Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, III: Lento – Cantabile Semplice

Today I ponder on the eve of the eighth anniversary of one of the pivotal days of my life: the day our dear friends’ daughter was killed along with 27 other people: children, educators, the killer’s mother and himself in two incidents (at a home and a school).

Upon returning to my office from a Christmas lunch with my work’s management team, I heard about the shooting from my staff, who knew I had friends in the place where it happened. I began frantically monitoring social media all afternoon, waiting to see something from the mom to say their kids were safe. I remember she always posted on social media, every afternoon, for friends to see joyful stuff about her kids. There was no post that afternoon. Nothing. No matter how many times I “refreshed.”

Just after 4:00 pm, while on a personal phone call, a message popped up and confirmed my worst fear. I told the caller what I’d seen, then didn’t know quite how to end the call. It was shocking to us both.

I remember then I was thinking desperately, how could I drive through the clogged, Christmas-season-rush-hour-filled downtown to my sweety’s work to tell her in person; she was in an afternoon-long meeting and I couldn’t reach her. By the time I would have driven there, she might have left the office, and I couldn’t trust voicemail in case she didn’t check it before walking home. There were also people in her work that would need to know, and she might not be able to reach, given that it was a Friday afternoon.

Finally, I reached the administrative assistant, who interrupted the meeting so I could deliver the news. It was one of the most challenging messages I’ve ever had to pass along; a life-altering moment. I’ll never forget that call.

Many years before this, I was flipping channels late at night and caught the ending of the 1993 Peter Weir film, Fearless. Jeff Bridges plays a character who becomes lost in the aftermath of surviving an airliner crash. The final scene is scored with music from Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by Henryk Górecki (1933-2010). The first movement of the piece is what plays during the closing scene. Today I’ve chosen to share the third movement (Lento – Cantabile Semplice) as it includes what I interpret as moments of hopefulness.

Some critics regard the symphony as being Górecki’s lamentation about the Holocaust. While he was commissioned to write such a piece, he apparently denied the symphony was that work. The first and third movements are believed to be from the perspective of parents who have lost a child, and the second, from the viewpoint of a child separated from its parents.

Others have looked upon the symphony as a synopsis of Polish history from the 14th century to 1976 when Górecki composed it. Regardless of all the assumptions and beliefs, it’s a magnificent piece of work, intricately composed and played, filled with lamentation, and profoundly stirring to the soul.

I heard a clip from the symphony today, when listening to the BBC Sounds app archive of last weekend’s episode of Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour (December 6, 2020: “Real Estate – Featured Artist”) on BBC 6 Music. The strands of hope in the piece remind me of the incredible courage I’ve observed in these friends as their family navigated through such a public loss, and gathered pieces together to turn deepest grief and horror into the beauty they have created with their lives as a tribute.

Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today. Thanks for joining me here.

Here’s the audio of Dawn Upshaw, soprano, with David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta, performing the third movement. Theirs is the version of the symphony that was featured in the film soundtrack.

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