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Felix Concordia: Time in Symphony No. 3

Felix Concordia means “successful harmony”—a way to look at nature and arts through the lens of the quadrivium.

In 1992, the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta released a new recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Gorecki was a Polish composer who expressed his faith in music—symphonies, choral works, chamber ensemble works—that tend to convey deep emotion in slow-moving harmonic textures that borrow from the vocabulary of musical minimalism. While that may sound slightly intriguing but mostly esoteric, the global response to this recording was nothing short of remarkable.

In California, when the local public radio station played this recording, motorists found themselves pulling off the interstate to avoid distractions as they finished listening to the work—they wanted to be able to listen more attentively. In England, this recording climbed to #6 on the UK album charts and stayed at #1 for thirty-eight weeks on the classical charts.

I believe there are a number of reasons why this piece garnered such attention—an antidote to the groundlessness and lostness of the age as well as the purity of sound and emotion. But I also think that Gorecki manifests very clearly a Christian’s dominion over time.

Music is by definition organized sound in time and relates to the creation mandate of dominion over sound and time. Let me give you a partial example of how this works in this piece. A number of occasions with different classes and a variety of ages, I have introduced students to the first movement of this symphony. Before I begin to play the piece, I ask students to refrain from checking their watches. This movement begins very simply, quietly, and slowly as the low strings introduce the main melodic idea—a twenty-four-bar canon. This idea grows from the string basses to the cellos and on up through the strings as it increases in intensity and volume but not in tempo. As it comes to its fruition, the soprano melody enters and introduces us to the first text of the piece:

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 serve you faithfully

Speak to your mother, to make her happy,

Although you are already leaving me, my cherished help.

(Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery from the “Lysagora Songs” Collection. Second half of fifteenth century.)

As the soprano finishes the text, the strings to take over again with the intensity and volume of where they left off as the melodic idea once again works its way in reverse from the higher strings through the lower strings and eventually ends back where it began with the string basses simply and softly completing the melodic idea.

Inevitably when I have played this for students there is absolute silence and attention throughout the entirety of this movement. My first question is, “How long was this movement?” Students generally have an idea that it was longer than the three-minute song on the radio, and so they begin to guess: Ten minutes? Twelve minutes? Perhaps longer? I have never had a student come close to guessing the actual time of this piece—more than twenty-six minutes!

Students are transfixed by the way the composer introduces his melodic material and builds it to a crescendo that unwinds to the end. They become captivated by his dominion over time and not their expectations, the ability to be attentive, or their perception of how time works. Gorecki beautifully structures time inside and outside of this work as a testimony to the fruitful transcending of time from a commodity to a fertile space for sound, harmony, and reflection to dance together.

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