Symphony No. 3 (Górecki)  

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The Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a symphony in three movements composed by Henryk Górecki in Katowice, Poland, between October and December 1976. The work is indicative of the transition between Górecki's dissonant earlier manner and his more tonal later style. It was premièred on 4 April, 1977, at the Royan International Festival, with Stefania Woytowicz as soprano and Ernest Bour as conductor.

Critical and cultural reception

Górecki's Symphony No. 3 was written in 1976, when Górecki was, in the words of the music critic Jane Perlez, "a fiery figure, fashionable only among a small circle of modern-music aficionados". The 1977 world première at the Royan Festival, Ernest Bour conducting, was reviewed by six western critics, all of them harshly dismissive. Heinz Koch, writing for Musica, said that the symphony "drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes". Górecki himself recalled that, at the premiere, he sat next to a "prominent French musician" (Górecki did not name names, though it was probably Pierre Boulez), who, after hearing the twenty-one repetitions of an A-major chord at the end of the symphony, loudly exclaimed "Merde!"

The symphony was first recorded in Poland in 1978 by the soprano Stefania Woytowicz. It was deemed a masterpiece by Polish critics, although, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, recordings and performances of the work were widely criticised by the press outside Poland. The symphony drew hostility from critics who felt that Górecki had moved too far away from the established avant-garde style and was, according to Dietmar Polaczek (writing for Österreichische Musikzeitschrift), "simply adding to the decadent trash that encircled the true pinnacles of avant-gardism".

In 1985, the French filmmaker Maurice Pialat featured a section of the third movement in the ending credits of his movie Police. When the work was later repackaged as a "soundtrack album", it sold well. Although Gorecki's name was featured prominently on the front cover, the sleeve notes on the back provided precious little information about the work, and Górecki's name appeared in smaller type than those of the main actors. In the mid-1980s, British industrial music group Test Dept used the symphony as a backdrop for video collages during their concerts, recasting the symphony as a vehicle for the band's sympathy with the Polish Solidarity movement, which Górecki also supported (his 1981 piece Miserere was composed in part as a response to government opposition of Solidarity trade unions). During the late 1980s, the symphony received increasing airplay on US and British classical radio stations, notably Classic FM. The fall of communism helped to spread the popularity of Polish music generally, and by 1990 the symphony was being performed in major cities such as New York, London and Sydney. A 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring the soloist Dawn Upshaw, was released in 1992 by the Elektra imprint Nonesuch Records. Within two years, the recording had sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide; the recording climbed to number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, and while it did not appear on the US Billboard 200, it stayed at the top of the US classical charts for 38 weeks and stayed on for 138 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies. It probably counts as the best selling contemporary classical record of all time.

Michael Steinberg described the symphony's success as essentially a phenomenon of the compact disc, and while live performances are still given, they do not always sell out. Some critics, wondering at the sudden success of the piece nearly two decades after its composition, suggest that it resonated with a particular mood in the popular culture at the time. Stephen Johnson, writing in A guide to the symphony, wondered whether the commercial success of the work was "a flash in the pan" or would turn out to have lasting significance. In 1998, Steinberg asked, "[are people] really listening to this symphony? How many CD buyers discover that fifty-four minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background music to Chardonnay and brie?" Steinberg compared the success of Górecki's symphony to the Doctor Zhivago phenomenon of 1958: "Everybody rushed to buy the book; few managed actually to read it. The appearance of the movie in 1965 rescued us all from the necessity." Górecki was as surprised as anyone else at the recording's success, and later speculated that "perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music…. Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed."

At least a dozen recordings were issued in the wake of the success of the Nonesuch recording, and the work enjoyed significant exposure in a number of artistic media worldwide. The work was repeatedly used by filmmakers in the 1990s and onwards to elicit a sense of pathos or sorrow, including as an accompaniment to a plane crash in Peter Weir's Fearless (1993), and in the soundtrack to Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996). An art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico opened an exhibit in 1995 dedicated entirely to visual art inspired by the piece. On June 24, 2018, in an unprecedented gesture, the host of SiriusXM followed a playing of the Zinman/Upshaw recording by asking the listeners to consider parallels between the theme of the texts referencing the separation of mothers and children to the then current political situation.

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