• Górecki: Symphonie no.3 (Naive, 2005)


Górecki: Symphonie no.3
Naive V5019 (2005)
Ingrid Perruche, Sinfonia Varovia, cond. Alain Altinoglu

• Symphony 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976)
• Canticum graduum (1969)



It is hard to imagine that the composer of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was ever a firebrand of the Polish avant-garde.  But in his youth, Górecki was musically a wild man, outdoing the experiments of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) or Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (1961).  With works such as the orchestral Scontri (Collisions, 1960) and the more modestly scored Genesis cycle (1962-3), Górecki showed both exuberant dynamism and the ability to focus almost ascetically on grinding dissonance and extremities of expression.  The first of the Genesis cycle – ‘Elementi’ for string trio – demonstrated in its title and in its music that the composer was searching for the very source of his creativity in a totally uncompromising fashion.

Górecki’s creative instincts then led him to abandon Western avant-garde idioms and to create his own distinctive world, starting with Refrain (1965).  Much of his music from the mid-60s onwards relates to earlier traditions, such as chant, modal harmony, folk melodies, old Polish music or works by composers close to his heart.  One of his lesser known works from this period, undeservedly so, is Canticum graduum, recorded here on CD for the first time.  It was, after Refrain, Górecki’s second commission from outside Poland.  It was premiered in Düsseldorf on 11 December 1969, with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen.

Canticum graduum

Canticum graduum is scored for quadruple woodwind, brass and strings, although there are four saxophones instead of four oboes.  It begins and ends quietly, proceeding at a fairly slow tempo from an understated opening up to a massive climax.  Górecki achieves this by simple means that are almost sculptural in their directness.  The main principle is one of repetition and alternation.  Starting on a central note, D, he gradually adds notes above and below it, articulating the increasingly dense chording through rhythmic patterns that resemble chanting.  The chords themselves are built up of notes drawn from the two whole-tone scales, which gives the result both warmth and edge.  Górecki ensures that there is a cumulative tension by intercutting different versions of this idea until he reaches a wall of sound at the climax.  Because of the nature of the intervals that he has chosen to exploit, this moment has an uncommon resonance.  The power of the climax of Canticum graduum is released by means of a quiet coda, one of Górecki’s favourite devices.  A melody emerges that sounds as if it is related to plainchant (which it is, obliquely), and the harmonic cushion on which it rests is drawn from the same notes.  Górecki is fond of unifying melody and harmony in this way, and the restful and cleansing nature of the Dorian mode here provides an effective counterbalance to the dissonant density of the main section.

Symphony no.3

After Canticum graduum, Górecki showed much greater interest in music for voices, either a cappella choral works like Amen (1975) or full-blooded choral and orchestral works with soloists like the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972) or Beatus vir (1979).  This last work was commissioned by Pope John Paul II while he was still Cardinal Wojtyła in Kraków.  In between these two impressive compositions came the Third Symphony, the work which much later was to catapult Górecki from relative obscurity into the worldwide arena and international fame.  The first CD recording of the Third Symphony sold over a million copies after it was released in 1992 and was the musical sensation of the decade.  This phenomenon, with hindsight, may be seen as both a blessing and a curse.  It brought the hitherto little-known Górecki to an audience far beyond that usually associated with contemporary classical music.  It brought the composer recognition, adulation (a mixed blessing this, of course), and regrettably interrupted his reclusive pattern of work to such an extent that since 1993 he seems to have felt inhibited by the attention and expectations placed on him by a work that he had written back in 1976.

As far as his audiences were concerned, the piece seems to have brought unexpected balm and touched a need for spiritual reflection in their lives.  It has not, fortunately, become quite as confined in its associations as has Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, which now seems de rigueur when there is a time of national mourning (be it the death of President Kennedy or the remembrance of the events of 11 September 2001).  But, like the Barber work, Górecki’s Symphony has become common property and has been used in film, television and advertising, often without so much as a thought about what the composer originally wanted to express through the piece.  Audio recordings, therefore, are an opportunity to listen to this extraordinary work without any distraction or misleading visual images.

The Third Symphony was a bold piece for its time: three slow movements for soprano and orchestra, lasting almost an hour.  Dissonance is present only as an expressive result of the modal or tonal inflections of the melody and harmony, and the music is shorn of any superfluous gesture or decoration.  It speaks with exceptional directness, its sound world quite unlike anything else in 1976.  A large part of its appeal has been its non-institutional expression of sacred and patriotic sentiments, such as issues of death, familial loyalty, sacrifice and transcendence, and these are emphasised over and above a specifically Christian message.  The title ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ gives a clue as to Górecki’s intentions.

At the heart of the symphony lie its texts, each dealing with a different aspect of a woman’s response to death, each with a Polish context.  The text in the first movement is a fifteenth-century lament of the Virgin Mary for Christ on the Cross.  In the second, it is a prayer to the Immaculate Queen of Heaven inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo jail in 1944 by an eighteen-year-old highland woman.  The text of the third movement moves away from sacred themes to a folksong, whose verses may date from the Silesian Uprisings (1919-21), in which a mother mourns for her missing son.  Each of these texts is treated differently, although there is an underlying pathos and sense of contemplation and prayer which unites them.  The sung central section of the first movement –

My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother

– is framed by an extraordinarily evocative and prolonged canon whose intervals and motifs echo between different superimpositions of the theme.  The theme itself is Górecki’s own amalgam of two Polish religious songs – a beggar’s Lenten hymn and a song of praise to the Lord – which he found in one of his many volumes of Polish sacred and folk songs.  Their combination symbolises the bittersweet message of the Crucifixion.

Where the first movement arises from a contrapuntal idea, the second is more openly chordal (its main idea is probably the most familiar part of the symphony to listeners today).  Since his student days, Górecki has been fond of ‘cradling’ two chords back and forth (a drawn-out version of this idea informs Canticum graduum), and so it is here.  A simple charismatic pattern provides the impetus and eventual climax of the young woman’s supplication:

No, Mother, do not weep
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Support me always
Hail Mary, full of grace’.

Górecki uses a similar cradling sequence in the last movement, although this one he borrowed from Chopin.  The opening chords are taken exactly from the beginning of Chopin’s Mazurka op.17 no.4, and, when an E natural rings out above them a few moments later, Górecki is making a further composerly connection: to the climactic harmony in the development of another Third Symphony, this time by Beethoven.  Such iconic moments are less quotations than private symbols for the composer; they deepen the listener’s appreciation, but they do not determine his or her response.  The distraught mother sings:

Where has he gone, my dearest son?. . .
He lies in his grave
and I know not where
Though I kept asking people
Everywhere. . . .
Oh sing for him
God’s little song birds
since his mother cannot find him.

In choosing and setting these texts, Górecki transcended not only the vileness of death and war, which he refused to depict, and instead sought resolution through contemplation.  It is a testament to his integrity, originality and vision – qualities that have always characterised his music – that the Third Symphony speaks just as powerfully in today’s world as it did in 1976 or 1992.

© 2005 Adrian Thomas


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