Where has he gone
My dearest son?
These lines, as are the three laments that make up Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, might well have you thinking are hardly appropriate for the tragedy of our times. But there is a cleansing catharsis to be found in the indescribably beautiful music of the late Polish composer’s creation. It could be the conduit that taps into the deep sense of loss that lies bottled up in in many of us over this year of horror and release – at least in part – its choking hold. It did for me and thus it’s wholly apposite that I have resumed my writing with this post.
Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 – as it is also known less dramatically – is unusual in more than one respect. Instead of 4 movements that normally form a symphony, it has only 3. All 3 parts or movements are set to the same pace. And very surprisingly for a Western classical performance, a 1992 recording with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman for the Nonesuch label sold over a million copies. Fifteen years prior to that when it premiered in 1977 – Gorecki had composed it in 1976 – it was a departure from his dissonant style and a move into a minimalist, emotional mode. Gorecki composed this symphony as an ode to the bond between mother and child; the first and last being laments of a mother for her son and the second, a daughter’s prayer to a mother. The creation of this composition oddly enough found its start with the last of its 3 movements, a Polish folk song of a mother’s search for her son lost to war. Later he found inspiration in a teenage girl’s scribble in her prison cell where she was incarcerated during the Second World War for the second movement. Then lastly, the first of the 3 movements came into being from a 15th century Polish folk song of the lament of Mary for Jesus.
Many years back in the mid-’90s I had heard the 1992 recording that I mentioned thanks to a friend who had got it through a cousin in the UK. It had moved me but it went out of my memory over the years. And then in 2019, I read about another recording released that year performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki with Beth Gibbons of Portishead singing the vocal part. I was intrigued because I love her singing and I wanted to hear what she would do with a classical piece. I found later she neither read music nor spoke Polish (at least at that time). So she worked with a differently created vocal score that she could read, a phonetic context and an interpretation of the Polish text. Her voice was a register lower than the soprano required by the composition and so she went through vocal coaching to get there. I’m not qualified to talk about technique but what comes through to me when I listen to this recording is the deeply felt emotion that she imparts to her sections which lends a poignant edge to the sombreness of the orchestral parts. The sustained opening with a double bass section sets the tone for the nearly 48 minutes of this touching piece of music.
My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
Back when I was dating my wife, I would go in the evenings to the hospital where she was a doctor to meet her and then we would go on from there once she was done with her work. The place was overloaded with reminders of our mortality, for it was a cancer hospital. On one of those visits, there was an elderly gentleman pushing a wheelchair bearing a young man. My wife told me that young man was the elder’s only child, one born late in the parents’ life. That child was terminally ill. In the first movement where Mary grieves for her dying son, I remember that gentleman; a parent bearing the crushing burden of the swiftly approaching demise of a child. I do not know of a greater weight that one could carry.
No, mother, do not weep
One could rail at Justice, that oft-absent guardian of right, and scream down vengeance on the perpetrators of unjust punishment. That would be normal. Yet an 18-year old girl imprisoned for no fault of hers calls out only consolation to her mother, perhaps because she knows it is her mother who suffers the greater despair at the loss of a child. It is also a prayer to Mary, to that mother to be with her through her suffering. The second movement, even though it is the shortest of the 3, is seen by many to be the point of focus of the symphony. It’s not surprising considering its relationship to the Second World War.
He lies in his grave
And I know not where
Though I keep asking people
The third movement harks back to the loss of a son to war, the mother in deep mourning for a child taken away prematurely that she can no longer see; not even his dead body.
Grief finds its way into all our lives but in our present tragedy of over an year, it has relentlessly found its mark all too frequently. We are told to be stoic, to be strong, to bear this burden. And so we try to. We shut it deep inside us as a matter of course where it insidiously sets about breaking us. In Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, one might find articulation for that grief. While one might not be entirely free of it, one might find healing in that.
Peace and well-being upon you.