gorecki’s fellow composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, told the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that Gorecki “remained faithful to himself until the very end. He was an independent mind, a man of moral integrity, someone who did not harbour hatred towards anybody.”
Gorecki wrote three string quartets for the Kronos Quartet—the only such quartets he ever completed. Kronos mainstay David Harrington yesterday wrote:
Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward. There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12 years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the right moment mysteriously arrived.
I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said, “David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet No. 4. You choose.” I chose String Quartet No. 4. But it looks like I will have to wait.
There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the Universe.
“When you think about the great composers, you have to be humble,” Gorecki told the Washington Post in 1995. “I will die without learning the secrets of Chopin, Bach, Mahler.
“What is it? You hear very simple sounds; you look at the notes in a Schubert song and there is nothing special, but it is a masterpiece. Why? A mystery.”
Not long ago Gorecki said: “Before I die, I would like to learn what music is all about.”
Oh, I think you got it, Henryk. ; )
I want to close with some remarks pulled from a transcript of an audio recording of Gorecki rehearsing the Third Symphony with the USC Symphony Orchestra in October 1997. I think they show what kind of man he was.
I know what kind of man he was to me: somebody who made me feel, intensely, the terrible beauty of the exile of existence. And for that, for me, he was an angel.
After Gorecki’s remarks, I wanted to embed the entirety of the first movement of the Third Symphony, which is 27 minutes long. But, alas, it’s just not out there on the tubes. What can I say? We work in the dark; we do what we can. So I’m embedding instead three scattered portions of the first movement: the first video offers the opening minutes; the second video presents 10 minutes from around the middle of it; the third shows how Peter Weir used part of the first movement to close his film Fearless.
A word of context for this last: the protagonist at the dawn of the film has survived a horrific plane crash. But he has not returned to the world. “I’m not dead,” he says—but that is a very different thing from “I’m alive.” Caught between worlds, believing he is impervious to death, he challenges it: early in the film, and although highly allergic to them, he consumes, without ill effect, a plate of strawberries. As the scene offered below opens, the scene that closes the film, he is weary, and wants to settle in one place or the other—life, or death. This time when he consumes strawberries, they have the old effect. And he must then choose. And is brought into life, as are we all, by the love of another human being. And, this time, he says not “I’m not dead.” But “I’m alive.”
Let’s have a little break here, so that we don’t get too tired. Do you have any questions or problems? First issue: very often after the fourth beat there is a feeling of waiting for something. We wait for the fourth note . . . and the flow of the music stops . . . Or maybe my heart stops.
I have stage fright when I face you. I do not do this every day. Instead I listen to music and I’m more interested in playing myself than conducting. But I will improve before tomorrow if I live that long.
The most important problem for me at the end of the twentieth century is the continual lack of time. We are always in an awful hurry and still we waste an incredible amount of time, for instance in front of the TV or in a car. While I do like some aspects of our “fast” civilization—I love to fly in airplanes, I am fascinated with cosmic adventures, trips to the moon or Mars—and we do live in astounding times, still, here, in this music, we have to surrender ourselves to this other dimension of time. We have to slow down. Only then the sonority will be fantastic: the higher the music will go, the more distinctly it will sound. I dream of writing such tranquil music. I do not want to compose anything that echoes the modern “rush”—the cell phones, the telephones and faxes. It has to be calm. Life is too beautiful to be wasted in this way, by rushing things so much.
How should I explain it to you? Perhaps you should think about an elevator: you leave behind the basement of everyday life, filled with noises, distractions and anxieties, and you take the elevator up to the tenth floor, or even into the sky of timelessness. When you are in this music, time slows down, it is as if you were in heaven, it is like eternity. Do you understand what I want to achieve there? Total calm.
Let us play it again.
This is a mother’s song. This song has to be expressed both by the orchestra and the soloist. It has to be contemplative in mood, but still maintain the tempo. It approximates the speed of slow walking, when one walks alone, lost in thought. We have to enter into this mood. It is as if we were walking, or even slowly dancing. You have to think about walking here.
For me it is a very difficult movement because I do not usually engage in conducting and I do not know how to enchant you with my hand movements, but music carries me away and I may at some spots—and please forgive me if I do—make a wrong movement at a certain time, but you know the score and could play on. So then do not look at me, at what I am doing, but listen to each other, listen to what happens around you.
I am sorry for these mistakes. But I think that we will be able to communicate soon.