As has been my custom for several years, I listened to Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) this afternoon, before attending the Good Friday liturgy. This is a remarkable work that never fails to move me. I don’t listen to it very often during the rest of the year, but it has become a Good Friday staple for me.
Though Gorecki himself insists that the work has much broader meaning (no doubt), it is difficult for me to listen to it without being overwhelmed by thoughts of the insane brutality of the Nazi death camps in Gorecki’s own Poland. The text of the second movement is actually taken from scratchings on the wall of a Gestapo prison in southern Poland, and the entire piece seems imbued with the lingering memory of a people and a boy (b. 1933) who lived through the madness. In this connection, I see a particular affinity between this piece and Good Friday. It is not for nothing that Isaiah 52 is read in today’s liturgy.
At the simplest level, it is a piece about the suffering of mothers losing their children. It is a Pieta, writ upon the maternity of humanity. The first movement’s text is quite literally a Marian lament, dating from the 15th century, that could have been spoken at the foot of the cross. The third movement uses a local folk song that speaks of a grieving mother yearning for her son, lost in a violent uprising in the early 20th century.
But the shorter second movement is the most remarkable to me. It recognizes a mother’s sorrow through the eyes of a lost child – in this case an 18 year-old Polish girl named Helena, imprisoned by the German Gestapo on September 26, 1944. On the wall of her prison cell, she wrote: “No, Mamma, do not cry -Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always” (followed by the beginning of the Ave Maria – in Polish).
It is humbling to realize that this girl – in such dire straights – concerned herself, before all else, with the suffering she knew her mother must have been living through on her account. I know a man who, we are told, acted very similarly in his own hour of darkness. It’s a tale that tells of the triumph of charity – and faith – over despair, despite an aching sadness.
Musically, the symphony culminates when, after almost an hour of slow, brooding, dark, aching, sometimes devastatingly angst-ridden waves of sound, the third movement resolves – twice – into an A Major chord that witnesses to the persistence of possibility – though not without a lingering knowledge of darkness.
It is in no way corny or contrived, the way the piece comes around like this; rather, it smartly reflects the essence of a faithful existence in the face of madness and rampant sin. In a Good Friday context, it is simply the realization that Easter has the last word.
God bless all grieving mothers on this day. And God bless Henryk Gorecki, who, whether he intended to or not, managed to capture the Pieta in music – right down to the last note.