An introduction to Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

One of the 20th Century’s finest pieces, in an unprecedented stage performance. Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a stark change from the rest of our 2022/23 Season. If you like your theatre to be a touching work of art, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is for you.

Read up on Henryk Górecki’s finest work before our 2022/23 Season production.

With tickets starting from just £10, book yours now for Symphony of Sorrowful Songs at the London Coliseum from 27 April – 6 May 2023.

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In 1991, a Recording of the London Sinfonietta performing Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 was released, rocketing the Polish composer from relative obscurity to global notoriety. Featuring the soprano Dawn Upshaw, the symphony topped charts world wide, and became one of the most beloved pieces of classical music of the modern era.

Notably, the piece received a lot of popularity through its exposure on the newly created Classic FM, becoming a household name in the UK and a staple of orchestral repertoire. 

Górecki’s magnum opus

Composed in 1976, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, known colloquially as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is often thought of as the composers finest work, and led to Górecki being lauded as possibly the most commercially successful composers of the 20th Century. 

Coming from a basis in composing mainly dissonant works, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs marked a transition between the crunchiness of his early works to the more tonal harmony of his later years. Described as ‘mournful, like Mahler, but without the bombast of percussion, horns and choir, just the sorrow of strings and the lone soprano’, Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 remains the composer’s best known work.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is sung in Polish, but with good reason – the texts are verbatim from their sources. They all, in one sense or another, relate to the theme of motherhood. The three movements each adapt one text, from a different viewpoint – for instance, the second movement, is from the perspective of a child seeking aid. 

The first and third, however, come from the perspective of a mother, in concern for her child. The text of the first movement is taken from a series of medieval Polish songs, titled the Lament of the Holy Cross, from the 15th Century. The songs are written from the perspective of Mary, as she looks upon Jesus on the cross, and in this excerpt she speaks of wishing to ease his pain, and knowing he will leave her soon.

The third movement, however, is taken from a series of folk songs, taken from the Opole region of Poland. In this text, a mother wonders about the fate of her child, who has gone missing, assumed dead. She speaks of wanting to know where he lies so she may mourn properly, and praying that songbirds will sing for him whilst flowers bloom on his grave – a stunning text for this touching symphonic work. 

Perhaps the most touching text is that taken from a wall of a cell in a Gestapo prison in Zakopone. Incarcerated there was Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna, an 18-year-old who was imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944, under Nazi occupation of Poland. Whilst she remained in prison, she scratched a prayer into the wall of her cell, using a fragment of her own broken tooth:

‘Mother, do not cry, no, do not weep, Most pure Queen of Heaven, Protect me always.’

As heartbreaking as this might seem, it has a happy ending – after 12 weeks, Helena was amongst those being moved from Zakopane by train, when she was rescued by guerrillas. She crossed the Tatra mountains by foot and made it to her grandparents in Szczawnica, where she lived out the war. 

Book your tickets now for Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum from 27 April – 6 May 2023.