Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Górecki: Symphony No. 3

I recorded a course entitled Music as a Mirror of History for The Great Courses/Teaching Company in 2015. The concept behind the course was to feature works composed in direct response to historical events, and to discuss those musical works in the context of the events that inspired them. The resulting course was as much – if not more – a history course than a music course, and topics and music spanned a gamut from pro-Elizabeth I propaganda in early seventeenth-century English madrigals to the war in Vietnam as exemplified in George Crumb’s Black Angels for amplified string quartet.

(The course garnered for me one of the highest compliments I ever received. At a speaking engagement a couple of years ago a gentleman who introduced himself as an academic and a writer told me how much he enjoyed Music as a Mirror of History. He asked me how long it had taken me to write the thing – it runs about 120,000 words – and I told him a solid seven months. It was then that he inadvertently paid me my compliment, by inquiring as to how many research assistants I employed in writing the course. I laughed out loud; it was like asking a cab driver how many chauffeurs he used on a daily basis. I told him zero, nil, none, and that I probably wouldn’t trust a research assistant even if I had one.)

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010)

Now please, this mention of Music as a Mirror of History is not intended as a graceless plug; besides, I much prefer graceful plugs. Rather, it is to observe that today’s prescribed piece – Henryk Górecki’s magnificent and heart-wrenching Symphony No. 3 – is the work under discussion in Lecture 23, the second-to-last lecture in Music as a Mirror of History. The symphony’s historical inspiration was nothing less than the tragic history of the Polish people and nation during the twentieth century.

Górecki was born in 1933. He composed his Third Symphony during the last three months of 1976. It received its premiere on April 4, 1977, at at the Royan Festival in Royan, in southwestern France. 

Founded in 1964, the festival’s “full name” was “The Royan International Festival of Contemporary Art.” That’s “contemporary” with a capital “C”, because Royan was the place to go if you wanted to hear the “newest of the new”; the “spikiest of the spikey”; the finger-nails-on-the-blackboard cutting edge of musical modernism, composed by the likes of György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bruno Maderna, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and yes, Henryk Górecki, who was known for his uncompromising commitment to modernism as well. 

One needn’t be clairvoyant to imagine how the bulk of the Royan audience reacted to Górecki’s symphony, which turned out to be a slowly unfolding, exquisitely beautiful, sublimely metaphysical, entirely tonal 46-minute, three-movement work for orchestra and soprano.

In a word, the bulk of the audience responded poorly. The music they heard, with its consonant harmonies and traditional melodic constructs was, to the minds of most, an undisguised betrayal of the avant-garde. Every single one of the Western music critics in attendance savaged the symphony. However, interestingly enough, every one of the Polish critics in the audience declared the symphony to be a masterwork. … Read the discussion and history around the work as well as learn about the Dr. Bob Recording Prescription, only on Patreon!