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The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

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Lots of people assume that all classical music is written by fellows wearing powdered wigs and knee breeches. But Henryk Górecki died scarcely three years ago, and his popular Third Symphony, set to be performed this month by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, was composed in 1976. So rework that stereotype and replace those breeches with a turtleneck and a nice blazer.

Górecki was born in Poland and lived there most of his life. In the early 1970s, looking to go in a new direction with his music, Górecki began seeking inspiration for a new work. He found his first influence in a Polish folk song, a melody called, "Where has he gone, my dear young son," in which a mother mourns for a son lost in a war. He said, "For me, it is a wonderfully poetic text ... It is not sorrow, despair or resignation, or the wringing of hands: it is just the great grief and lamenting of a mother who has lost her son."

Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony was largely overlooked for 15 years until its release by Elektra-Nonesuch Records in 1992. - CZESŁAW CZAPLIŃSKI/FOTONOVA
  • Czesław Czapliński/FOTONOVA
  • Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony was largely overlooked for 15 years until its release by Elektra-Nonesuch Records in 1992.

His second inspiration was lifted from the cell walls of a Nazi Gestapo prison in the south of Poland. Scrawled on the wall were the words of 18-year-old Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna, incarcerated in 1944. She wrote, "Oh Mamma do not cry -- Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always." Górecki was struck by this young woman's ability to think first of her mother, instead of crying out in anger for revenge, as so many of the other messages did. He notes, "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."

Having had two flashes of insight, he sought a third and final one to continue the theme and tie the three movements together. He finally settled on a mid-15th century folk song containing a passage in which the Virgin Mary speaks to her son, who is dying on the cross: "O my son, beloved and chosen, share your wounds with your mother."

The result of these three mournful vignettes was his Third Symphony, called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, for obvious reasons. (If you want to take a crack at the Polish, it's Symfoniapieśniżałosnych.) It remained nearly unnoticed for many years.

Górecki originally thought to frame the symphony with an introduction and a conclusion with two verses from Psalms about a war-torn Israel but ultimately rejected this idea, worried that it would too firmly position the symphony as one "about war." He wanted the work to stand as three separate laments evoking the ties between mother and child.

Despite that, many people would try to interpret the symphony as a response to the Holocaust, but Górecki continued to insist that his work be viewed in a wider context. He said, "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 (Day of Wrath); it's a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs."

No one can deny the sorrowful part, but normal they are not. After being relatively overlooked for over 15 years, a new recording of the symphony was released by Elektra- Nonesuch Records in 1992, and for the typical classical recording of a 20th-century composer, the sales were out of this world. Within two years, the record had sold 700,000 copies worldwide. It topped the classical charts in the U.S. and U.K. and in the U.K., even climbed to number six on the mainstream charts.

Górecki was as surprised as anyone 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."

Krzysztof Urbański became the Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in September 2011, at just 28 years old, and will conduct the ISO's performance of Górecki's Third Symphony. - LENA KNUTLI
  • Lena Knutli
  • Krzysztof Urbański became the Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in September 2011, at just 28 years old, and will conduct the ISO's performance of Górecki's Third Symphony.

Krzysztof Urbański, the ISO music director, agrees. "It is a little mystery that it gained such popularity," he says. "It is a wonderful piece of music, magical, different than anything else. I think it touches our hearts and we simply cannot overlook such an emotional statement."

The ISO's performance of Górecki's Third Symphony features Urbański, the youngest music director of a major symphony in the U.S.; ISO Concertmaster Zach De Pue on violin; and soprano Shara Worden, of local label Asthmatic Kitty's My Brightest Diamond.

The ISO will only be performing this piece for one weekend, and while its success in Indianapolis may only contribute to a small fraction of its global triumphs, Urbański says that it will carry an "immense emotional charge" for those who hear it -- even if you've never worn knee breeches.

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Crash the Party:
Sky Blue Window is sponsoring a special IndyHub Passport to the Arts Party Crasher opportunity for this event. This month even those who didn't buy the full Passport are invited to crash the party, grab a drink, hear from the artists, and of course -- see the show. This trial run of the Passport is available in a limited quantity, and only for this night. This is Destination #4 on the 2013-2014 season, Górecki’s Third Symphony at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

A very limited number of tickets are available online.

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