Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) was a relatively unknown Polish composer until, in 1992, he found worldwide fame thanks to a recording of his Third Symphony that sold over a million copies. It was an unlikely hit, a work in three movements – all of them slow – featuring Polish texts sung by a soprano: a 15th-century lament of the Virgin Mary; a mother searching for her son, who had been killed by the Germans; and between them, a graffitied message scratched onto the wall of a Gestapo cell in Zakopane. 

Henryk Górecki
© Public domain

The words of 18-year old Helena Błażusiakówna to her mother in that second movement strike a particular chord with listeners: “No, Mother, do not weep, Most chaste Queen of Heaven, support me always.” Many of Górecki’s family died in concentration camps, but he maintained that this was not a piece about war. “It’s not a Dies irae; it’s a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, thus giving the work its subtitle.  

This season sees not one but two stage productions in London that employ Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. For The Royal Ballet this month, Crystal Pite expands her 2017 work Flight Pattern (which used the first movement of the symphony) to a full-length creation called Light of Passage. And in April, director Isabella Bywater will stage it for English National Opera at the Coliseum. Coincidental timing, but an opportunity to assess the power of Górecki’s score and to consider approaches to presenting it on stage. 

The creatives behind these two productions got to know the work via the same disc – David Zinman’s 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta and soprano Dawn Upshaw on Elektra Nonesuch. And that recording scaled the charts because of the radio airplay it received on Classic FM. Rob Cowan was the man responsible. The very week when the station launched in September 1992, Cowan picked it as the first “Sure Shot” recording on his Classic Verdict programme, an unusual choice given that “contemporary music was way outside Classic FM’s brief”! The listener response was immense and the disc topped the station’s charts for over a year. It stayed in the US classical charts for an incredible 138 weeks. 

“It can be listened to at two levels,” says Cowan, trying to explain its success. “It is a profound symphony, but you could also quite easily put it on to ‘chill’ – it was contemporary music that was approachable. Its appeal was the profundity of its message and a performance that played to those qualities.” Composed in 1976, this wasn’t even the work’s first recording and by the 1990s Górecki’s style had changed radically. “He was a bit bemused by its success,” Cowan recalls. The composer defiantly refused to cash in on the Third Symphony’s success by repeating the same formula. 

Crystal Pite in rehearsal with Royal Ballet dancers Matthew Ball and Isabel Lubach
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Crystal Pite’s work began with her choice of Górecki’s music. “I feel that this creation is my way of coping with the world at the moment and I can’t not talk about it,” she explained in 2017 when Flight Pattern premiered. “At the time I was busy with the humanitarian crisis we were facing and the plight of refugees and the feeling that this is really a story of our time. When I heard that piece of music I felt that it was going to be the right vessel through which we could have this conversation.” 

In Light of Passage, Pite expands her creation. For Royal Ballet conductor Zoi Tsokanou, the second movement is very important. “It’s the centre of the whole symphony because in the first and third movements we have the texts of a mother lamenting for a child, but in the second it is the child speaking to their mother. Crystal does this beautifully. She puts the focus on the children. It has such a strong connection with the music and the text.” 

Pite’s choreography is noted in particular for the way she directs – or shapes – a corps of dancers, almost moving them as a single organism. “She moves them as one,” explains Tsokanou, “but if you look closely there are 36 different things happening.” Pite sees it as an ensemble piece. “There are all these individual performers but there’s also this beast of the collective and I love the tension in that – the pull between the needs of the individual and the needs of the big beast.” 

Isabella Bywater
© E Moreno Esquibel

ENO’s commissioning of Isabella Bywater was “painfully timely”, coming just two days after her mother died last January. “Obviously there is an aspect of the work which is to do with motherhood,” she says. “Out of the three songs, two are about a mother pining for a lost child or searching for a son lost in the war, and the middle song is about someone who is saying goodbye to her mother who she thinks she will never see again.” 

But how do you stage a work that is not designed to be staged? In which there’s no narrative? Bywater wanted to avoid “the Auschwitz factor” in her production. “I consciously didn’t want to run with that, partly because I’m not Jewish and I don’t want to use such a huge thing for theatrical effect. I worked for many years with Jonathan Miller who was Jewish and he was very tense indeed about anyone ever using anything about the Holocaust on stage for theatrical effect. 

“I also didn’t want to build a story out of it. It made me think of something like the Four Quartets. You’re looking at a triptych of three states of grief which are related but not the same. They come at a different angle but there are a lot of overlaps. I didn’t want to laden it with imagery that makes a heavy statement – I’m trying to leave it as an emotional space.”

Lidiya Yankovskaya
© Todd Rosenberg

Górecki’s music certainly makes an emotional impact. Lidiya Yankovskaya, who conducts the ENO performances, found that, even as a high school student, it had the power to transport the listener to a different place. “Even studying the score brought tears to my eyes because of the power that it taps into, these big sweeping lines and gestures.” 

All three movements are marked Lento, which brings its own challenges. “I think that pieces like this are the hardest and require the most from the conductor,” says Yankovskaya. “Short phrases are much easier and clearer to conduct; in pieces like this, large gestures across time are key. It’s all one big phrase really. It relies on the conductor to carry that phrasing. When you have that many major chords in a row, how each one is voiced becomes crucial.” 

Zoi Tsokanou
© Amanda Protidou

Tsokanou began her study of the score by focusing on the three texts Górecki used and reading a lot about Polish history to “find a way to connect” with the work. “Its 55 minutes are very similar – repetitive, very tonal, minimalistic – so the challenge is to create a feeling of timelessness, to open a window and to experience time totally differently for one hour. This symphony has an infinite feeling. We have to forget time in order to experience this composition.” 

Yankovskaya believes the symphony can translate to the stage. “What does opera do best? Big emotions and long emotional arcs, so to take a piece that is purely just that and to put it on a stage could be incredibly powerful. It’s appropriate at this time, with the refugee crisis and the invasion of Ukraine, when we see the rise of nationalism, that Górecki’s piece would come back and resonate with people as a reminder of some of the horrors we have experienced and – as humanity tends to do – have then forgotten.”

Crystal Pite in rehearsals for Light of Passage with Isabel Lubach and Matthew Ball
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Bywater began working on her production just as Russia invaded Ukraine. She points out how Poland suffered at the hands of invaders over the centuries. Indeed, many Ukrainians have now found refuge in Poland. “I want to make it something that is looking at the nature of humanity.” 

Pite sees art as “a place to connect, a place to have a conversation” about key issues that affect society. “It’s only through dance that I can have any hope of speaking clearly and truthfully about something that I care so deeply about. Art is meant to keep channels open to the humane.”

Bywater agrees. “In the end, if we don’t communicate humanity to each other, then we’re lost.”

Light of Passage opens at the Royal Opera House on 18th October 2022

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs opens at the Coliseum on 27th April 2023