Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.
No, that’s not a typo in the title. Everyone knows the 3rd Symphony. By some distance it’s the most popular piece of classical composition of the last 50 years. It’s a magnificent work, from the first movement, a gigantic canonic pyramid ascending into prayer, to the last, a prolonged study on the opening chords of Chopin’s Mazurka, op.17 no.4. But it’s not the one I want to talk about.
There are at least two important aspects to Górecki’s music that may be appreciated on first hearing any of his works. The first, and the one for which he has become internationally popular, is a lush, meditative melancholy, the sort of thing that permeates throughout the 3rd Symphony and many of his later works such as Amen, Totus tuus and so on. The second is a radical cut-and-paste approach to form. There are elements of this in the 3rd Symphony, in which huge homogeneous blocks of material are simply pressed up against one another, but in that work the edges have mostly been smoothed out so that one section seems to flow more or less naturally into the next. In the 2nd Symphony there are no smooth edges; it’s built like Stonehenge.
The 3rd Symphony is a ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, and is thematically unified by three sung laments, from a mother to her son (a Silesian folksong), from a daughter to her mother (from graffiti scratched on the wall of Gestapo torture chamber in Podhale), and from Mary to Jesus (from the Holy Cross Lament). Thus the Second World War, Polish folksong and Catholicism are brought together in a long maternal lament that references elements of Polish folk and art music. The 2nd Symphony, ‘Copernican’, takes up a different set of themes, but still with a distinct Polish edge to them. This time, in writing a work to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Poland’s greatest astronomer, Górecki composed an apocalyptic, fatalistic, contemplative solar system, in which giant slabs of sound orbit one another like planets.
The opening is massive. If these are the planets (and I’m not suggesting that there’s any such simplistic programme to the piece) this is Mars. The melody is essentially a chant, based on just four notes. However, it is harmonised in whole-tone cluster chords spanning a full six octaves. These are played at shocking volume and ricochet between three layers of crashing drums. Hardcore, Mars is going to war.
A few minutes in and we’re in Neptune’s neighbourhood. The thunder of the opening is replaced by softer chords in strings and wind. These orbit slowly around one another, some are tightly dissonant, others luminously tonal. Górecki shows here his mastery of harmony as texture rather than function; the chords are not heard as an accompaniment to any melody, but are a palette of rotating colours.
The first movement continues in a similar vein; the thunderclaps return, then there is a third slab of new material, for brass instruments and wind and employing a great deal of the structured aleatory pioneered by Lutoslawski. The thunder-chant returns a last time, with the addition of a choir singing extracts from the Psalms – ‘God, who made the heaven and the earth’, etc. There is no doubt that if the opening movement represents the mechanism of God and the planets, this mechanism is violent, awesome in its power.
The second of the two movements contemplates the effects of Copernicus’ discovery that man, revolving around the sun, was no longer the centre of the universe. For late Medieval thought this was a devastating idea that required complete revisions to the prevailing concepts of humanity. Two soloists, baritone and soprano, illuminate the musical space in a manner that anticipates the 3rd Symphony. In that piece, the mother’s song of the first movement ‘Where has he gone, my dear young son’ encapsulates the act of prayer as sorrow, mourning, hope, faith, peace and meditation. A similarly complex mixture of emotions are to be found in Górecki’s settings in the 2nd Symphony as the two soloists struggle to comprehend God’s work as so awesomely revealed in the first movement. Even though the harmonic background to the baritone’s solo is richly tonal in comparison to the crashing dissonance of the first movement, it is unrelenting in its stasis, always threatening to overwhelm. It is a particular trick of Górecki’s to turn chords that elsewhere would shine radiantly into forces of real menace. The effect is even more marked for those who are familiar with the arias of the 3rd Symphony, in which the harmony provides close emotional support to the voice – as the melody rises to points of climax, so does the harmony. Here, melody and harmony resist one another. A lamenting mother does not inspire conflicting emotions; but a revolution in man’s relationship to God and the universe such as Copernicus instigated surely does.
In the end, Górecki uses Copernicus’ own words to resolve the conflicts that his work has embodied. The words “What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty” gloriously sidesteps the issue of who or what is at the centre of that universe, bidding us instead to contemplate the universe as it is, in all its majesty. For these words, Górecki introduces a slow chorale based on an anonymous 15th-century vocal fragment. I cannot say why, but his setting sounds as though it should be used in every film about space and the planets ever made (although to my knowledge it never has). In order to reinforce this urge to contemplate the beauty of the heavens above us, Górecki once more writes music to invoke the universe. This time the dissonant, violent forces of the opening movement have resolved themselves into immense chords, themselves a giant, resolving cadence. At around five minutes this is probably the longest cadence in musical history; each chord grows from the bass upwards, the only changes being the introduction of new instrumental layers – strings, then wind, then brass add a glittering sheen. Plato’s music of the spheres spreads before us in a wave of harmonic resonance. What indeed is more beautiful than heaven?