ANNIVERSARIES: Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 Premiered 30 Years Ago, Topped Charts 15 Years Ago


sorrowful_songsHenryk Górecki (b. 1933) was a respected Polish avant-garde composer but little known in the West except to cognoscenti. Then Górecki wrote his Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 "Symfonia Piesni Zalosnych" (loosely translated as "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") at the end of 1976. For soprano, multiply divided string sections, flutes and piccolos, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoons, horns, trombones, piano, and harp, it is an unusual symphony. With just three movements, it's a bit less than 54 minutes long in this recording, which is faster than most; all three movements are marked Lento, with vocals about the deaths of children at the center of each.

The first movement opens and closes with canonic writing in the Aeolian mode (with no accidentals) for the strings, in eight parts at first, 10 later, each entering a fifth higher. In the middle, the soprano sings a 15th-century Polish prayer, the Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery, in which the Virgin Mary cries to Jesus at his crucifixion. The second movement is entirely dominated by the vocal part, which uses the inscription on a wall in a Gestapo prison in Zakopane by an 18-year-old girl, telling her mother not to cry and imploring Mary for support. The third movement's text is a Polish folk poem in which a mother laments her son's absence and presumed death in war. It is accompanied by gently rocking, nearly static harmonies and moves into A major (the only purely major music in the entire work) as the mother implores, "And you, God's little flowers, may you blossom all around / So that my son may sleep happily."

The symphony was controversially received at its 1977 premiere by the Southwest German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden conducted by Ernest Bour at the modernist Royan Festival, where Górecki's move to largely consonant, slow-moving music was disdained. But it was arguably exactly those qualities that made it a huge success 15 years later.

Its progress was slow at first. A French film, Police , used the third movement with the final credits, after which the recording sold a bit more. Some classical radio stations played the piece, notably the BBC. Then in April 1992 Nonesuch released a new recording of the score by the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw. This is an excellent recording, with Zinman pacing the work well and maintaining tension of line while Upshaw's pure, clear singing conveys the emotion of the texts with noble dignity. But nobody expected what happened next.

It was incredible enough that this recording of an obscure modern composition topped the Billboard classical album chart for 38 weeks. Upshaw was a rising star, true, but not yet that far advanced in her ascent -- this was the album that introduced her to an audience beyond opera fans. But what happened in England was even more extraordinary: the album reached #6 on the pop chart! Upshaw's interest in modern music outside most sopranos' repertoires had paid off for both her and the composer. The Nonesuch CD sold over a million copies worldwide and launched a Górecki mini-craze, with multiple recordings of the Symphony No. 3 attempting to ride the coattails of Upshaw and Zinman's success, though none came close to matching its sales.

Building on its new visibility, the piece was subsequently used in more film soundtracks (Peter Weir's Fearless and Julian Schnabel's Basquiat). More importantly, interest in Górecki's other work was sparked, resulting in fine recordings that may not have hit the pop charts but nonetheless enrich our knowledge of his artistry. Shortly I will be reviewing the newest, a Kronos Quartet recording of Górecki's String Quartet No. 3. - Steve Holtje holtje.jpgMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. He's biased, because he worked on it, but he thinks everyone should read Beyond Rationality: The Search for Wisdom in a Troubled Time by Kenneth Hammond, a pragmatic, in-depth examination of judgment and decision making that explains the flawed thinking that has given us the Cold War, the Iraq War, and too many other blunders. The most important book since Blink!