Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hey, Copernicus!: Górecki's Symphony No. 2

To most classical listeners, Polish composer Henryk Górecki (pronounced Gore-ett-ski) is known only as a symphonist. The phenomenal success (at least as far as classical records go) of his Third Symphony "Sorrowful Songs" in the early nineties probably disqualifies that from treatment here at Unsung Symphonies.1 However, the huge exposure of the Third seems to have out-shined his first two symphonic efforts right out of visibility. This is a shame, because a fuller appreciation of Górecki's skills as a composer is only possible once we yank our ears away from the passionate monotony of the well-known Third and concentrate on the less trendy stuff.

Perhaps in the future we'll look at the jagged essay in atonal effects that is the Symphony No. 1, but today I'm concentrating on his next foray, the Symphony No. 2 Kopernikowska ("Copernican"). The symphony was a commission by the Polish-American Kościuszko Foundation as a commemoration of the 500th birth-iversary of Poland's greatest astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus, dismantler of the centuries old geocentric model of the cosmos. Copernicus' heliocentric theory, of course, wasn't exactly warmly received by the Catholic Church, challenging as it did centuries-held dogma.

Now, you may have heard Górecki lumped in the category of "Holy/Spiritual/Sacred Minimalists," a vague descriptor he shares with Pärt and Tavener. We don't need to fuss about the accuracy of this category; suffice it to say Górecki's music tends to be extremely gradual, and extremely Christianity-oriented. And for the composer, Copernicus represents a problem. Relinquishing a geocentric view of the universe knocked humanity down a couple existential pegs. How then, would this extraordinarily devout composer approach the task of commemorating what Górecki described as, in some ways, "not an optimistic discovery"?

In this Second Symphony, Górecki cobbled together bits of several written passages, including two psalms and a line from Copernicus' own writings to serve as a choral text. In typical Górecki style, these words are drawn out over immense (galactic?!) spans of musical time. Here is the Latin and a translation.2

Deus, qui fecit caelum et terram. Qui fecit luminaria magna... Solem in potestatem diei. Lunam et stellas in potestatem noctis. Quid autem caelo pulcrius, nempe quod continet pulcra omnia?

(God, who created the heaven and the earth, who made the great lights, the sun for the power of day, the moon and stars for the power of night. What, indeed, is more beautiful than heaven, which truly contains all beautiful things?)

These words are set within two movements, the first screamingly dissonant, the second calm and reflective. The majority of the first movement's 17 minutes is actually purely orchestral. The opening doesn't suggest it will be a pretty affair:

Symphony No. 2 Mvt I. Beginning 

Gargantuan slabs of whole-tone dissonance grind up against each other, these chords set in an elliptical orbit around the melodic note E. Against this elemental harshness, a passage of relative calm (if not consonance) is introduced. Tell me this doesn't sound like another, equally cosmic sound-effect:

Symphony No. 2 Mvt I. Middle

Compare with Beam me Up! (both, as it turns out, rely on high, tightly packed clusters of whole-tone related pitches)

Returning from that final frontier, Górecki intensifies the orchestral stridency, recalling the dissonant sound slabs as well as swarms of chattering brass that wouldn't sound out of place accompanying the sentinels in The Matrix. At the end of the movement, the chorus enters the fray, chanting "Deus, qui fecit caelum et terram" to the tune banshee-wail from the beginning. If this is a vision of the cosmos, it is a downright cataclysmic one.

Thank heavens for the second movement. The hellish tone is immediately reversed, with luminous pentatonic (and increasingly diatonic, downright friendly) chords providing the ground over which a solo baritone steadily reaches higher in his range. He is joined by a female soprano (now it's beginning to sound like his Third Symphony a lot), and together they continue their ascent across several haunting mini-climaxes.

The most remarkable moment comes when when the full chorus enters for the last time (come to think of it, they only sang together for about a minute before this, talk about a boring job!). In radiant 4-part modal harmony, they sing the tune to a 13th century Polish antiphon "Laude digne prole," to set the words of Copernicus "What, indeed, is more beautiful than heaven...?" The idiom is new to the piece, unashamed in its archaism.

(I feel like it's a spoiler to post a clip of the final legs of the symphony, since so much of its effect owes to a long investment of time with the rest of the work. But hey, this is the internet, and we ain't got all day.)

Symphony No. 2 Mvt II. Choral Exit 

The symphony winds down with a very long (5 minute!) coda. You can hear the whole conclusion on youtube here. Essentially only two things happen. First, orchestral layers, and correspondingly volume, are continually added to a consonant cluster chord, swelling in luminosity like an indistinct nebula coalescing into a gleaming star. Then, that beacon collapses into a first inversion Ab-chord and slowly fades back into nothingness. 

1Unsung in the figurative sense of course. Górecki's Third is one long, unadorned song on Polish texts of mourning after another.

2 Thanks to Kassandra Conley for the translation.

3 No, but really, this kind of selective excerpting totally violates the spirit of a slow-burn piece like this, and I urge you to listen to the whole thing!

-Frank Lehman


  1. Ahh, composers and their personalities - it's strange how we can listen to their music in completely different light after learning about such things.

    My ignorance would have assumed Polish Pride = Love of Copernicus, but apparently not so! And it's all too clear with this symphony. I'm not especially a fan of symphonies with voices, but this one ain't so bad ;-)


  2. Can't wait to hear the whole thing. I'm also surprised that something written in honor of Copernicus is vaguely anti-Copernican, or at least not extremely warm toward Copernicus and his smarts. But maybe this symphony actually pays homage to C in the most real way — it shows just how (literally) earth-shattering and frightening C's discovery was.

  3. Thank you very much.
    Here is, now, the whole symphony: