Sorrowful Songs Revisited: Henryk Górecki by Rod MacDonald (article).

May 31, 2014 | By | Reply More

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I first listened to Górecki’s ‘Third Symphony’ on radio and CD 20 years ago. It had a profound effect but, subsequent to that experience, I became reluctant to play it again because I was apprehensive. That may sound odd but the three movement symphony, often referred to as ‘The Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs’, takes us to the border between the living and the dead. It pulls us to a place where lost souls cry out in lamentation, unable to change what has happened in the past and unable to prevent their transference to the afterlife. The piece became popular, outselling virtually every other CD in the classical library and it is still being performed to this day. So why does it have such an effect?

The Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) wrote his ‘Third Symphony’ in late 1976, at a time when Poland was beginning its struggle for independence from the Soviet Bloc, but it really has its roots further back to a period of conflict during the war. With extreme forces pushing from all directions, plus religion and politics thrown in for good measure, Poland is no stranger to war! The composers emerging from this turmoil often had profound things to say! Górecki, despite this, didn’t claim much for his work except to say that it was dedicated to his wife and it was about the relationship between mother and child. He was a hard-nosed character, rather pragmatic and probably didn’t care too much of the opinions of others.

However, do artists create only for their work to take on a new significance in the eyes of others? It happens with music and also works of fiction. It happens with painters, the Edinburgh artist Richard Demarco coming to mind. Meeting him many years ago, Demarco explained that people often see things in his pictures which he never envisaged at the time of painting. The creative process doesn’t stop at the creation but like the expanding universe carries on to have a life in the eyes of the beholders. Do artists really have a monopoly on the significance of their own work or do the public steal it from them? Probably the latter! So it has been with Górecki’s ‘Third Symphony’.

Divided into three movements and lasting fifty-minutes minutes, the first movement is by far the longest and it takes the mind to a minimalist sense of unreality. It begins and ends with eight double basses and ten cellos, the vibrations of which echo through the body, the low-frequency noise travelling like waves of the sea through every fibre from head to foot and, in the middle of this movement, the soprano voice calls through from beyond the grave, such is its effect.

The second movement is probably the most famous. The soprano breaks through with a cry that is both optimistic and despairing at the same time. The orchestra and the voice then combine to carry on to a sustained pitch which seems to last an eternity. The third movement continues with a more prolonged combination of chords which appear to be, with the accompaniment of the soprano, a journey to acceptance and contentment. When listening to this movement, breathing became synchronised with the music and, in the state of tranquillity it imparted, the final ending almost took the breath away from me. Perhaps this isn’t a piece of music to listen to if you’ve been drinking, such is its effect, and maybe not one to explore late at night on your own.

The composer constructed his work around relationships between mother and child, the first being the lament of Mary, as her son Jesus suffered on the cross. This is the trauma she experienced when, unable to take pain on to herself, she cries in anguish. My father, who was a paratrooper during the war, told me, albeit briefly because he didn’t like to talk about such things, that some hopelessly wounded men would cry out for their mother. It was a time when all reason and had gone and there was just the raw emotion of pain and death.

The second movement concerns a Polish woman, Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, imprisoned by the Gestapo during the war and her words of prayer written on the wall of the cell. She asks forgiveness, not for herself, but for the suffering which her mother would experience. As events transpired, en route to Auschwitz, she jumped off the train and escaped until the end of the war. She lived a full life and died only recently.

The final movement shares the experience of loss when a mother grieves for her son missing in action during an uprising in Silesia just after World War I. This soldier has disappeared, never to be found again and it’s the unknown which traumatises the mother’s soul. It’s as if her son has vanished into a void and there is not even a grave on which she can lay flowers. It’s an unending pain!

Listening to the symphony, the uneasy feeling produced by the orchestra and the soprano take you to the edge of reality. Górecki’s initial meaning behind his work still exists but the sphere of influence has broadened to encompass many other events, places and people. Excerpts of the music have appeared in numerous movies and documentaries, in particular, when references to the Holocaust are made. Górecki had actually tried unsuccessfully to write music for the Holocaust on another occasion.


I have a CD of the ‘Third Symphony’ with a picture of the graveyard at Kilcolmin, Tipperary on the front cover which perhaps captures the evocative nature of the music, akin to a lost spirit crying out from the afterlife, mournful of all the unfulfilled hopes and desires that had passed away. You only have to look at the images on the many CDs on offer to see a preponderance of shadows, graves and other mournful scenes.

Górecki died in 2010 and probably didn’t achieve the same popular success with his other works as he did with his ‘Third Symphony’, something which was a source of irritation to some extent. In trying to think of another composer of similar style, the Estonian Arvo Pärt comes to mind, his minimalist and often religious music sharing the same Eastern European ethos. If you want to listen to Górecki, you’ll find multiple examples available for sale and download on many sources and it’s also available on YouTube.

I like to think of myself as being reasonable, rational and not overburdened by emotional anxieties but, along with many others, listening to the ‘Third Symphony’ touches a raw nerve in the psyche, hinting at things which we tend to cover up or overlook in our busy daily lives. As said, experiencing it again was unnerving and while the music is beautiful and serene, it’s also ultimately sad and soul-searching, the minimalist tones and the soprano voice taking your mind to the edge of another world. It’s a world often explored in the pages of fiction, such as in this magazine and it’s a place with a type of intoxicating attraction which is difficult to avoid. If you haven’t listened to this piece of music before, by all means do so but beware of the consequences.

(c) Rod MacDonald 2014

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Category: Culture, Music/Audio

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