Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych), is a symphony in three movements composed by Henryk Górecki in Katowice, Poland, between October and December 1976. The work is indicative of the transition between Górecki's dissonant earlier manner and his more tonal later style.
A solo soprano sings a different Polish text in each of the three movements. The first is a 15th-century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, the second a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, and the third a Silesian folk song of mother searching for son killed in the Silesian uprisings. The first and third movements are written from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child, and the second movement from that of a child separated from a parent. The dominant themes of the symphony are motherhood and separation through war.
Until 1992, Górecki was known only to connoisseurs, primarily as one of several composers responsible for the postwar Polish music renaissance. That year, Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of the 15-year-old symphony that topped the classical charts in Britain and the United States. It has now sold more than a million copies, vastly exceeding the expected lifetime sales of a typical symphonic recording by a 20th-century composer. This success, however, has failed to generate interest in Górecki's other works.
During the 1970s, Górecki began to distance himself from the serialism and extreme dissonance of his earlier work, and Symphony No. 3, like the preceding choral pieces Euntes ibant et flebant (Op. 32, 1972) and Amen (Op. 35, 1975), starkly rejects such techniques. The lack of harmonic variation in Symphony No. 3, and its reliance on repetition, marked a stage in Górecki's progression towards the harmonic minimalism and the simplified textures of his more recent work. Because of the religious nature of many of his works during this period, critics and musicologists often align him with other modernist composers who began to explore radically simplified musical textures, tonality, and melody, and who also infused many of their works with religious significance. Like-minded composers, such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, are frequently grouped with Górecki under the term "holy minimalism," although none of the composers classified as such have admitted to common influences.
Later that year Górecki learned of an inscription scrawled on the wall of a cell of a Gestapo prison in the town of Zakopane, which lies at the foot of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland. The words were those of 18-year-old Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna, a highland woman incarcerated on 25 September, 1944. It read "O Mamo nie płacz nie—Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie" (Oh Mamma do not cry—Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always). The composer recalled, "I have to admit that I have always been irritated by grand words, by calls for revenge. Perhaps in the face of death I would shout out in this way. But the sentence I found is different, almost an apology or explanation for having got herself into such trouble; she is seeking comfort and support in simple, short but meaningful words". He later explained, "In prison, the whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: 'I'm innocent', 'Murderers', 'Executioners', 'Free me', 'You have to save me'—it was all so loud, so banal. Adults were writing this, while here it is an eighteen-year-old girl, almost a child. And she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself; whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair. This inscription was something extraordinary. And it really fascinated me.
Górecki now had two texts: one from a mother to her son, the other from a daughter to her mother. While looking for a third that would continue the theme, he decided on a mid-15th century folk song from the southern city of Opole. Its text contains a passage in which the Virgin Mary speaks to her Son dying on the cross: "O my son, beloved and chosen, Share your wounds with your mother …" (Synku miły i wybrany, Rozdziel z matką swoje rany …). Górecki said, "this text was folk-like, anonymous. So now I had three acts, three persons … Originally, I wanted to frame these texts with an introduction and a conclusion. I even chose two verses (5 and 6) from Psalm 93/94 in the translation by Wujek: 'They humiliated Your people, O Lord, and afflicted Your heritage, they killed the widow and the passer-by, murdered the orphans.'" However, he rejected this format because he believed the structure would position the work as a symphony "about war". Górecki sought to transcend such specifics, and instead structured the work as three independent laments.
Symphony No. 3 is constructed around simple harmonies, set in a neo-modal style which makes use of the medieval musical modes, but does not adhere strictly to medieval rules of composition. The symphony is written for solo soprano, four flutes—two players doubling on piccolo—four clarinets, two bassoons, two contrabassoons, four horns, four trombones, harp, piano and strings. Performances typically last about 50 minutes.
The musicologist Adrian Thomas notes that the symphony lacks dissonance outside of modal inflections (that is, occasional use of pitches that fall outside the mode), and that it does not require nonstandard techniques or virtuosic playing. Thomas further observes that "there is no second-hand stylistic referencing, although if predecessors were to be sought they might be found, distantly removed, in the music of composers as varied as Bach, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and even Debussy. Ronald Blum describes the symphony as "mournful, like Mahler, but without the bombast of percussion, horns and choir, just the sorrow of strings and the lone soprano". The work consists of three elegiac movements, each marked Lento to indicate their slow tempi. Strings dominate the musical textures and the music is rarely loud—the dynamics reach fortissimo in only a few bars.
Typically 27 minutes in duration, the first movement equals the combined length of the second and third movements, and is based on a late-15th century lament of Mary from the Lysagora Songs collection of the Holy Cross Monastery in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. Comprising three thematic sections, the movement opens with a canon in ten parts using a 24-bar melody in the Aeolian mode on E. It begins with double basses, and each succeeding entry occurs one measure later (i.e., a new entry begins every 25 measures), starting a fifth above the last. After the canon reaches a full 10 parts, it works its way back to a single pitch. The soprano enters in the second section and builds to a climax on the final word, at which point the strings enter forcefully with the climax of the opening canon. The third section of the movement (Lento—Cantabile semplice) is a long dénouement that also winds down to a single pitch.
The nine-minute second movement is for soprano, clarinets, horns, piano and strings, and contains a libretto formed from the prayer to the Virgin Mary inscribed by Blazusiakówna on the cell wall in Zakopane. According to the composer, "I wanted the second movement to be of a highland character, not in the sense of pure folklore, but the climate of Podhale … I wanted the girl's monologue as if hummed … on the one hand almost unreal, on the other towering over the orchestra." The movement opens with a folk drone, A–E, and a melodic fragment, E–G♯–F♯, which alternate with sudden plunges to a low B♭–D♭ dyad. Thomas describes the effect as "almost cinematic … suggest[ing] the bright open air of the mountains". As the soprano begins to sing, her words are supported by the orchestra until she reaches a climaxing top A♭. The movement is resolved when the strings hold a chord without diminuendo for just over two minutes. The final words of the movement are the first two lines of the Polish Ave Maria, sung twice on a repeated pitch by the soprano.
The tempo of the third movement is not as slow as the previous two, and subtle changes in dynamism and mode make it more complex and involving than it may at first appear. It comprises three verses in A minor and, like the first movement, is constructed from evolving variations on a simple motif. The melody is established in the opening verse, and the second and third verses revisit the cradling motifs of the second movement. As in the second movement, the motifs are built up from inversions of plain triads and seventh chords stretching across several octaves. As the soprano sings the final words, the key changes to a pure diatonic A major which accompanies, in writer David Ellis's words, the "ecstatic final stanza":
The orchestra returns to A minor before a final postlude in A major. In Górecki's own words: "Finally there came that unvarying, persistent, obstinate 'walczyk' [on the chord of A], sounding well when played piano, so that all the notes were audible. For the soprano, I used a device characteristic of highland singing: suspending the melody on the third [C♯] and descending from the fifth to the third while the ensemble moves stepwise downward [in sixths]".
In 1985, the French filmmaker Maurice Pialat featured a section of the third movement in the ending credits of his movie Police. When the work was later repackaged as a "soundtrack album", it sold well, although the sleeve notes provided little information about the work, and Górecki's name appeared in smaller type than those of the main actors. In the mid-1980s, British industrial music group Test Dept used Symphony No. 3 as a backdrop for video collages during their concerts, recasting the symphony as a vehicle for the band's sympathy with the Polish Solidarity movement, which Górecki also supported (his 1981 piece Miserere was composed in part as a response to government opposition of Solidarity trade unions). During the late 1980s, the symphony received increasing airplay on US and British classical radio stations, notably BBC Radio 3. The fall of communism helped to spread the popularity of Polish music generally, and by 1990 the symphony was being performed in major cities such as New York, London and Sydney. A 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring the soloist Dawn Upshaw, was released in 1992 by the Elektra imprint Nonesuch Records. Within two years, the recording had sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide; the recording climbed to number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, and while it did not appear on the US Billboard 200, it stayed at the top of the US classical charts for 38 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies.
The writer Michael Steinberg described the symphony's success as essentially a phenomenon of the compact disc, and while live performances are still given, they do not always sell out. Some critics, wondering at the sudden success of the piece nearly two decades after its composition, suggest that it resonated with a particular mood in the popular culture at the time. Stephen Johnson, writing in A guide to the symphony, wondered whether the commercial success of the work was "a flash in the pan" or would turn out to have lasting significance. In 1998, the critic Michael Steinberg asked, "[are people] really listening to this symphony? How many CD buyers discover that fifty-four minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background music to Chardonnay and brie?" Steinberg compared the success of Górecki's symphony to the Doctor Zhivago phenomenon of 1958: "Everybody rushed to buy the book; few managed actually to read it. The appearance of the movie in 1965 rescued us all from the necessity." Górecki was as surprised as any one else at the recording's success, and later speculated that "perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music…. Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed."
At least a dozen recordings were issued in the wake of the success of the Nonesuch recording, and the work enjoyed significant exposure in a number of artistic media worldwide. The work was repeatedly used by filmmakers in the 1990s to elicit a sense of pathos or sorrow, including as an accompaniment to a plane crash in Peter Weir's Fearless (1993), and in the soundtrack to Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996). An art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico opened an exhibit in 1995 dedicated entirely to visual art inspired by the piece. In 1997, the symphony was sampled for the song "Gorecki" by the English trip-hop act Lamb, which peaked at number 30 on the UK singles charts in 1997. In 1999, the symphony was featured prominently in the track "Finished Symphony" by the English progressive breaks act Hybrid.
Symphony No. 3 is dedicated to Górecki's wife Jadwiga Rurańska. When asked why, Górecki responded, "Who was I supposed to dedicate it to? Górecki has never sought to explain the symphony as a response to a political or historical event. Instead, he has maintained that the work is an evocation of the ties between mother and child. Some critics have seen the symphony as a memorial to victims of the Nazis in Poland during the Holocaust, particularly in the light of Górecki's choice of texts. (Interestingly, the 2nd movement plays on a constant loop in the "Holocaust" exhibition room of the Auckland Museum, New Zealand.) Górecki was commissioned to write music in response to the Holocaust in the 1960s but was unable to finish any of the pieces he started for that purpose. While Górecki has stated that for many years he sought to produce a work specifically in response to Auschwitz, he has resisted that interpretation of Symphony No. 3, which he prefers to be viewed in a wider context. Other critics have attempted to interpret the symphony in spiritual terms, an approach which Górecki has also dismissed.
Górecki has said of the work, "Many of my family died in concentration camps. I had a grandfather who was in Dachau, an aunt in Auschwitz. You know how it is between Poles and Germans. But Bach was a German too—and Schubert, and Strauss. Everyone has his place on this little earth. That's all behind me. So the Third Symphony is not about war; it's not a Dies Irae; it's a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.