A Review of Gorecki's Symphony #3,
The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Why am I writing a review of a modern classical work in my blog about time? Simple. I believe that Gorecki's Symphony #3 is a great work that will stand the test of time and thus, in a sense, is timeless. I believe it will continue to attract audiences a hundred years from now. Great works, in a sense, exist outside of time because they continue to be important from generation to generation. But as I have written each work is often interpreted or understood differently as time goes on -- what is important is that the work is compelling -- and that is what makes it great. See more about this idea in this blog of mine: https://deconstructingtime.blogspot.com/2016/02/why-great-art-is-great-using.html
How to you write a critical review of a masterpiece?
Well -- you don't. At least not in the sense of picking it apart, the way you might approach a lesser piece.
A masterpiece, almost by definition, has pieces that fit together in surprising and unusual ways -- ways that often defy conventional tastes and ideas -- often in ways that cannot be explained. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in such a work.
All of this occurred to me when I heard Gorecki's Symphony #3, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, for at least the 10th time.
Nevertheless having said that, you must be in the mood to listen to about an hour of slow repeating chords. Go somewhere quiet, turn off your cell phone and make sure you will not be interrupted. If you are in a hurry or are not willing to pay attention, don't even try to absorb what this music has to offer.
There is something really deep here. And it is achieved in the most unusual way. The orchestra sounds like one large instrument rather than a collection of individual ones, with the exception of the piano that breaks in from time to time. And more than that the full sound of the orchestra vibrates as much as it plays -- taking the sound to another dimension.
Starting as a barely audible rumbling, the low reverberating mostly string music builds -- until emerging from this almost earth-like grounding a female soprano comes to life -- her voice at first indistinguishable from the chords of the orchestra but soon lifting itself high above it.
Most people will not understand the Polish words or will not have read a translation of the text, nevertheless, her feelings are unmistakable. There is a sorrow and a triumph -- a sense of loss and a desire to go on. Her high solos notes stand in sharp contrast to the low orchestral sounds. Somehow Gorecki has put it together, high and low, life and death, sorrow and healing.
Arguably Gorecki reaches a spectrum of emotion in this long work that no other composer has been able to reach. Not even Mozart's magnificent Requiem or Beethoven's Funeral March which is the second movement of his ground breaking Third Symphony, the Eroica, reach this deep. Nor Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Although Bach's Mass in B Minor comes close.
When it was first performed, the Western critics did not 'get it'. All (yes all) of them panned it -- which would not be the first time a brilliant new work has been misunderstood. Now to be fair, a masterpiece often breaks the rules -- so people may not 'get it' right away. It can take years or decades or even centuries for its true worth to be recognized as in the case of J. S. Bach. His work was ignored for over 100 years after his death and as a result, much of it was lost.
Almost twenty years later when it was clear that this symphony had touched hundreds of thousands of people, a critic would write:
"There are several reasons for the popularity of Gorecki's music," critic Joseph McLellan wrote in The Washington Post in 1995. "He is less concerned with the structural subtleties or stylistic innovations that preoccupied so many composers in the post-World War II generation. Instead, his music communicates pure emotion." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/12/AR2010111206879.htmlWhile I agree with the above review that Gorecki communicates pure emotion, it nevertheless glosses over the subtlety of this work. For example, the long orchestral introduction that sets the stage before the soprano arrives, is fabricated from all seven modes of the major scale masterfully strung together in a canon. Like any great work, this only begins to reveal its secrets after many listenings.
Fortunately, Gorecki did live to see his work triumph, unlike other artists such as Herman Melville who died long before Moby Dick was considered the masterpiece of American literature as I have written.
No one was more surprised that the composer himself when this piece suddenly became the best selling piece of modern classical music 15 years after it had been first performed. I think Gorecki got it right when he said that it answered an unspoken need in many people, a need that could only have been answered in this way -- beyond rational explanations.
A seasoned and experimental composer, Gorecki knew a lot about sound as sound. This very modern idea meant that the orchestra not only plays notes but it breathes, if you will; it resonates and vibrates. Gorecki uses this in a masterful but unobtrusive way to reach, I believe, our deepest feelings. A slow canon, based on modal Polish folk tunes, evolves organically. Almost inaudible at first, the mostly string orchestra pulls itself up note by note. The orchestra pulses louder and louder until a piano, in sharp contrast, breaks the mood and announces the arrival of the soprano. Her voice at first is tangled with that of the orchestra until she slowly lifts from the darkness of the strings to soar above them but at the same time, she carries death and loss and grief with her like a bird floating overhead who can see the carnage from above. In the second movement, she seems to find a kind of acceptance and in the third movement a wounded Epiphany. Her strikingly strong feminine voice has a certainty which seems to come to terms with the darkness of the mostly string orchestra that is always throbbing below her song.
LISTEN ON YOUTUBE
Dawn Upshaw (soprano); David Zinman & London Sinfonietta.
Zofia Kilanowicz (soprano); Antoni Wit & the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
A true masterpiece is, I believe, a gift from the gods. It is the human spirit that goes beyond all its learning and skills, its determination and logic, to create something that even the artist did not expect or could have predicted. Great artists open themselves to this possibility -- when the creative act moves them to reach higher than they thought possible and allows them to bring back a shining prize stolen from heaven.
CRITICIZING THE CRITICS
The 1977 world premiere at the Royan Festival, Ernest Bour conducting, was reviewed by six western critics, all of them harshly dismissive. Heinz Koch, writing for Musica, said that the symphony "drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes". Quoted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._3_(G%C3%B3recki)
In 1998, the critic Michael Steinberg asked, "[are people] really listening to this symphony? How many CD buyers discover that fifty-four minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background music to Chardonnay and brie?" Steinberg compared the success of Górecki's symphony to the Doctor Zhivago phenomenon of 1958: "Everybody rushed to buy the book; few managed actually to read it. The appearance of the movie in 1965 rescued us all from the necessity."Quoted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._3_(G%C3%B3recki)
Polish folk songs, folk music idioms, Polish text, Polish religious tradition, the citation of Polish composers’ music, Polish history, the nature of Polish mountains, all this woven into three slow movements of highly emotionally evocative music. Quoted from: http://www.musicologica.cz/studie-brezen-2012/when-music-meets-nation-henryk-mikolaj-gorecki-s-music-as-an-example
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki has remained rooted in southern Poland where his deep awareness of Polish folk culture and religious heritage have formed the standing stones of his musical language....Górecki has increasingly allowed the simplicity of these building blocks to stand on their own terms. Quoted from: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/long-bio/Henryk-Mikolaj-G%C3%B3recki
contemporary classical record of all time.