There is a British radio programme, ‘Desert Island Discs’, where the interviewee is invited to choose just eight records to take to a desert island. In the unlikely event of me being chosen to appear on the programme, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Opus 36 (Symphony of Sorrowful Souls) would be on my list.
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I first heard this music in 1997. I was attending a class on spirituality and personal development and the teacher had played this music to the group. My father had died a week or so before and I was still grieving his loss.
Like many sons – and men of my generation – I had never spoken of my love, and rarely showed it to him either.
My father – his name was Harry – was a man who had lived a decent life, working for most of it at the local car manufacturing factory.
We had drifted apart by social class. My education to degree level and entry to a professional career had opened an unspoken social chasm between us. We never had much to say to each other in adult life; each struggling to connect with the other. But on his death, I felt his loss profoundly.
The music released the memories of the kind man he was and rekindled the early deep love I had felt for a father who had never struck me in anger. I struggled to control my emotions in the classroom as the music ebbed its slow way through the second movement.
The Symphony was written by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, (1933 – 2010) and first played in public in 1977. But it was not until 1992 when the work was promoted to commemorate Holocaust victims, that it gained wider public recognition.
Gorecki though, resisted attempts to associate the work exclusively with the Holocaust, and his inspiration for the three movements came from wider sources. The first movement was inspired by a 15th-century lament; the second from a prayer to the Virgin Mary scratched into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell, and the third from the sorrow expressed by a mother searching for a son believed killed in a war.
The dominant themes throughout are sadness and loss. I am not musically trained so I can only describe what I hear in relatively simple terms. I hope musicologists reading this will not be too exasperated by my descriptions.
The first movement, Lento – Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Cantabile (approx. 26 minutes), starts very quietly – so quietly that you may think nothing is happening – but gradually the recurring theme is introduced and gradually builds in volume. After fifteen or so minutes, a lone female soprano voice begins the lament, replaced later by the orchestra, with the music -soaring now – then dropping, slowly, gradually, to vanish into its final low notes. There are several minutes of silence before the start of the second movement.
It is a sublime start to this work
The second movement, Lento E Largo – Tranquillissimo, is the shortest section (approx. 9 minutes), but is perhaps the most recognizable, as its relatively short length and lyrical quality lend it to be the version played most often on the radio. Again there is a slow start, but now the lone female voice introduces the dominant theme. The infinite sadness of this movement is explicit in the rising notes of the song. After five minutes, the mood and theme changes, the soloist expresses a new soaring profound emotion, almost of anguish. The language is of universal loss and pain of separation. The final notes of the soloist and orchestra hover and linger on the air before dying.
The third movement, Lento- Cantabile Semplice (approx. 17 minutes) has three distinct sub-sections and the mood is subtly different. The song rises and falls – and sorrow is still the dominant theme – but there is resigned, rather than anguished, quality now to the lamentation. After eight minutes, the song changes – a beautiful, haunting melody – set in counterpoint to a pulsing background of strings. A third section introduces a new theme, introduced by the soloist, picked up by the orchestra and who slowly, peacefully, lead it to its conclusion. The notes fall away to silence and we are left with our thoughts and memories.