As an occasional migraine sufferer, I have spent more hours of my life than I care to count lying in a dark room, mind-numbingly bored in spite of the pain. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered some years ago that, contrary to most received wisdom, music didn’t actually make the headache worse. Over the years, music has become my great compensation to myself for all those hours of wasted time, one piece in particular, which I now allow myself only occasionally: Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Of the symphony’s three movements, my favorite is the first and longest at half an hour’s running time: “Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile.” The piece starts with a slow, inexorable groundswell of strings, beginning almost inaudibly and building slowly but without pause over some thirteen minutes. At its culmination we hear a single note on the piano, a lone e-natural dropped like a stone into still water, and then the note again, slightly muffled. And then the singing begins: Dawn Upshaw’s glorious clear soprano, which seems both to articulate the great heavy devastation of the strings and somehow to respond to it. She is singing in Górecki’s native Polish, a late-medieval prayer of the Virgin to her dying Son.
My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,
And always served you faithfully
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.
Górecki had family members who had died in the Holocaust; the second movement, “Tranquilissimo,” the most famous and frequently played of the three, is his setting of a brief prayer from an 18-year-old girl, Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna, scratched on the prison walls of Zakopane, a sub-camp of Krákow-Płaszów, commending her soul to the Virgin. Górecki said later that what struck him was the prayer’s lack of anger, with even a slightly apologetic quality to it, as if the girl were sorry for causing Mary so much trouble.
The third and final movement, “Cantabile-semplice,” is a Polish folk song, again from a mother to her missing and probably dead son.
The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was written in 1976 but was first popularized by the 1992 recording by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with Dawn Upshaw as the vocalist. The piece was almost instantly a phenomenon, selling over a million copies. It remains today one of the most popular, if not the best-selling, orchestral work by a modern composer.
The third movement of the symphony appears in the 2013 Italian film by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty. Sorrentino’s film is saturated with the work of his great predecessor Federico Fellini, sharing both Fellini’s sense of carnival and his ability to create amidst the mayhem strange, floating islands of spiritual clarity where the Górecki appears, alongside Tavener’s “The Lamb” (1982).
The first movement appears briefly in Mike Nichol’s wonderful adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, in which a notable scholar of John Donne (here played by Emma Thompson) is diagnosed with cancer and agrees, in the name of research, to undergo extremely aggressive chemotherapy. In the film, the Górecki appears deliberately juxtaposed against the still clarity of Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” final agony and resolution.
Critics have been quick to point out that the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is somewhat out of place in Górecki’s spikier, more experimental oeuvre as a whole. There is a certain amount of sniffiness from the classical music world directed at any piece to have become a hit, particularly if it’s a lyrical, accessible piece of music.
On some level, too, whether or not the piece was “religious” posed, and still poses, an interesting problem. The popularity and commercial success of Górecki’s work may have helped to spark renewed interest in that of Pärt and Tavener, which, from my deeply unprofessional standpoint, seemed really to gather steam from the mid-nineties. Once the “holy minimalist” label had been invented, for better or worse, there was a category where such works could be located and lumped together. And perhaps in some way dismissed. Górecki himself, despite being a deeply pious Catholic and a contemporary of John Paul II, seems to have been somewhat ambivalent about a religious interpretation of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He has at times also rejected an understanding of the piece as a straightforward memorial composed for the Holocaust or a more nationalistic reading as a dramatization of the sufferings of Poland.
This surely reflects a political and artistic environment in which a work of art tends to be “religious” only at the expense of being “political” and vice versa. Too-facile labeling of a work of art as “religious” also closes down audience response or predetermines it in a particular way along overly simplistic doctrinal or confessional lines. It is a reason, among others, that so many artists recoil from the word allegory, sometimes even while continuing to use it in their work, and why the maddening vagueness of the word “spirituality” can sometimes have its uses.
Caginess notwithstanding, Górecki said in interviews that he felt, however unexpectedly, he had managed to give people something they had been missing. I know from my own experience that the first time I heard the Symphony No. 3, knowing nothing about the composer, my overwhelming emotion was a kind of visceral astonishment. Even now, sometimes the entrance of the piano in the first movement affects me that way still, like an electric shock. Rightly or wrongly, to me it feels like some sort of answer: how I imagine God answering Job out of the whirlwind. Except, of course, that here, the intercessor in the devastation is Mary, in the paralysis of grief somehow making grief itself possible.
So is that wrong? Of course, artistic scruples or no, there is nothing actually to stop me. Whatever Górecki says, clearly I am not the only audience member to respond to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs as profoundly religious art. It may be that what audiences hear or feel is simply the presence of a spiritual dimension in the work, like a door deliberately left open, whatever the ostensible religious content of the piece. Authorial intent clearly structures audience response in some way, but instead of a closed chicken-and-egg circuit, the relationship is probably more like a dice game, in which the author has set the pieces in motion but does not necessarily control where and how they land. It does seem clear that this kind of response is almost never planned by the artist or the audience, and should not be forced either. These things always seem to happen, when and if and however they do, out of a clear sky. Almost by definition, they are ambushes.
The featured image is “Key to the open door” (2008) by Tawheed Manzoor. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 I have borrowed an online translation from voiceseducation.org, where the Polish text is also available.