This is a guest post by Gregory Rutecki.
“…when I was twelve years old, we went…to
Auschwitz. I had the feeling…the huts were
still warm…The paths…were made from human
bones, thrown…like shingle…how to walk on
this? This is not sand, not earth. We were walking on
human beings.”1 (Henryk Gorecki)
The Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (1933-2010) was no stranger to pain, pathos, and death. When he was 4 years old, he dislocated his left hip. Physicians in Katowice and Istebna were unable to heal him, and unfortunately, added multiple infectious complications. By the age of 6, he had already experienced recurrent osteomyelitis, and for a temporary respite, drew a useless leg up to his chest. A few months after his family took him to a German hospital, World War II commenced—a war that would decrease Poland’s population by some 6 million human beings. Dr. Seifert, a German orthopaedist, performed four surgeries to restore function to Henryk’s diseased extremity. Little Henryk spent 20 months in the hospital.
Gorecki’s mother died prior to this ordeal, when he was 2; she was 26 years of age. He lost an aunt and uncle in concentration camps, one in Auschwitz. His step-grandfather would die in Dachau. Despite his personal–and Poland’s national tragedies during WWII–he would be sustained by his Catholicism, a uniquely Polish faith. He not only survived the war, but postwar Poland, despite being bound by Stalinist chains. His talents as a composer—intimately connected to a holistic Polish-Catholic identity–provide an existential, musical, and historical panorama of myriad historical events. His haunting melodies captured a national, transcendent, and centuries-long spirit—bounded by a national legacy of sacrifice and sorrow within a worldview reflecting the Catholic faith.
Gorecki’s audience is most familiar with his Third Symphony, and his view of the mother’s role, informed by the Blessed Virgin, is woven into it. That maternal role—plumbing the depths of unconditional, maternal love—is the essence of Gorecki’s paradigm for motherhood, Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The music also serves as a siren, warning of the inevitable experience of maternal suffering. A mother’s love can never elude sorrow. For Gorecki, an authentic mother is a Mater Dolorosa. Her suffering is the essence of Polish history, and Gorecki revisits this history through music reflecting the all too often grieving mothers of Poland.
Gorecki’s Maternal: Nurturing Love and Virtuous Suffering
“Her image (Our Lady of Czestochowa) juxtaposes several
ideals of womanhood: a powerful, heavenly queen, a suf-
fering mother, a perfect nurturer…(the) scars on her cheek
are a sign of suffering she shares with her worshippers.”6
“Mary may be described as ‘one of the few female characters
to have attained the position of archetype…she stands for mater-
nity itself.’ Mary’s right to universal motherhood is based on her
suffering at the bottom of the cross where her ‘heart has been
pierced by the sword of sorrow.’“6
Polish Catholicism is surfeit with the worship of Mary—she is truly the Heavenly Patron of Poland. Gorecki’s music praises the “Mother of God” (Polish: Bogurodzica, from a 13th Century Marian Anthem). Gorecki extols Mary’s motherhood, and in so doing, bequeaths Mary’s transcendent virtues to both the nation of Poland and its mothers. Gorecki’s metaphor for his “Polishness” was his bond to Poland, his mother country. “Even (when) a child is cut off from the umbilical cord, it is a child of its mother…the strongest tie.” He specifically mentions Poland as a “maternal” influence, his birthplace and locale for life’s habitation. Poland was also his irreplaceable muse. His maternal metaphor, joining Marian traits to the Polish nation and her mothers, is critical to his oeuvre. Gorecki reflects a generalized Polish rejection of Western feminism. Woman-as-mother represents more than gender and parenting. Authentic mothers have experienced an ontological transformation generated by the sharing of Mary’s transcendent motherhood. Mary, in the context of Poland, its faith, and its grieving mothers, serves as an exegetical tool for Gorecki’s Third Symphony.
Mary as the Lady of Czestochowa is housed in the centuries-old monastery of Jasna Gora. She is believed by the faithful to have protected Poland from invaders including the Swedes and Russians. The painting arrived August, 1382, as Poland was emerging as a nation. In 1656, King Jan Kazimierz crowned Mary as the country’s Queen and Protector. Poland was then a great and unified nation.
Why is Mary the role model for Polish mothers? In the context of Gorecki’s Catholicism, she is the template for perfect motherhood, projecting concern for all her children through love and forgiveness. Mary also experienced a dark side of the maternal nature: in the words of Luke Howard, “…mothers and children, the strength of the maternal bond, love death and grief.” Mary lost a son to a violent death, sharing in his suffering.
During the many partitions of Poland by her more powerful neighbors, Polish mothers sustained the family, the Catholic faith, and Polish language and culture. As the Polish National Anthem reminds everyone, Jeszcze Polska nie zginela (Poland has not disappeared) since Poland’s mothers have preserved the nation’s heritage through dark times. Symphony No. 3 is a musical example of Polish motherhood as the dynamic preserving the best of Polish culture.
Maters Dolorosa: Symphony Number 3
“…(Gorecki) came across…the horrific atrocities committed
by the Gestapo in…Zakopane…After the war…Poles found
inscriptions scratched on…cell walls…Gorecki chose…the most
moving graffito of…Helena Wanda Blazusia, aged 18… (she
scratched) ‘Oh mama do not cry…Queen of Heaven support me…
(O mamo nie placz nie—Niebios Przeczysta Krolowo Ty zawse
wspierj mnie.’). (2nd movement, Symphony 3)2
“…each of the three movements…represent(s) a different age in Poland’s
history, quoting only materials that are distinct to that particular era and
Love and national preservation do not complete a mother’s vocation. Only the experience of maternal grief has that power. In Gorecki’s words regarding the Zakopane wall (the second movement), “…in prison the whole wall was covered with inscriptions…I’m innocent, free me…so loud, so banal. An 18-year old girl, almost a child…she does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself, instead she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair…mother do not cry.”
The Symphony is comprised of palpable maternal suffering (Mary at the feet of the crucified Jesus, first movement) with two later embodiments of Mary’s transcendence-in-grief–in the torment of a young prisoner during WWII (2nd movement) and the lament of a Polish mother at the death of her son in the early 20th Century during the Silesian uprisings (3rd movement). On another level, this opus is also a compendium of Polish history. Each of its three movements represents a different era. “The longer the introduction and the longer the movement, the further back in time the listener is transported…(The) first movement is medieval with the longest instrumental introduction…(The last movement represents) Poland’s struggle for independence…has a moderately long introduction…the middle (WWII) the shortest.”6 Time, for Gorecki, resembles time connoted by the Greeks through the words chronos and kairos. There is the day to day passage of time, filled with mundane tasks (chronos). Then there is time filled with the transcendent presence of the eternal (kairos). In the words of another author, “In the music of Henryk Gorecki, I have been struck by the way in which I experienced time…It is an emotional experience…his music brings the element of time strongly into the foreground as an expressive force …experiences of time that contrast the holy with the mundane, the everyday with the eternal.”9
The first movement—representing the most distant era–evokes Mary’s grief at the crucifixion of her son. It combines an old Lenten Church hymn, “behold Jesus is dying [oto jezus umiera] with an old Polish folksong “let him be praised [niechaj bendzie pochwalony].7 To recreate that historical period musically, Gorecki’s melody uses the Renaissance Baroque polyphony of J.S. Bach. The vocal portion, the Holy Cross Lament [lamentacja krzyza swietego] is from a 15th century text. Mary speaks to Jesus, “”O my son, beloved and chosen, share your wounds with your mother.”
The second movement is the plea of daughter Helena Wanda Blazusia to her mother not cry at her death. The daughter-directed plea is sandwiched between songs that are sung by grieving mothers.
The third movement remembers Poland’s 19th Century Partition and its consequences. The first two repeated chords are from a Chopin Mazurka. Chopin was the Polish musical patriot of the 19th Century. Also, the “same dissonant chord from Beethoven’s first movement of the 3rd symphony is repeated.”7 Beethoven initially intended the Third Symphony to be an ode to Napoleon. It was Napoleon who tried to reunite the partitioned Polish state. The Silesian Uprisings (1919-1921) gave voice to a mother who asks plaintively, “where has he gone my dear young son.” The lament may have come from Lwow where 14-year-old Jurek Bitschan was killed by German border guards.
“Transcendent suffering is the theme of this Symphony. Gorecki takes his listeners from ‘the basement of everyday life filled with noises, distractions and anxieties to the 10th floor or even to the sky of time-lessness…(to the) contemplation of divine mysteries.”9
Coda: Gorecki, Poland, and Sorrowful Music-as-History.
Few nations have experienced a history as tumultuous as Poland’s. Gorecki not only experienced the worst of Poland’s trauma during WWII, but musically connected it to national upheavals in the near and distant past. Since the Polish experience was also comprised of the Shoah and 20th Century genocide of unmitigated proportions, it must never be forgotten. It has been said that Gorecki’s music, “represents
the most positive aspects of the closing years of our century, as we try to heal the wounds inflicted by the violence and intolerance of our times. It will endure into the next millennium and inspire other composers.” And hopefully, so will it be the richness of his and his nation’s sustaining faith.
- Jacobson, B. A Polish Renaissance. Phaidon Press, London, 1996 p.171-174.
- Thomas A. Gorecki: Oxford Studies of Composers. Clarendon Text, Oxford. 2002, xv., xiii,
- Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland from 1795 to the Present (Volume 2). Columbia University Press, N.Y. 1982. p. 463.
- White M. Music/Record Breaker Independent (London) 1993 (February 21), 16.
- Cary CW. Darkness and Light: Henryk Gorecki’s Spiritual Awakening and its Socio-Political Context. Thesis presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida, December, 2005.
- Trochimczyk M. Mater Dolorosa and Maternal Love in the Music of Henryk Gorecki. Polish Music Journal 2003; 6; accessed online November, 2015.
- Howard LB. Henryk M. Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (1976) as a Symbol of Polish Political History. The Polish Review 2007; LII: 215-222.
- Ponichtera RM. Feminists, Nationalists, and Soldiers: Women in the fight for Polish Independence. International History Review 1997; 19:16-31
- Kopplin D. The Concept of Time in the Music of Henryk Gorecki. Polish Music Journal 2003; 6 (2). ISSN 1521-6039
- Bottenberg W. Henryk Gorecki receives honorary doctorate from Krakow Music Academy. Http://www.nonesuch.com/artists/henryk-gorecki.