Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprised by Sorrow

Perhaps one of my most significant finds on the Internet recently has been LastFM, mainly because it keeps introducing me to music that I would otherwise never have heard. My most recent find has been Henryk Górecki's 'II Lento E Largo - Tranquillissimo' from his Symphony No 3. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs this is a haunting, moving and uplifting piece that brought tears to my eyes. Despite its title it is not sorrowful or gloomy – it is slow, meditative, beautiful and haunting. It is amazing how music can affect you like this – there are so many pieces that can move me to tears or joy within just a few notes. I only have to hear the opening guitar chords of Johnny Cash's version of Trent Resner's 'Hurt' and tears are in my eyes and I am choking up; the opening sustained chord of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' and I am literally transported to another world in my mind.

Films too can have this effect – if you can sit through the closing scene of 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' between Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano and not weep, then you have a heart of stone! And if the dénouement of 'Sophie's Choice' does not makes you turn away in horror (especially if you a parent) then you have no soul!!

My wife has often observe how odd this is when I did not weep at my own parents' deaths, or that of my Grandmother, with whom I was especially close, or indeed the deaths of several good friends in recent years. Nor did I weep tears of joy at my children's births,. Yet I can cry at a song or a film. Some might think that makes my callous, others that this is just another sign of how emotionally stunted men are – but that is, as ever just looking at the surface. Tears can be faked, but genuine emotions run much, much deeper, and like many men I reflect my deepest feelings in other ways – through the written word, through other acts, rituals, spoken words. Raw emotion does not always cause the same external response in every person.

But that still does not answer how a piece like Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' or Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' can evoke deep emotions and even lead me to weep, when life events do not evoke that response. I do not have the answer fully yet, but maybe music has the power to evoke something deep down in the human soul, homesickness for a place we have never known, nostalgia for a time we never lived, looking for a world that isn't yet. That hunger for something more, something beyond all of this.

Górecki's Symphony No 3 is a musical setting for words written by various people at different times in history who were separated - child from mother or mother from child. The second song that so captivated me was written as a prayer by a Polish girl, Helena Błażusiak, on the walls of her cell in a Gestapo prison calling on the Virgin Mary for protection. It is a cry of hope in the midst of sorrow and separation, for reunion with her mother, for safety, for a better future. In expressing that deep, spiritual longing in music, it shows not only Górecki's genius as a composer, but how deep seated this longing for a better world is in us all.

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