The Third Symphony of Henryk Gorecki may be the piece of classical music that will usher in the Third Millennium.
The popularity of this work, which David Zinman will conduct with the Baltimore Symphony Wednesday and Thursday evenings in Meyerhoff Hall, seems without precedent. Zinman's recording of it with the London Sinfonietta and soprano soloist Dawn Upshaw on the Nonesuch label, which was released last year, has sold more than 400,000 copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling classical records ever and placing it on the pop charts in Great Britain, where it outdistanced albums by Madonna and David Bowie. It is safe to say that no piece by a living classical composer has ever touched so many people who do not ordinarily listen to symphonic music.
Gorecki (pronounced Guretski) himself, when he learned that his record was bought by people who drive cabs and wash windows for a living, says he does not understand the work's popularity. "Why do they buy it?" Gorecki asked last year when sales began to climb. "Maybe they are looking for something."
The Gorecki Third -- subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," first performed in 1977 and only a cult item until the release of the Zinman album -- is a unique work. Its three slow movements, which include settings of texts about mothers who have lost their children, make it more haunting and and more accessible than anything else by the composer.
But it is part of a movement in classical music, usually called minimalism, that began in the 1970s and that has since flowered profusely, reaching audiences that usually ignore not only contemporary music, but all classical music. Minimalism's best-known practitioners on this side of the Atlantic include Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the somewhat younger John Adams, whose "Harmonielehre" and operas "Nixon in China" and "Klinghoffer" may represent the American movement's high watermarks. On the other side of the ocean there are, besides Gorecki, the Estonian Arvo Part, the Russian Sofia Gubaidulina and the much younger Englishman John Tavener, whose "Protecting Veil" gave spirited pursuit to the Gorecki Third on the British pop charts.
What these composers share is their training in the densely textured, difficult-to-follow (for the untrained ear), gnomic techniques of the old avant-garde -- they all seriously flirted with Webern-influenced serialism -- and their rejection of such complexity to write music that develops through repetition from tiny cells and exerts a hypnotic appeal not unlike that found in such popular pieces as the Pachelbel Canon, Ravel's "Bolero" or Satie's "Gymnopedies."
But here the similarities between the Americans and their European counterparts -- particularly those behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain -- end. The music of the Westerners has a tendency to use pop idioms. Europeans such as Gorecki, Gubaidulina and Part, who may be the most significant of any of these composers, look back to the foundations of European art music in Bachian polyphony and even further back in the music (( of the medieval church (Roman Catholic chant in the case of Gorecki, Russian Orthodox chant in that of Part and Gubaidulina). For this reason (and a few others that have to do with the cultural and social environments in which they were raised), the music of Eastern European minimalists strikes spiritual and emotional chords that often makes that by their Western counterparts seem merely busy and frenetic.
But a digression about the extraordinary popularity of the Gorecki third is in order. Nothing, of course, ever adequately explains a genuine phenomenon. Nonetheless it may be worthwhile to note that the construction of the piece, its textures and its emotional subtext all contribute to its appeal.
On both the largest and smallest levels, the piece is simple to follow even for those who do not ordinarily listen to symphonic music. The vast majority of the melodic motion is stepwise, which makes it easy for the untrained ear to appreciate. (It is such stepwise motion that makes "America" easy to sing and the lack of it that makes the "Star-Spangled Banner" so difficult.)
Then there is, of course, the repetition -- varied artfully enough to be hypnotic rather than boring -- that makes its ideas easy to grasp. And there is the symphony's structure. In the huge Mahler-sized opening movement, for example, the music starts with a barely audible grumble in the lower strings and insistently rises canonically from the depths with the addition of voice after VTC voice until the whole orchestra is singing. Then the music subsides symmetrically until the soprano enters with the first of the symphony's sorrowful songs (there is one in each movement). After that emotional climax, the music gradually subsides again in exactly the reverse way it originally rose. The composer's artfulness produces utter simplicity.
Finally, there is the emotional thrust of the music, which seems to carry a message that almost all listeners find deeply consoling. Gorecki called this piece "The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" because of the three texts sung by the soprano soloist. The first is a 15th-century Polish Catholic hymn known as the "Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery"; the second is a graffito scratched on the wall by an 18-year-old girl in the basement jail of Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane; and the third is a medieval folk song.
In the first of these, the Holy Mother laments her crucified son as she holds him in her arms; in the second, the imprisoned girl prays to the Virgin that her mother may not weep for her; and in the third, a mother mourns the death of her son in unknown lands in a war whose causes she does not understand and whose brutality she cannot fathom.
Sorrowful songs indeed. But also consoling ones -- because they sing of a love that cannot be cut short by death, that lives on for ever.
Gorecki insists that his symphony is neither religious nor about World War II. But it is a work that could only have been written by a deeply spiritual man (he is Catholic) and by one who has suffered through the horrors of the Hitler era (he lost members of his family at Auschwitz) and through its almost equally horrible aftermath under Stalin.
Can it be any accident that the music of Part and Gubaidulina was also written by composers who suffered similarly in the war and under Stalin and for whose religious leanings they were ostracized. The messages of Christianity are manifold, but its basic meaning is that there is a promise of a better world after this one. This is a message that would exert a powerful appeal on a Gorecki, living in the grim industrial city of Katowice, one of the most polluted places in Europe. And it is one that would equally attract the likes of a Part or a Gubaidulina, who were internal exiles before they became actual emigres. Spirituality is a less important component in Western minimalism. In the United States the promise of a better world is diminished by the possibility in this one of a BMW in one's garage, a VCR in the living room and a Jacuzzi in the bathroom.
As moving as it is, however, the Gorecki Third seems to this listener a less distinguished piece of music than the best work of Part and Gubaidulina. But it shares with them a quality of authenticity in its attempt to come to terms with human suffering, and that is the source of its popular appeal.
As the world lurches toward the Third Millennium, there seems to be a desperate need to find roots and continuity. One of the problems with American classical music has been that it has often tried to turn to Europe, eschewing its own soil. Our most successful composers have always been able to find something they liked in American culture, whether church hymns or patriotic tunes for Charles Ives, the myth of the West for Aaron Copland, or, more currently, rock music for Christopher Rouse. Gorecki, like some of his contemporaries in the East and unlike some in this country, does not seem to be prevented by what is temporal from finding consolation for himself (and his listeners) in what is timeless.
You can hear excerpts of David Zinman's recording with the London Sinfonietta of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony on SUNDIAL, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service.
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800; (410) 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County. After you hear the greeting, enter code 6102.