"Symphony No. 3 'Of Sorrowful Songs' " for solo soprano and orchestra caused a lot of excitement when it was first performed in Poland at the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's Symphony No. 3 'Of Sorrowful Songs' for solo soprano and orchestra (1976) caused a lot of excitement when it was first performed in Poland at the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival. The audience was confused and extremely divided in their opinions and judgments, some considering the work a masterpiece while others deeming it a demonstration of the composer's block. Everybody was struck by the simplicity of the music language; some saw it reduced to a few chords and repeated melody. The Symphony was a true revolution compared to Górecki's earlier, extraordinarily technically sophisticated music. This is how Górecki himself parried the critics' attacks:
"You, men of letters, have several Góreckis, because you like labeling and pigeonholing: this is the 'Scontri' Górecki, that is the 'Sonata' one, here is the 'Refrain' one and that is the 'Symphony No. 3' one. It must be pleasing to order the reality in this way, but the true reality is somewhat different. I wrote a number of other works in-between 'Scontri' and 'Symphony No. 3' and can see no reason for distinguishing some phases and writing about jump shifts. If you listen well, you will be able to hear a lot of similarities in all of my music. I did not change my revolutionary's clothes for a Franciscan habit; indeed, I never had any revolutionary's clothes or a habit. I did not need them."
In fact Symphony No. 3 was preceded by several works which in a way prepared the radical change of Górecki's music from his earlier period, the one defined by the utterly avant-garde Scontri which had been performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival sixteen years earlier. Yet Symphony No. 3 shocked the audience with its extremely simplified language, means of expression which were reduced to an "unacceptable" degree, and a return to "the primitive tonality", the qualities which for the Symphony fans marked a new composing concept and creative genius. All had to admit that what had not changed was the huge expressive charge of Górecki's music - except that it acquired a different touch in Symphony No. 3 (and earlier in Ad Matrem and in Symphony No. 2): a stronger presence of the sacral element. Was it its zealous praying character which made Symphony No. 3 such a success sixteen years after it was first performed?
This is what Górecki himself says:
"Symphony No. 3 'Of Sorrowful Songs' was commissioned by the Baden-Baden Südwestfunk radio. I worked on it from 30th October to 30th December 1976. Its premiere took place at the 14th International Contemporary Art Festival on 4th April 1977. It was sung by Stefania Woytowicz with the Südwestfunk Symphony Orchestra under Ernest Bour. The Symphony consists of three songs, the first - and the longest one (ca. 27 minutes) - being a strict canon interrupted by a soprano invocation. Its theme uses a fragment of a Kurpie song from Father Władysław Skierkowski's collection. The second song - the shortest one - is a kind of a lamentation with a simple ABABC structure. The third song is a variation on an authentic folk tune from the Opole region from Adolf Dygacz's collection. I have dedicated the Symphony to my wife. The timing is about fifty-five minutes." (Górecki's commentary published in the programme book of the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival).
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, November 2001.