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Henryk Gorecki - Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Henryk Gorecki

Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

Dawn Upshaw

Nonesuch 79282

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Henryk Gorecki
Henryk Gorecki
Who would have thought it?

An unknown Polish composer, writing very dark, sombre music, based on deeply religious texts, in a style that does not have instant appeal, but demands the attention of the listener for almost an hour. Hardly the stuff to outsell Madonna and Britany.

And yet, that is what Henryk Gorecki's Symphony no.3 (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) did. In 1993, a recording with Dawn Upshaw and the London Symphonietta topped not only the classical music charts, but the popular charts as well, and remains the best-selling album ever of music by a contemporary composer.

That any classical CD should sell so well is remarkable, but for a contemporary classical piece, full of such depth of feeling to sell over one million copies is unheard of.

And most surprised of all, perhaps, was Henryk Gorecki himself, who never set out to write popular music. He was part of the radical school of composers that included Szymanowski and Serocki who became known as the Polish school, known for their difficult, dissonant sound mass composition style. The group wrote music that dispensed with rhythm and melody and focussed only on tone color - and the harsher, louder and more jarring, the better.

But Gorecki was always an individual whose compositional style has changed with time. He came late to composition but eventually became the Professor of music at the university in Katowice. He studied in Paris, and was influenced by Webern, Stockhausen, and especially Messiaen, their music unavailable in communist-controlled Poland.

Gorecki's biggest source of inspiration, however, has always been his fervent Catholicism and his respect for his Polish cultural heritage, including folk and medieval texts. For Gorecki, music should always have meaning and message.

After the 1960's avant-garde period, Gorecki moved away from dissonance to consonance, away from harshness to harmony. In the 1970's he picked up on the minimalist movement in the west and fused all these ideas and influences into his unique voice.

Symphony no.3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is an hour-long work that demands the attention of the listener. It is made up of three movements, all labelled Lento, their slow, deliberate pace having a ritualistic prayer-like quality, with the intensity of Gregorian chant. They have an extremely slow deliberate harmonic progression and build to a slow controlled climax.

Movement 1 - Lento
sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile - (sustained, tranquil, and song-like)
The first movement is a great, complex canon of deep sorrow. It starts almost inaudibly with the basses, then with utmost slowness, progressively rises through the strings until the entire orchestra is involved in its glory.

At its heart, as the strings suddenly fade, lies a 15th century Polish poem known as the Lamentation of the Holy Cross. The Mother of Christ begs her dying son to speak:
My son, chosen and loved,
Let your mother share your wounds
(Full text below)
At the end of this soprano respite, this brief ray of light, the huge string canon returns, more powerful than before. This time it retreats, and eventually fades into oblivion.

Movement 2 - Lento e largo - tranquillissimo
The second movement is based on a message found scrawled on a Gestapo prison cell wall in 1944 by an 18 year old girl Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna:
No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Help me always.
Hail Mary.
It is heralded by a radiant set of chords that has made the whole work famous, but then quickly darkens. Again, the theme is motherhood, but this time, the child calls out to the mother, both actual and spiritual.

Movement 3 - Lento cantabile semplicez
The final movement is based on folksong, a mother searching for her son.
Where has he gone,
My dearest son?

(Full text below)
Although certainly sorrowful, these diverse texts are linked by the theme of motherhood and motherly love. There is hope and joy, yearning and loss, tenderness and ultimately peace in this music.

Dawn Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw
To what can we attribute its huge popular success? Certainly it is beautiful music, and beauty is attractive. It is unique music, unlike anything else written recently. Dawn Upshaw's singing is delicate and radiant. She soars over the orchestra with an other-worldly voice.

But there must be something more. Gorecki seems to have tapped in to a deep need of people in this most secular and uncertain times, a need for meaning, for spiritual comfort, for security. It is no surprise that other best-selling contemporary composers, such as Arvo Pärt and John Taverner share this theme for “holy minimalism”. and lets not forget the monks of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos whose original Chant recording has now sold over five million copies.

Are we all searching for meaning in a meaningless world?

Henryk Gorecki has moved on from his 1976 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, his style continuing to evolve. Most recently he has been commissioned by the Kronos quartet to write chamber music.

But it is for his Third Symphony that he remains best-known. And this recording in particular that made him famous outside of his homeland.

For an alternative, from the Naxos label there is this recording from the composer's home-town of Katowice with soprano Zofia Kilanowicz and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. A slightly darker rendition but also a little richer in tone. And it also includes three extra pieces: Three Pieces in the Old Style from 1963.

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Track Listing

Henryk Gorecki
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Dawn Upshaw, soprano
London Symphonietta, David Zinman

1. Lento - sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile

My son, chosen and loved,
Let your mother share your wounds
And since, my dear son,
I have always kept you in my heart,
And loyally served you,
Speak to your mother,
make her happy ,
Though, my cherished hope,
you are now leaving me.
2. Lento e largo - tranquillissimo

No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Help me always.
Hail Mary.
3. Lento - cantabile semplicez

Where has he gone,
My dearest son?
Killed by the harsh enemy, perhaps,
In the rebellion.
You bad people,
In the name of the Holy God,
Tell me why you killed
My dear son.

Will I have his protection,
Even if I weep
My old eyes away,
Or if my bitter tears
Were to make another River Oder,
They would not bring back
My son to life.

He lies in the grave
I know not where
Though I ask people
Perhaps the poor boy
Lies in a rough trench
Instead of lying, as he might,
In a warm bed.

Sing for him,
Little song-birds 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.

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