Gorecki’s Third Symphony

4 Feb

Listen here.

Gorecki’s choral 3rd, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, could hardly be less typical of a Polish 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 the USSR. Its theme, widely but wrongly attributed to the Holocaust – Gorecki had been commissioned for such a work but never completed it – 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.

The version linked here – to Movement 2, though 1 and 3 can be accessed from it – is the one best known to westerners, featuring American soprano, Dawn Upshaw. 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 unfathomable sorrow. Not for casual listening, Symphony 3 is restorative, redemptive. Through suffering, even vicarious suffering, we reconnect with a shared humanity 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.


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