Review Summary: An utterly awe-inspiring work.
Consider the following things: Symphony No. 3
is a symphony written in the latter half of the 20th century. It's a symphony written by a composer from Poland, a country with a grand total of one genuinely world-famous composer to its name (even he was arguably French!), and with an inescapable, if undeserved reputation as second-class when it comes to producing classical music. It's a symphony that distorts the form entirely, pushing a solo vocal line to the forefront and dispensing with the three or four movement quick-slow-quick structure that has prevailed for centuries. And it's a symphony written by a composer that was doing the opposite to most of his peers, by coming from a dissonant and serialist background into a traditional tonal clarity nearer to Romanticism than anything 20th century.
And yet, this is one of the most critically acclaimed, biggest selling classical works ever, having sat atop the classical album charts in both in the UK and US, selling over a million copies. In the world of music criticism, it's regarded in some quarters as one of the European masterpieces of the 20th century. I don't think people have ever really acknowledged just how remarkable an achievement this is. Even more remarkably, this work deserves every accolade it gets thrown at it. It genuinely is one of the greatest compositions ever.
Gorecki's Symphony No. 3
revolves around three libretti, each in Polish, each involving a great sense of loss, each sung by a single soprano. The texts come from a wide variety of sources, but each deals directly with the seperation of mother and child by war; the second movement is a parting message to a mother found written on a prison wall by a Polish Jew imprisoned during World War II, while the third is a folk song dating back to the genocide of the Silesian uprising, written from the perspective of a mother searching for her missing child, only to find him murdered. To top it opff, the first movement is from the Virgin Mary's perspective and set just after the death of Jesus - this symphony is subtitled 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' for a reason.
For a composer to write about these things in post-World War II Poland was both brave and entirely necessary. What is also necessary is the way this is composed - in contrast to Gorecki's earlier atonal and serialist work, this symphony is almost painfully simple, using the most simple harmony and careful repetition to not only pull at the heartstrings, but leave the vocals with the neccesary space to stand out. If you understand Polish, it must be impossible to listen to it, even in the background, without hearing and understanding every single word; something that's just not the case with other choral works. Even if you don't, it's hard not to understand what this music is about. Very little classical music displays such little light and such little hope. Listening to this can be an emotionally devastating, crushing experience. It could also be the beautiful thing you've ever done.
For a multitude of reasons, this is one of the most incredible pieces of music ever.