Music of Tears

It was October 1977. At the Ruch Muzyczny editorial office six critics were summing up the Warsaw Autumn Festival. When the conversation moved to the Polish premiere of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the commentators split into two camps. The winners were the opponents, senior by virtue of not only their age but also authority. Ludwik Erhardt accused the composer of being boring and primitive. Olgierd Pisarenko snapped dismissively that to “designate a genius means great satisfaction and little risk”. Tadeusz A. Zieliński argued that Górecki – by exposing raw emotions and reducing “everything else” to a minimum – inadvertently committed a reduction ad absurdum. The advocates defended themselves timidly. With the exception of Andrzej Chłopecki, not yet thirty at the time, who blurted out without a second thought: “A masterpiece putting its composer among geniuses”.

Those feeling offended by the “traitor to the ideals of the avant-garde” did not change their mind even after the success of the Nonesuch 1992 recording featuring Dawn Upshaw in the solo part and the London Sinfonietta orchestra conducted by David Zinman. They were unimpressed by the fact that in the UK charts Symphony No. 3 was ranked ahead of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Sting’s latest album. They thought the whole thing was a pop culture phenomenon and did not wonder how it was possible that this long, slow piece appealed to the taste and sensibility of grunge and post-punk fans. However, something began to change. More interpretations and recordings followed. The shamelessly beautiful composition was ahead of its time. Year after year it grew more and more in tune with the multifaceted, anxiety-ridden present.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs also got to be adapted, with the adaptations often being unsuccessful, ignoring the inseparable textual layer of the work. That is why it was with interest, but also anxiety, that I watched the preparations for a staging of Górecki’s work at the English National Opera, in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. I was afraid that there would be empty seats in the auditorium. I was afraid that there would be naive references to the ongoing war in Ukraine and, on the other hand, allusions to the outrageous decision of the Arts Council England, which put the ENO on the brink of extinction by withdrawing its annual funding and proposing instead some dubiousremedies”. After numerous protests by music lovers and music professionals, the parties reached a fragile compromise, but it is still uncertain what will happen next.

Photo: Clive Barda

Even if the ENO survives as an institution, it might lose its beloved home: the famous Coliseum, where it moved in 1968, still as Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. The construction of the theatre, the most impressive in the West End to this day, was commissioned by Sir Oswald Stoll, a theatre manager and later producer of silent films, who decided to make it a “people’s palace of entertainment” worthy of the age. Designed by Frank Matcham, the building, with its tower topped by a characteristic openwork globe, concealed a lavish auditorium and state-of-the-art theatrical machinery. When it opened, it boasted the world’s only triple revolving stage and a number of revolutionary technical solutions, from the installation of lifts taking visitors to the upper floors of the auditorium, to the suspension of the balconies on steel supports in order to avoid pillars obstructing the audience’s view. The inauguration in December 1904 was a complete fiasco, despite the fact that its programme featured a reenactment of Derby Race with live horses and real jockeys racing on the revolving stage. The theatre did not get going for good until two years later, but when it did, it was hugely successful. Its offer was varied: from musicals and dramas, ballets and pantomimes, to cricket matches and film screenings. After becoming the home of Sadler’s Wells Opera – soon renamed English National Opera – it presented dozens of world premieres and hundreds of other performances, made successful by artists of the calibre of Charles Mackerras, Bryn Terfel and David Pountney, to mention just the first three names that come to my mind.

Naturally, there were ups and downs, the latter more frequent recently owing to ill-judged managerial appointments. However, we were still dealing not so much with the second London stage after Covent Garden, but with a theatre with a completely different profile, different target audience, presenting performances almost exclusively in English, geared more towards promoting young talent than filling the auditorium thanks to star performers (incidentally, the ENO has more seats in the auditorium than the Royal Opera House). The musical world expected sensible changes, not a decision – rightly protested against – to break up the company and squander its valuable artistic, social and educational initiatives.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was planned as the last premiere of the season. This was another source of my worries: that everyone would see the production as a filler, especially given that one week before the ENO had premiered Blue, a new opera by Jeanine Tesori telling the story of the fight of Harlem’s black community against the systemic violence of the police. Both productions were presented at the ENO almost simultaneously, six performances each in late April and early May. Blue proved attuned to the public feeling and elicited a lively response from the critics, who grumbled about the quality of the score, but did not question the theatrical values of the work. How did the staging of Górecki’s static music fare in comparison, given that, according to many musicologists, it cannot be happily united with any other form of art?

Photo: Clive Barda

I went to London to see the last performance, so I had managed to read several interviews with the director, Isabella Bywater, and to take a look at the surprisingly favourable reviews. However, I was amazed by comments on the ENO’s fanpage, where admiration was mixed with questions about whether anyone had a ticket to spare for any date. I saw with my own eyes that the house, with its more than 2300 seats, was indeed full. Filled with an audience hungry primarily for theatre, because thirty years after the commercial success of Symphony No. 3, few people knew that the unsettling music in The Crown, in the scene where Princess Margaret’s fiancé cheats on her with a West End dancer, is the third of Górecki’s “sorrowful songs”.

After an hour-long confrontation with raw, gut-wrenching emotions, shown with a powerful theatrical gesture in a perfectly organised space, I came to agree with both the critics and the stunned audience. Bywater is primarily a set designer, which led to a wonderful rapport with the lighting director Jon Driscoll and with Robert Vitalini, the author of the abstract projections that were visionary in their simplicity. As a director Bywater also knows how to collaborate thoughtfully with Dan O’Neill, responsible for stage movement.  Her Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a coherent tale of the hell of a mother’s grief, the purgatory of longing for a lost child and the heaven of reconciliation with death – not achievable for every mother.  The first movement, to the sounds of a Marian lament, depicts an arduous and failed journey from hell to heaven. A woman crawls onto the stage, brings out a long swathe of cloth from its depths, twisting it like an umbilical cord and rolling it up into a form resembling a swaddled newborn baby, then sits down with it on a chair and begins to fly upwards. She fails to reach her son’s body suspended on a bier, falls from the flies, tumbles over a time as infinite as the song, getting tangled in folds of white cloth – a multifaceted symbol of her tragic motherhood.

In the slightly less vivid second part of the triptych Bywater presents the same tragedy from the point of view of a dying child, supported in agony and rocked into the next world by a double figure of tender death – personified by actors accompanying the soloist. The third part takes place on a battlefield, a bit like from Goya’s engravings, a bit like from medieval depictions of the Last Judgement – with the mother looking for her fallen son in the trenches, among spectres of maimed soldiers, only to rise towards light like a Bosch angel, this time without falling. But without ascending into heaven either: remaining in this world with all the motherly grief, though now made familiar.

Photo: Clive Barda

Can you talk more emphatically about the madness of the contemporary world than by using the universal language of orphaned mothers and the fate of their children taken by war, heartlessness and violence? Can you sing it better than Nicole Chevalier with her dense, sensual soprano, a sensitive singer as much as an outstanding actress? Can you conduct it more subtly than Lidiya Yankovskaya, precise in every gesture, sensitive to every flutter in this ocean of sounds, building tension without resorting to unbearable pathos? You probably can, but I’m not sure whether you should. The girl sitting next to me surreptitiously wiped away tears throughout the performance, and a blind elderly gentleman on my right reacted in a similar fashion, relying only on the music and the energy emanating from the stage.

History will judge whether Górecki was a genius or only a clever magician playing with the listeners’ emotions. For the moment history should judge members of the Arts Council England, who with such thoughtless cruelty are trying to crush the Londoners’ beloved company.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

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