Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs sets poems in Polish about the intense relationship between a mother and a child in times of loss.

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was born on December 6, 1933, in Czernica, Poland, and died on November 12, 2010, in Katowice, Poland. He wrote his Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, between October 30 and December 30, 1976, in Katowice on commission from Southwest German Radio, Baden-Baden. Soprano Stefania Woytowicz and the SWR Symphony Orchestra led by Ernest Bour gave the premiere in Royan, France, on April 4, 1977, at the Royan International Festival of Contemporary Art. The BSO's first performances of the work are those conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero in March 2023, with soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, though Keith Lockhart led the Boston Pops in the second movement of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, featuring Jane Shivick, soprano, in May 2017.

The score of the Symphony No. 3 calls for solo soprano, 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 4 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 4 horns, 4 trombones, harp, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 54 minutes long.

No one was more surprised than Henryk Górecki when a 1992 CD recording of his meditative Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, composed sixteen years earlier in bleak Cold War isolation, became an international sensation, selling more than 700,000 copies within two years. Sales of the Nonesuch CD, featuring the London Sinfonietta with two Americans—conductor David Zinman and soprano Dawn Upshaw—eventually surpassed one million copies, an unthinkable quantity for a work of contemporary classical music. Suddenly, Górecki became a sort of folk hero, with the right message for the moment. He burst out of the “new music” ghetto just as his homeland was emerging from more than forty years of oppressive Communist rule and while a Pole, Karol Wojtyla, reigned as Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

Until then leading a quiet life as a composer and pedagogue in the gritty industrial city of Katowice (only twenty miles from the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz), Górecki found bewildering the newfound fame his “reluctant requiem” brought him. Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records at the time, explained, “The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it. It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”

Górecki responded with appreciation for his new audience. “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.”

But Górecki was anything but an overnight success. Trained at the Higher School of Music in Katowice, he completed his first mature piece (four preludes for piano) at age 22. By the time he completed the Third Symphony in 1976, at age 43, he had written more than 40 more works in a wide variety of genres: solo piano pieces, songs, chamber music for various and often unusual combinations of instruments, large choral works, and two symphonies. Keenly aware of the distinguished legacy of such Polish composers as Frédéric Chopin and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), Górecki experimented with various techniques and styles, including serialism (stemming from the 12-tone system pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg).

Polish composers enjoyed a greater degree of creative freedom under Communism than their counterparts in the USSR and other countries of the Eastern bloc, although they were supposedly obliged to follow the confining dictates of the official doctrine of Socialist Realism. As I remember from my own research trips to Moscow in the 1970s and 80s, Soviet composers regarded their Polish counterparts with envy, and eagerly shared pirated cassette tapes of performances from the annual Warsaw Autumn Festival. Major foreign ensembles and composers took part in the festival, which became, as Górecki’s biographer Adrian Thomas has written, a rare opportunity for Polish composers—including Górecki—to “piece together the jigsaw of new idioms and techniques filtering through from Western Europe and America.”

At the same time, Górecki continued to be inspired by the rich traditions of Polish history and culture, especially its folk and liturgical (Catholic) music. Polish folk songs and hymns provided the genesis for what became the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Each of the three movements centers on a text (actually, a lament) sung by the soprano soloist. The choice to use a single singer, without chorus, lends the symphony a feeling of emotional intimacy and transparency. Similarly, the orchestra includes no oboes, English horns, bass clarinets, trumpets, or percussion (except for piano and harp). Strings dominate, dividing into as many as ten different parts. There is no virtuoso writing either for the orchestra or the soloist. All the movements are marked Largo (slow), and remain mostly at a soft volume level. Long, sustained notes, chords, and slowly repeating modal patterns create a contemplative, at times medieval, mood in a style that has been called “holy minimalism.” [Others working in similar styles include the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) and English composer John Tavener (1944-2013)—Ed.]

All of the symphony’s texts concern the love between mother and child. In the first movement, the longest, the Virgin Mary addresses her son Jesus dying on the cross, using the fourth verse of the Holy Cross Lament (Lament ´swi˛etokkrzyski) from a mid-15th-century Polish manuscript.

For the second, Górecki chose a short sentence scrawled on the wall of the infamous Nazi prison “Palace” in the Zakopane region by 18-year-old Helena Wanda Bła˙zusiakówna, imprisoned there in 1944. Helena’s graffito (“Mamo, nie płacz, nie,” “Mother don’t cry”) addressed to her own mother and to the Mother of God, was photographed for a book about the prison published in Poland in 1970. Helena’s words also draw on a 1918 resistance song from Lviv, honoring a volunteer who died in the struggle to keep the city Polish after World War I. (Lviv did become part of Poland between the wars but was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine after World War II.) To Helena’s three-line plea Górecki added the first words of the Polish Ave Maria (“Zdrowa´s Mario”), sung like a church chant on a single pitch.

The long text for the third movement was the first one Górecki had selected: a folk lament by a mother who has lost her son in an uprising. It is believed that the moving and nationalistic text refers to the Silesian Uprisings of 1919-21, when Poles rebelled against the German Weimar Republic’s attempts to claim Polish territory in the aftermath of World War I.

The symphony creates an illusion of plangent simplicity emerging from an intricate—even mathematical—formal plan. Serene and hypnotic repeating musical patterns contrast with the tragic content of the texts, stressing hope and transcendence. In keeping with the medieval text, the first movement employs an elaborate canon structure. A 25-measure theme in the Aeolian mode (the scale on the piano keys from A to A) builds gradually from one voice (heard first in the low double basses on the note E) into eight voices at the climax. Each new voice enters at the interval of a fifth higher than the preceding one. The theme combines two songs: a Lenten beggar’s song (“Lo, Jesus is dying”) and a hymn from the Kurpian Forest region. The string voices then disappear one by one in similar fashion, ending finally on E. Only in the middle of the movement does the soprano enter (marked doloroso—mournful), moving slowly stepwise, climbing gradually by an octave from E to E.

By contrast, instruments in a higher register (clarinet, horn, harp, piano) and a soaring soprano part that ascends to a high A-flat dominate the second movement, creating a celestial soundscape over a folk-like drone in the string parts. The soprano dwells repeatedly on “Mamo”—a tender form of direct address in Polish for the word “mother.” For the final movement, Górecki employs a theme and variations structure on a simple cantabile, “singing,” motif heard first in the flutes. Here, the soprano takes center stage, singing a quiet grief-stricken lament over her dead son in repeating stepwise phrases circling around the symphony’s home note, E. The movement’s main key of A minor shifts to more affirmative A major in the final measures, offering a measure of hope after the preceding woe and suffering. Much of the symphony’s musical material derives from what Górecki called his “motto”: the three-note motif E-F#-G.

The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs came to be strongly associated with the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, especially Auschwitz. This association was solidified by Tony Palmer’s controversial 1993 film, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which overlays graphic documentary footage of Nazi death camps as visual accompaniment to the Zinman-Upshaw recording. But Górecki said on numerous occasions that he rejected the equation of the Third Symphony with the Holocaust, referred to only in the second movement.

“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. It’s a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.