I don’t see the flaw in my plan. I can’t tell where it went wrong. March 20, 2014 is the first day of Spring on every calendar I can find. I blasted The Rite of Spring from my stereo as loud as possible, put on my shorts and sunglasses, then took the lawnmower to the front yard to mow all the scheduled grass. I was greeted with a wintery scene like this.
Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but all of this made me very sad. So I picked out very sad music for us to listen to this time around. The renowned conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood said something interesting in a lecture at Gresham College. If I may paraphrase Professor Hogwood:
“There is a natural tendency in “music think” to not question happy music. Happy music is happy music, and it is effervescent and meant to incorporate you, but it has nobody asking more leading questions. Miserable music, on the other hand, has everyone cueing up to be told ‘What does it mean? What is the music saying?’ “
Not many composers have done “sadness” as well as Henryk Górecki in his Symphony No. 3, Opus 36. It is more commonly known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and is comprised of three slow movements. Notably, it is not called just a set of three orchestral songs, but a Symphony. The three movements must be listened to together, as a whole, to get the complete experience of the work. The words are sung in Polish, so for me the first layer of meaning has to be found in translating the texts into a language I understand.
The complete English translation of the text can be found here.
I was going to write about the second movement only, but listening to the second and third movement is not the same if you haven’t “survived” the first movement. The First movement is gut-wrenching. It rips out your heart and beats it with a meat cleaver, grills it on hardwood charcoal and serves it back to you with ranch dressing. There had to be two more movements, because no one could drive home from the hall immediately after hearing the first.
Here I should make a note about recorded music. Most music recording today is very “compressed”, that is to say there is not much difference in the softs and louds in the recording. Although this accommodates the lousy sound you get from tiny earbuds, a recording of the Górecki Symphony 3 must be listened to on good speakers to get the full effect. The first movement starts almost inaudibly soft and in the lowest register of the lowest bass strings of the orchestra. The bass melody is taken up by each string section and layered on top of itself until the music reaches a loud climax with the melody in a 8 part cannon. (That is to say, 8 versions of the melody circulating around the orchestra at the same time!) Each of the 8 parts drops out, one by one, until you have a single note which brings in the soprano voice. The soprano’s song builds to another high point which brings back the orchestral 8 part cannon again to finish the movement. It is a powerful, emotionally cathartic experience. (I don’t know what Henryk is smiling about in the video below)
The second movement has a text taken from the wall of a World War II Gestapo jail cell. The Nazi’s had invaded Poland, the Gestapo had set up a headquarters and jail in a Polish city. They imprisoned anyone they wanted for any reason they wanted: they were the Gestapo.
The prisoners wrote on the walls of the cells, not knowing if anyone would hear from them again or see what they wrote. The words used in this song were written by a girl who was jailed there. This is what Górecki had to say about what he saw on the wall:
“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: “Mother, do not cry, no. The purest Queen of Heaven, you always support me. Hail Mary.” Here the inscription ended and I added: “You are full of grace.” Not “Full of grace” as it is in the prayer, but “You are full of. . .””
The third movement is filled with mournful music from the view of a mother who has lost her son. It ends with a peaceful note, however, that gives us the glimmer of hope that lets us go on with life. The soprano’s words ask God to make the flowers bloom so that her son can sleep (in death) happily. I hope the flowers in my garden bloom soon too, as this winter weather has been a real bummer.