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A Communion of Tears: Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 and the Fellowship of Human Suffering

[A]ll religious experience, no matter how solitary, is suffused with the presence of others, whether in the history one has absorbed or in the language in which one thinks and prays.

—Natalie Zemon Davis
writing on French theologian Michel de Certeau
New York Review of Books, May 15, 2008

As a baby I’m sure I bawled with the best of them, but since then I’ve never been much good at crying. My father died when I was ten, but for whatever reason—I suspect both slavery to machismo and fear that the crying would never stop—I shut my tears inside me for the next seven years. Maybe things would have been different had his funeral taken place in a Catholic church, because nearly every exception to my “no cry” rule has somehow involved Catholicism. I cried rivers at memorial services for Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. I cry regularly at Easter and Christmas vigils. I cry at confession so frequently that I’ve been avoiding it.

And nothing makes me cry as consistently or as uncontrollably as listening to the first movement of that highly Catholic work, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (1976). It was originally considered a “populist” aberration for the Polish composer (b. 1933), best known until then as an experimentalist along the lines of Germany’s Karlheinz Stockhausen and Estonia’s Arvo Pärt. But in 1992, the London Sinfonietta released a recording on Elektra-Nonesuch that became a monster hit by classical standards, touching a nerve in the musical community and exceeding (between its release and today) a million copies in sales.

I don’t remember how it came into my hands, but I wound up with a used copy of the symphony seven or eight years ago. Its cover portrait of a woman at prayer marked it as a religious album, and the composer’s Polish name—I’m half Polish myself, and so I recognized its origin—marked it as specifically Catholic. The CD sat around for nearly a year, waiting for the right time. One day I had the house to myself, so I turned up the stereo and putzed around cleaning things like I usually do when I listen to music at home alone.

But I quickly stopped putzing and sat, immediately pulled into myself by the languor of the piece. The symphony starts with deep, unhurried strings; Górecki aptly called his first movement Lento—sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile (“Slow—sustained, tranquil, but songlike”). Four minutes in, some higher strings emerge. The movement builds upon itself, repeating phrases and rising in tone and grandeur until the thirteen-minute mark, when three piano notes pierce through, bell-like, to announce the arrival of a human voice: the noted soprano Dawn Upshaw, then in the early phase of her dynamic, MacArthur Fellowship–winning career. She sings an excerpt from a fifteenth century Polish prayer called the “Holy Cross Lament”; the prayer is written in the voice of Mary, speaking to her son as he dies on the cross. Upshaw’s patient voice, here resonant and there soaring, captures Mary’s pride, longing, hope, sadness—all the emotions we can imagine her feeling at that moment, as well as some we can’t.

My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart
And always served you faithfully
Speak to your mother, to make her happy.

The lamentation, in itself, is enough of a tearjerker. It’s sad enough for a mother to see her son die, sadder still when that son is Jesus. Then, at the sixteen-minute mark, the final line of lyrics begins: Bo ju? jidziesz ode mnie, moja nadzieja mi?a (“Although you are already leaving me, cherished hope of mine”).

The floodgates always open on those final two words. I have cued up those twenty-some seconds of music two dozen times simply in the writing of this essay, not to mention the dozens of other times I have listened to it, and never have I escaped the weeping. Upshaw sings nadzieja (“hope”) with an overwhelming longing; it’s as if, were she to hold the note for a second longer, a thousand angels would be unable to control their joy and would leap in to hope along beside her.

But her final word, the possessive mi?a, drops one heavy step on its scale. Here, Górecki makes Mary’s sadness monumental—and more importantly, shareable—by drawing upon a fundamental human pathos: the unbridgeable gap between what is and what might be. On top of Mary’s dramatic situation, on top of the lyrics of the lament, on top of Dawn Upshaw’s stunning voice, we have a simple, all-too-human letdown at the highest, most profound level of being and emotion. Mary’s hope departs from her, exactly as she feels it most deeply. It disappears, right between the words hope and mine. I suspect that all of us, at some time or another, have felt our hopes disappear in precisely this fashion.

As I try to understand my reaction to this symphony, my thoughts twine down to a single idea: art creates a vessel that allows human suffering to be shared across generations, distances, and creeds. The “Holy Cross Lament” that Górecki invokes was written half a millennium ago, and no one knows how long it lived in the oral tradition before it made its way onto paper. When I cry over it, I’m crying with all of the other people who have ever cried—in any language—over that prayer or others like it. I’m crying with everyone who has imagined Mary’s sense of lost hope at the foot of the cross, as well as all of those who ever will.

In these shared tears is a human community beyond our comprehension. This brings to mind the epigraph from Natalie Zemon Davis cited at the head of this piece: “[A]ll religious experience, no matter how solitary, is suffused with the presence of others.” Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 teaches me, time and again, that tears in themselves are a kind of religious experience and that others are present in my own suffering.

Others are present in my suffering. I can’t quite believe or comprehend it, but when I listen to Symphony No. 3 and share in the vessel of communion that Górecki has created, I feel it and know it. The others who cried before me, have cried with me, will cry after me are present in the musical culture that has taught me how vitally different two notes can be, and how to sense the pull between them. They are present in the culture that writes its history, that records its lamentations on paper and can mass produce CDs so that millions worldwide can hear shards of a five-hundred-year-old Polish prayer.

But that cultural level, what Davis in her New York Review essay calls the “the history one has absorbed or the language in which one thinks and prays,” is merely the intellectual surface of a much more profound phenomenon. It’s not difficult to say that all of humanity belongs to a single, shared body; even atheists can say so. But it requires faith to say that the individual members of this body, living and dead, are present to each other in a way that the intellect cannot reach. The intellect can’t help us understand that, in weeping over the “Holy Cross Lament,” I kneel down beside those who have wept before me and share with them a specific, yet universal form of suffering.

The shared nature of religious experience is, for many including myself, the principal and overwhelming reason for religious observance. I am keenly aware each time I participate in Communion of partaking in an ancient ritual that has been performed by an astounding number of human beings for nearly two millennia; that awareness, in fact, keeps me coming back. Each discrete line of Mass—each well-worn phrase, repeated by priests and parishioners daily in scores of languages—invokes not a vague feeling of religiosity, but a precise human emotion. When I pray the Our Father with the rest of the congregation, I feel an immense gratitude. When I say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” I feel hope that I will finally let God lift me from the incompleteness of my own life. These emotions are not unique to me, but embedded in the words themselves. The words of Mass hold so much power because they reach down into the twisted roots of the self, and for that same reason they gain more power—for individuals and for the collective body of the church—with each repetition.

And when I listen to the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, I feel the incredible dissonance—and yet the incredible closeness—between the spiritual clarity that I long for and the all-too-human muddle in which I have mired myself. It is a particular kind of suffering, unlike pain, poverty, despair, or lovelessness. The difference between those two words that rip the tears from me, the nadzieja and the mi?a, is as vast as the difference between heaven and earth. We all carry that gap around inside of us, we all dwell within it. Górecki has opened my heart to it, given me words for it, and given me others to share it with.

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Steven Wingate :
Steven Wingate’s short-story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado, where he teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and his digital time at www.stevenwingate.com.
  • Lai

    Symphony No. 3 sounds like a piece from a movie. Or perhaph it has been in a movie? Here’e another interesting article on Gorecki


    It is interesting how his music was doing well on pop charts.

  • Kyle Prifogle

    Steven, I agree whole heartedly with every word you say here. Never has such a piece so consistently brought me to a state of tears. When I think about moments in my life when I truly felt God’s love and a heartfelt yearning for him finally fulfilled, perhaps after years of hardship and turmoil in a moment of synthesis and realization after everything I had gone through, I think of a feeling that is so similar to how this piece makes me feel. Because of this, in spite of any criticism of its simplicity I call it art in the truest sense (in the end what is the chief end of technicality anyway?), and stands to be one of my favorite pieces of all time. When considering the history and spirituality that inspired this piece, it makes me wonder that Gorecki somehow found an incredible secret in composing this piece and transcended to a place of hearing the very song of Gods sorrow at loosing mankind. What did he discover in finding this piece, and can I find it for myself? This song makes me wonder if I can only dream what the song of Gods joy of our deliverance may sound like, or if he is waiting for me to hear it from him and write it down.