Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Photo by Jorge Bermudez / Unsplash

Disclaimer: Do not mistake this commentary as my general dislike of Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, the “popular” classical writers of that ilk. Mozart’s writings have merit. Nor do not mistake this commentary as an insult to people who love Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and the rest of that crowd. People are entitled their opinions, and I respect that.

Whatever happened to Henryk Górecki? Back in the early 1990s, everyone was obsessed with Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). He was a well-known Polish composer, but, for some reason, his music did not enter the main-stream classical repertoire until the Symphony No. 3 (1976) was released on a 1992 recording. It is a beautiful and melancholy piece written specifically for the grieving mothers who lost their sons, homes, and families in WWII through attacks by the Russians. It is a symphonic lament—by that I mean that not only is the grieving woman lamenting the loss of her own family and country, but the orchestra is lamenting along with her. As if she were not meant to be alone in her grief. The sound of other’s aggrieving wafting in the background. Never overpowering, but always there.

Górecki died in 2010 and his Symphony No. 3 seemed to die along with him. How do the, dare I say, “music appreciators,” those lovers of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and the Beethoven 9 (and all of the other “main-stream” classical “listeners”) avoid such a beautiful, emotional piece? Perhaps, because it is not something that has a tune you can hum on the way out of the theatre. It is intense (even more so if you know the lyrics). It takes you on a very unpleasant journey, but still captures your attention with the solemn, and sometimes, delightfully lilting and hopeful orchestral underscoring of the text.

Back in the early 1990s, I would invite friends over to listen. We would lie on the floor in the dark and just let the music and the emotion flood over us. (I cannot do that anymore. If I get to the floor, it takes me three days to get back to a standing position.) There is a certain mysticism about his music, not unlike his Estonian contemporary Arvo Pärt.

Arvo Pärt, however, is not afraid to go to extremes in his writing, almost to the point of violence. His work Spiegel im Spiegel is a minimalist work that gives your brain a workout in sonority. None too dissimilar to the first movement of the Górecki Symphony No. 3. It is a one long crescendo-decrescendo. It starts from nothing, builds to everything, and then back to nothing.

What happened to Henryk Górecki? His Symphony No. 3 was a huge “hit,” but, I guess, people thought that if you have heard it once or twice that was enough. It was not mindless enough for the “popular” classical crowd.

~ Giles

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