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Composed: 1976
Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 4 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 4 horns, 4 trombones, harp, piano, strings, and solo soprano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 17, 1993, David Alan Miller conducting, with soprano Christine Brewer (West Coast premiere)

On first glance at the score, Górecki’s Third Symphony seems a most unlikely subject for the mass adulation the piece received after its 1991 Nonesuch recording, with David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta and soprano Dawn Upshaw (its third recording at the time). Subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the piece is cast in three substantial slow movements, each with a different, but thematically linked, Polish text. The first movement utilizes a 15th-century monastic lament, the second sets a Marian plea written on the cell of a young prisoner of the Gestapo, and the third employs a folk song which is another lament of a mother for her dead son.

On first hearing, however, the overwhelming impression is one of consolation and serenity, not Angst, blossoming into affirmative radiance. Górecki stresses this in his score markings, nowhere more emphatically than at the beginning of the second movement, where we find the superlative indications tranquillissimo, cantabillissimo, dolcissimo, legatissimo.

The first movement is constructed as a large arch, with the vocal line riding the crest. Framing the gently ascending, modally ambiguous melody is a big – 317 bars in the introduction – eight-part canon for the strings. A composer of pronounced perfectionist tendencies, Górecki spent a year and a half working out this canon, according to Zinman, who was shown the composer’s sketchbook. Rising from great depths to full-blown polyphonic glory, the canon’s complexity finds completion in the simplicity of the soprano’s plaint. After the vocal melody comes to rest, the canon resumes in full strings, slowly subsiding to its original source in the basses.

Harmonically, the first movement is firmly rooted on E. The second begins on A – with major mode intimations of the affirmation in store for the finale – but quickly takes a startling lift to B-flat, with the minor mode restored. On this harmonic plateau the soprano intones the graffito of the young Gestapo prisoner. She begins with a rhythmically placid tune that clearly recalls the first movement melody, but which soon includes plaintive cries on the word “Mother” and ends with a chanted suggestion of the Polish version of the Ave Maria.

For the finale the tonal level drops back down to A – it is 52 bars in before the bass line budges off that pitch. Górecki originally thought to use a folk tune to go with the text, but finally wrote the melody himself “in the style of folk song and using part of a church hymn,” he said. The slowly rocking, lullaby-like alternation of harmonies comes from Chopin’s Op. 17, No. 4 Mazurka, and the folk text is treated strophically, with a transfiguring modal shift from minor to major for the final verse. The victory is not cheaply won, with a chilling recollection of the first verse darkening the scene. But the strings, piano, and harp – the scoring of the work, both subdued and lustrous, is remarkable – add a final, glowing bloom that balances all the pleading with stable acceptance.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.