Gorecki symphony strikes a chord for many listeners

September 19, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

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."

Similarities end

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.

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