Górecki - Symphony no. 2, “Copernican”
The third symphony, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” outshines Górecki’s earlier two in popularity. And even though the 1992 recording of the work sold over a million copies, there hasn’t been as much enthusiasm or interest from the more general public to explore the rest of Górecki’s output. I can understand why, to an extent. He was more of an avant-garde figure at first, his name only known to other Polish contemporaries and a few other composers around Europe. And though the third symphony is more complex with thick textures, it’s easy to overlook the “hard” stuff and instead listen to the pretty, Romantic melodies. While his second symphony is barely recorded and never programmed, it is still a fantastic piece of music. Górecki was commissioned by the Polish-American Kościuszko Foundation to commemorate astronomer Nicolas Copernicus’ 500th birthday. Copernicus was the Renaissance astronomer who was credited with formulating the heliocentric model of the universe, and infamously he was denounced by the Catholic Church which upheld Ptolemy’s geocentric, anthropocentric view of the universe. Being an artist, Górecki was less interested in the scientific aspects and was more taken in by the philosophical implications. We used to think we were literally at the center of the universe. This discovery shifted that thought and brought on new existential crises that are now at the center of postmodernism. The work is in two movements: the first is catastrophic, clustered dissonance, reflecting on the cosmic/existential dread of the discovery, and the second is a much calmer meditation, pentatonic melodies, seeking optimism in a trust in god, winding down in a more angelic atmosphere. The chorus, baritone, and soprano sing lines from Psalms 135, 145, 6, and from Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium:
“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?)
And though the work is born out of thick tone clusters, it has fewer harsh dissonances than his earlier works, and shows him moving toward a more consonant style. I love this symphony so much because it starts off so harsh, angry, ugly, but the ending is transcendent in comparison, and the coda is a nearly five minute drone of clustered strings in consonance.