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Composed: 2006-2010; 2014
Length: c. 38 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 bass drums, cymbals, glockenspiel, tubular bells), piano, organ, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (U.S. premiere)

It is hard to overstate the scope and implausibility of the phenomenon that Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, became following the release of a Nonesuch recording of the work in 1992. The recording was indeed a fine one, with David Zinman leading the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw singing the austerely grieving but astonishingly cathartic songs, based on old Polish melodies. But this was not the first recording and the piece had been premiered 15 years earlier. Moreover, the phenomenon – sales of over one million copies to date, inspiring at least a dozen more recordings and the use of the music in several films – was largely created through radio play, and a 55-minute symphony of mostly slow, soft music with vocals in a foreign language is hardly a model piece for even the most resolutely non-commercial radio station.

Górecki himself was certainly astonished by his sudden fame outside new music circles, and he seemed to feel the pressure for an equally successful – in popular terms – sequel. He wrote his First Symphony in 1959, his Second in 1972, and the Third in 1976. Then with the vast wave of performances of the Third in the 1990s came an expectation for a Fourth, but the decade passed with only hints from the composer. Górecki finally felt satisfied enough with his work that the premiere of a new symphony was scheduled for 2010. But his health deteriorated, and he was unable to orchestrate the work before his death in 2010. (For more on the backstory of Górecki’s Fourth Symphony, please see page 14.)

What the composer left turned out to be the complete work in piano score, with detailed instructions for the orchestration. This was completed by his son, Mikolaj, and the work finally had its premiere in April last year, with Andrey Boreyko conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The commission for the work comes from three organizations: the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Southbank Centre, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the ZaterdagMatinee concert series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But the inspiration seems to have come from discussions with the Tansman International Festival of Musical Personalities in Lodz, hence the subtitle, Tansman Episodes. Rather than quote Tansman’s music, Górecki created a musical theme using some of the letters in the older composer’s name.

This theme is thundered by the full orchestra throughout the first movement, with its motivic subsets repeated. With the four prominent As in Alexandre Tansman, the theme is centered on that pitch and Górecki harmonizes it with solid triads emphasizing A minor. After this has been established, the obbligato piano and organ enter to contest the harmonic field with a simple third (repeated in octaves) that is strikingly dissonant in context. But the keyboards eventually succumb to the gravitational pull of A minor at the climax. A shattered and shattering coda ensues, stunned bits of the theme in piano and glockenspiel followed by dissonant hammer blows from the full orchestra.

Those unsettling chords punctuate the slow second movement, which is otherwise the domain of soft, divided strings, sounding like modal liturgical music (including a reharmonization of the Tansman theme). The clarinets (with the horns at the end) add a new tune in thirds, sounding much like a bit of Górecki’s beloved Tatra folk music.

That idea is picked up in the scherzo-like third movement. Brass blaze a neo-folk dance in thirds over an obsessive rhythmic engine in the strings. This breaks up for what could be considered the trio section of the movement, which Górecki scores as gradually rising and falling chamber music for piano and solo cello, violin, and piccolo.

Górecki brings on the full orchestra for the reprise of the main scherzo section, which surges into the similarly driven finale. Woodwinds introduce a jazzy variation of the main Tansman motive, the violins echo the chromatic descent of the previous movement’s trio section, and Górecki plays joyfully in fresh harmonic fields until the solo piano reminds us of the original Tansman theme. The whole orchestra then revisits the opening movement, and the ultimate goal of those dissonant blows from the end of the first movement is revealed: a bright, affirmative close on A major. (Górecki’s Third Symphony famously ends with repeated A-major chords.)

Górecki may not have known that this would be his last work when he began it, but there is a definite sense of summation to this music. The style is as bold and clangorous as his early works, the resources and references as wide ranging as his developments in the ’70s, and the language as clarified as it became in the “Sorrowful Songs” aftermath.

 

 

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