Sunday, August 26, 2018

Gorecki: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, A Review

A Review of Gorecki's Symphony #3,
The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

The word for Sorrow, 'zalosnych' in Polish, also can be translated 
as mournful, forlorn, plaintive, poignant, doleful.
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:
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki 

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. 

Perhaps the most powerful piece of contemporary modern classical music, it breaks all the rules. If you are not moved after the 50+ minutes it takes to hear all three slow movements, you might want to check yourself for a pulse.

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. 

The auditorium of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

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."
While 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. 

One of many Polish orchestras

Dawn Upshaw (soprano); David Zinman & London Sinfonietta.

Zofia Kilanowicz (soprano); Antoni Wit & the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 

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.



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:
Pierre Boulez is reported to have said, "Merde !" as he sat next to Gorecki at its premiere performance. Another critic called it "decadent trash."

It got a bad initial reception because the principal musicians at the time were deeply mired in experimental music -- a music that was quite cerebral and that played with sound as sound rather than music as an emotional conduit. Gorecki had been part of the group, but with this symphony, he had gone in a new and different direction.

Fifteen years later in 1992 the symphony came out on CD and sold about a million copies by 1998. Everyone including Gorecki was surprised by this, but it was clear that it had struck a nerve.

Nevertheless, critics continued to dismiss the depth and meaning of this work.
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:

This superior and condescending review revealed much more about the reviewer than the music. He admitted that he 'didn't get it' even though hundreds of thousands of other listeners did 'get it'. 

After hearing about Bonnie and Clyde's violent holdups where they only stole 5 or 10 dollars, the famous bank robber John Dillinger said something in this vein: Hoodlums like these give robbers a bad name. We could say the same about Michael Steinberg. This insensitive critic, who was incapable of hearing what others had found profound and then dismissed their experience, gives criticism a bad name.  

Gorecki's reaction to his sudden fame and wealth was quite different. It was not about trendy critics and chic gatherings with Chardonnay and brie. When Nonesuch sent him a check for several hundred thousand dollars (about twice that today), he was at a loss. He apparently folded the check, put it in his wallet and would not cash it. Eventually, Nonesuch had to reissue a replacement check. 

Understandably other critics accepted its wide appeal but did question why a Polish nationalist composer whose work was derived from Polish folk music and was sung in Polish that most people would not understand, could be so popular. And that is a valid question as this symphony is definitely a deeply Polish work.

From the beginning this symphony was well received in Poland; early on some called it a masterpiece. Many in Poland saw this work as the natural successor to the modern Stabat Mater by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. But, of course, this acceptance by his countrymen just reinforced the opinion of international critics that this was at best only a work for those in Poland. 

However, the Catholic hymn of sorrows, Stabat Mater, has been a mainstay of classical music for 400 years. There have been well over 50 such compositions from Palestrina in 1590 to Arvo Part in 1985. So while Gorecki was continuing the Polish musical tradition, he was also continuing the international Western musical tradition.


Commenting on this symphony, the website said this:
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:

The website added this:
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:

But to answer the question: Why would a nationalist symphonic work have worldwide appeal? The answer is quite simple. George Bernard Shaw said it best.

The man who writes about himself and his own time 
is the only man who writes about all people and all time.
~ George Bernard Shaw ~ 


Nevertheless, a number of critics continued to dismiss the work because it was too limited and too much a part of Polish culture, but again these knowledgeable critics should have known better.

Using the logic of Michael Steinberg about slow music in a language most people would not understand, we could then eliminate Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen because it is sung in German, a language most people even in the West do not understand, and it goes on for about 15 hours and it is based on an obscure German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied which was written in middle German about 1200 CE, and is based also on little known Teutonic Mythology.

But, of course, we all know that this is a great work -- so Steinberg's logic collapses and instead reveals a lack of respect for work that comes from Poland and other such places.

As these critics and Steinberg were well aware some of the most popular pieces of classical music -- all of which were and are part of the standard orchestral repertoire -- have these same nationalistic characteristics:
For example, The Moldau is one of the most popular symphonic pieces today. Czech composer Smetana wrote this music about his country's (called Bohemia at the time) great river and drew on Czech folk tunes for the music.

-- Peer Gynt by Norwegian composer Grieg is based on Norwegian folk music and fairy tales 
-- Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies are based on Hungarian folk themes
-- Dvorak's New World Symphony includes the famous slow second movement which was inspired by African-American folk tunes -- this largo, known as "Goin' Home," is quite slow and was played around the country when Franklin Roosevelt died

In the same manner as these pieces, the Polish music of Gorecki comes from the soul of a country with a history of terrible sorrow caused by Nazi and Russian Communist domination and delivers a feeling that only a composer with such a background could write. 

Even so other critics wondered why only one of Gorecki's works was so popular and also questioned the use of ancient music in Symphony #3. Again this would not be the first time that such a work was quite popular.

Carmina Burana is also such a piece. Carmina Burana is based on text from the 11th and 12th century and composed in a renaissance and baroque style has been wildly popular since it first premiered in 1937. Yet it is also a 'one hit wonder' as no other piece of Carl Orff's has become well known.


Many years later when it was clear that this work had touched thousands of people, a critic wrote:

Gorecki seems to have tapped into a deep need of people in this most secular and uncertain times, a need for meaning, for spiritual comfort, for security. 

According to the New York Times by 2017 the Nonesuch recording (the first major recording) had sold well over one million copies. This does not include the sales of the 17 other recordings. And it does not include the more than two million times it has been accessed on YouTube. And since sales and such are the way we assign worth or importance these days, this passes the test.

It probably counts as the best selling
contemporary classical record of all time.

On February 24, 1989 -- three years before Gorecki's symphony became popular and before I had heard it -- I drove from the coast of North Carolina to Durham in a blinding snowstorm to hear Phillip Glass's 10,000 Airplanes on the Roof at Duke University. I especially wanted to be there because it would give me a chance, perhaps, to meet Phillip Glass. And I did get to talk with him. I asked him why contemporary composers had become obsessed with dissonance, serial composition, atonal works and non-musical sounds which, as a result, had left them with a very small audience. I suggested that the contemporary musicians should follow the ideas of Bela Bartok who took folk music and modal music and turned these into modern compositions. To my surprise, Glass agreed with me -- and said something like, well it took us a while but we figured it out. A few years later I heard this Gorecki Symphony #3. He had done exactly what I had suggested to Glass -- and he had done it after thoroughly examining and experimenting with those modern techniques of dissonance etc.

The generation of composers that are just preceded me, people like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, [Pierre] Boulez, and, well, [John] Cage for that matter, [Morton] Feldman ... That was a kind of experimental music that was very isolated. It had no real public.
Philip Glass