The story of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (often called “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) is one of a runaway success nobody, even its composer, understood. Why did a 1992 recording of a work written 16 years earlier by a previously unknown Polish composer suddenly sell a million copies? Other modern Polish composers’ works weren’t exactly leaping off shelves. No one knew why, but critics, who by and large weren’t fans, offered theories; the piece was the lucky beneficiary of the early compact-disc boom, for instance. It was bathetic music, pandering to the worst and easiest film-score ideas that the general populace had about orchestral music. It sounded good at dinner parties. It was, in other words, a fluke, a misfire in the central nervous system of the collective unconscious.
As the years have accumulated, and the piece has maintained its grip on the public imagination, generating tributes and new recordings and finding use in multiple films, a simpler explanation gently suggests itself: this piece pierced something in us, gave us something we decided we needed badly. The timing of it will always be mysterious, but the basic fact seems plain: Music listeners have decided we need Gorecki’s piece, and we have made a permanent place for it in our lives. It has also, famously, saved some lives—in an NPR interview from 1995, Gorecki read aloud a letter from a 14-year-old girl, a burn victim, who told Gorecki that the music was the only thing keeping her alive.
It’s a simple piece, at least in a harmonic sense. Works in this vein, in which songful lines move slowly against each other (Barber’s Adagio for Strings comes to mind), tend to require a brisk interpretive hand—all the pathos the music needs is in the notes, and to wring any extra juice from them is to watch the whole thing curdle. What is most surprising about avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson’s Sorrow – A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony is how fully it embraces the music’s inherent sweep. Stetson’s often known for bracing music, and his fans might have expected him to cut this big souffle with quinine. But from the first movement’s opening canon, with Stetson blowing long, low notes mimicking the orchestra’s double basses, it’s pretty obvious: Whatever this piece has meant to decades of listeners, it has meant something similar to Stetson. He clearly loves it, and his recreation is nothing it not a personal act of love.
He’s assembled a small force of about twelve musicians here, including violinist Sarah Neufeld, with whom he recorded last year’s Never Were the Way She Was. Stetson arranged and produced the recording himself, playing multiple instruments, and the soprano lament is sung by his sister, Megan. Greg Fox, the virtuoso drummer behind Liturgy and Guardian Alien, fills the background with splashes of cymbal color and produces a steady thrum of double kicks. Two guitarists play high, insistent tremolos, and as the first movement reaches its peak, I was startled to realize how similar this version sounded to something by a post-rock band like Explosions or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Gorecki’s symphony, with its deliberately simple and clear framework and soaring themes, has a lot of the same emotional appeal as those bands. But Stetson’s arrangements give that correlation a meaningful nudge, and suddenly Gorecki’s work feel less like a distant cousin to post-rock and more like a direct blueprint. This is instrumental music that embraces its undying capacity for uplift, that shakes off distinctions between bathos and pathos, between mawkish and grave, as it blasts upward. The best moments in Godspeed and Explosions songs go for the emotional jugular without caring if you squawk in protest, and so it is with Gorecki’s Third Symphony.
Gorecki was no sentimentalist by nature. His earlier works were mostly in the serial and twelve tone-based tradition, and they haven’t exactly been embraced by a fanatical general populace. But in the folk-song laments that inspired his Third Symphony, he found something that touched his heart, and he trusted it. In his work, Stetson and his collaborators have found something similar, and they trust him, too.
by Jayson Greene