Symphony No. 3, The Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki

Classical music is rarely a popular success.  Like literature, there is typically a correlation between a work’s approachability and its mass appeal.  Simply put, many artists believe they must sacrifice complexity, subtly and depth if they want a lot of people to “get it.”  It is truly remarkable when no sacrifice of genius accompanies an overture to broad popularity.  Today’s masterpiece is one of the exceptions.  When Symphony No3 was released in 1976 “in a matter of weeks the recording climbed to the top of the classical music charts, and even landed on the pop music charts, eventually selling in excess of a million copies around the world—not usual numbers for a classical recording.”

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

The first movement of The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs opens with a barely perceptible bass melody that repeats slowly and insistently as it grows in volume, evoking a deep well of sadness and grief until, at about the thirteen-minute mark, three piano notes pierce through the growling bass melody almost like the sounding of a bell, and a solo vocalist enters. She sings the text of a fifteenth-century lament of the Virgin Mary over the death of her Son Jesus. The voice is sad and soaring, echoing the emotions Mary must have felt. After the vocal solo, the music slowly fades as the bass melody returns.

The second movement starts with a melody both mysterious and yearning, washing wavelike over the listener as a salve after the intensity of the first movement. But when the solo vocalist enters again, it becomes more passionate and insistent. The gentle, lulling beauty of the second movement is in sharp contrast to the subject of its lyrics, which give voice to a prayer invoking the protection of the Blessed Virgin that was found scrawled upon the wall of a Nazi prison cell, the probable last words of an eighteen-year-old girl. There is a great sobbing tenderness that enters into the music, and the solo vocalist sings her text in a way that is vulnerable, sorrowful, and yet resilient. It evokes a hard-won hopefulness in the midst of mourning as it crescendos and the strings come alongside to carry the weight of the grief.

The third and final movement is built around an orchestration of a traditional Polish folk song, and it once again presents a lament, this time that of a mother mourning her son, who has been killed in an uprising. There are bell-like tones in the midst of the soulfulness of the sound, and when the movement comes to an end quietly and somewhat inconclusively, it is perhaps a reminder that the pain and suffering of life are always with us, no matter how much hope we have to hang on to.


Which work of classical music speaks most directly to your heart?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Henryk Górecki

Henryk Górecki

GÓRECKI, HENRYK, in full Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, (born Dec. 6, 1933, Czernica, near Rybnik, Pol.—died Nov. 12, 2010, Katowice) Polish composer in the Western classical tradition whose sombre Symphony No. 3 (1976) enjoyed extraordinary international popularity in the late 20th century.

Górecki studied at the Music Academy of Katowice, Pol. The works of Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen informed Górecki’s often atonal and violent early compositions. A change in his compositional style came in 1963 when, challenged to write simple tunes, he created Three Pieces in Old Style for orchestra. Folk songs, medieval music, and references to his Roman Catholic faith characterized his subsequent work, which frequently was based on tragic themes and cast in very slow tempi. “I want to express great sorrow,” Górecki said, as he contemplated various conflicts and hardships across the globe. “This sorrow, it burns inside me.”

Górecki was elected provost of his alma mater, the Music Academy in Katowice, in 1975, but he resigned in protest four years later when the government refused to let Pope John Paul II visit the city. He then traveled to Kraków to conduct his choral work Beatus Vir for the pope and composed new pieces for subsequent papal visits to Poland. Górecki’s Miserere, also a choral composition, was written in 1981 to honour a Solidarity (Polish labour union) leader beaten by the militia; however, because of turbulent political circumstances, it was not until 1987 that the piece was performed.
Until 1991 only one of Górecki’s works, Monologhi (1960), was available in the United States. By the end of 1993, however, some half dozen other compositions by Górecki had been recorded and distributed on a major international label. In part, the widespread interest in Górecki’s music may have been related to Poland’s emergence in 1989 from nearly five decades of communist rule. (Several of Górecki’s early works were indeed described as symbolic anticommunist protests.) In large measure, however, the composer’s rise in prominence was the result of the tremendously successful recording in 1992 of his Symphony No. 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman. The album sold more than half a million copies worldwide at a time when the average classical album typically sold about 15,000 copies. Suddenly Górecki, who had seldom ventured beyond Katowice, became an international celebrity, traveling to London, Brussels, and New York City, holding press conferences, and appearing as the subject of a British television special.

Symphony No. 3 consists of three movements in slow lento and largo tempi and is played at low dynamic levels throughout. It is based on a modal canon that gradually builds upward from low strings to the soprano voice, which enters with pastoral melody, suggesting an element of light amid otherwise dark shadows. The texts are Polish lamentations: a 15th-century monastic song, a folk song, and a prayer scratched in a cell wall by a girl imprisoned by the Gestapo. The repeated orchestral lines recall, to some listeners, minimalist techniques (a compositional style employing extreme simplicity of form). Upshaw’s performance in particular was highly acclaimed by critics, although praise for the Symphony No. 3 was not universal. Some critics dismissed it as simplistic.

In the decade straddling the turn of the 21st century, Górecki composed or revised roughly 15 works, consisting mainly of vocal compositions and pieces for small ensemble. Górecki’s final work—The Song of Rodziny Katynskie, Opus 81, for unaccompanied chorus—was completed in 2004 and premiered by the Polish Radio Choir in Kraków in 2005.

Sources & Resources

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

Cary, Christopher W. Henryk Gorecki’s Spiritual Awakening and Its Socio-Political Context. Master’s thesis. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005.

Thomas, Adrien. Gorecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

London Sinfonietta. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. DVD. Directed by Tony Palmer. Tyne & Wear, England: Voiceprint Records, 2007.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).



Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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Rick is voraciously interested in the holistic transformation of people individually and in an organizational context - enabled by technology, educated continuously through multi-channel systems and informed by the wisdom of history's greatest thinkers. He is a Ph.D. student at Faulkner University, focusing on the appearance of the Logos in English Literature. He earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Management from Sam Houston State University. His undergraduate studies earned a BA with double majors in Sociology and Theology from Houston Baptist University. Rick is an ordained minister who leads the Parenting Teens Adult Community at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands Texas.