Gorecki’s choral 3rd, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, could hardly be less typical of a composer outspokenly avant garde; a Stockhausen admirer whose declared mission was “not to entertain but to educate”. Symphony No 3, piercing in its melodic simplicity, was deemed a betrayal by Gorecki’s atonally minded peers but went on to outsell Madonna after the fall of Stalinism in Poland. Its theme, widely but incorrectly attributed to the Holocaust – Gorecki having been commissioned for but never completing such a work – is motherhood and grief, its first movement a mediaeval lament by Mary for her son on the cross. The second, No Mother, do not weep … was scrawled by an eighteen year old on the wall of her Gestapo cell while the third voices the despair of a mother fearing her son has been killed in one of Silesia’s uprisings against Nazi occupation.
Mine is the Nonesuch version with Dawn Upshaw, linked here. I listen rarely, and never while doing anything else. I want to be free of distraction when Upshaw’s soulful power, lower in the range than other sopranos, rises from that well of sadness all of us are deeply familiar with. Such judicious exposure is restorative, redemptive. Through suffering, even vicarious suffering, we’re given another shot at reconnecting with a shared humanity so easily lost in the individualistic banality of bourgeois existence.
(Hence the enduring appeal of the blues.)
But that second movement? Why would a teenager, her life all but over, write such grafitti? In the faint hope a bereft mother might see them and be comforted, yes, but there’s something else. To Helena Wanda Blazusiac’s heartrending words Gorecki, whose Catholicism did as much as his musical ‘decadence’ to put him in low standing with the authorities, added lyrics from the same fifteenth century lament used in the first movement. Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always …
Like many atheists I muse often on religion. Only the most vulgar of materialists can be surprised that Darwin’s Origin of Species, though hugely corroborated by subsequent findings, did not deal a death blow to religion. Explanation is only one of its functions, and not even the most important. Others are moral code and, vital to the nation-building projects of the last three or four millennia, social glue. Patriotism and the promise of eternal salvation may have seen Helena through the darkness but I see a fourth function of religion – meeting our yearning for transcendence from pain and for existential meaning – as relevant here. Marx’s most famous quote is too often cited without its context. Here’s a slightly fuller version. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Marx did not confuse cant with an underlying impulse entirely authentic. To our modernist and postmodernist understanding, shaped in the most rampantly individualist socio-economic system ever, Helena Wanda Blazusiac (some she survived, others that she was executed) should have been crushed. A spirit defeated could not, however, have written such words of selfless liberation; nor could the deeply redemptive sounds of Gorecki’s Third have been conceived – and I speak as a materialist myself – by that most vulgar materialism that is blind (and deaf) to our need for transcendence.