‘Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.’ – Henryk Górecki
The first performances of Górecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ were greeted largely with scorn outside the composer’s native Poland. It took 16 years for the international musical community to change its mind, thanks to a recording by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman: in the UK, the album reached the top ten of not only the classical charts, but also the pop charts, beating Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Like the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tavener, Górecki is sometimes described as a ‘holy minimalist’; it’s not an expression that he ever embraced, but it does capture something of qualities that make this symphony so appealing: simplicity, richness of repetition, and a deep spiritual engagement.
One of the techniques Górecki explores in this symphony is the use of drones: it’s an unfortunately unappealing name for a very beautiful sound! Drones are a feature of the traditional musics of many cultures: a single, low-pitched note, or perhaps two notes, held unchanging for a long time, while a melody is played or sung over the top. You can hear drones being used at the beginning of the second movement.
Another musical technique featured in this symphony is the use of rounds, or ‘canons’: a way of creating harmony using a single melody. In a canon, the same tune is played by simultaneously by several different performers, but each starts at a different time.
Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ 1 I. Lento (Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile) 2 II. Lento e largo (Tranquillissimo – cantabillissimo – dolcissimo – legatissimo) 3 III. Lento (Cantabile – semplice)