When I try to analyze Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, it seems like there’s nothing for you to analyze – would you try to analyze Ravel’s Bolero or Terry Riley’s In C? Everything written there is so simple and obvious. Ravel’s Bolero is no more than repeating the same themes with different instruments at the first glance, although actually there are lots of subtle changes (addition of parallel fifths, or parallel chords, etc.) But it is that simplicity which makes it so innovative. While some contemporary music focus on atonality and other devices to make a piece sound “new”, this Gorecki symphony is innovative because it is so simple. I can only think of famous quotes from JinYong’s novel: “重劍無鋒，大巧不工”, “天之道，捐有餘而補不足，是故虛勝實，不足勝有餘”, “無招勝有招”. Simplicity wins over complexity. It is the aesthetics that make a piece sounds so fresh and different from other pieces, NOT by means of any special techniques or any special notation.
Still, I want to go more deeply how it works. This is not a detail analysis of the piece, it merely serves as a listening guide, a description of what happens in the piece.
Firstly, Gorecki knows how to restrict himself to as few materials as possible. Start from a single note, growing to two notes, and then to a short phrase, and then to a longer phrase written in a larger range – that is what the soprano is doing in the 2nd movement. If you tries to sing it, the melody does not sound particularly interesting. The tension lies in the gradual addition of notes, and gradual climbing up the scale in a wavy line. (see below) The phrase F marked below is similar to the beginning, just it is in the higher register with an inverted direction of motion (though not an exact inversion). Beauty of symmetry. And it ends with a monotone, Db, the beginning note.
And that are the 7th chords that contribute to the ethereal, heavenly sound (See below, and tries to play it on a piano). Notice that all string parts are divisi, even the double bass that gives a transparent tone colour. When we learn harmony in theory lessons, we are taught that it is good to leave a wide space between lower members in a chord, thus cello and double bass are often an octave apart in most classical and romantic reportoire. Well, this rule does not apply here (as well as in many modern music).
Before going into how Gorecki writes the 8-part canon of the 1st movement, first let’s have a look at the theme itself. Just like the 2nd movement, the theme is like an arch shape. The first phrase limits to three pitches only (E, F#, G), and then gradually the range expands to octave until it reaches the higher E, where the climax lies. The melody, again like a plainchant, is mostly stepwise. This is important. Stepwise motion makes it much more easier to write counterpoint.
All strings are divided into two parts, contributing to totally 10 separate parts in the string orchestra. But the whole exposition is just an 8-part canon. The theme starts off with half of the double bass, and then the other half enters, imitating the theme at an interval of a 5th higher. Then half of the cello enters, again at a 5th higher (but still in the key of E minor).
A midi demo of the above example:
The numbers under the staff indicates the interval between the higher notes and the bass note.
You will see that when the two parts are put together, they are NOT always consonant. There are a lot of second inversion too. Second inversion are often considered dissonant in harmony textbooks. But as most notes in the melody are linked stepwisely, even if the intervals between the two part are dissonant (2nd, 4th and 7th), they are just suspension or passing tones that immediately resolve afterwards. And dissonance, especially suspensions, are the dramatic moments, those are the moments where you feel sad and wants to cry.
And you will find that there are a lot of parallel 8ves! Parallel 8ves are considered “wrong” in textbook about four-part harmony. (You get 2 marks deducted when you write a parallel 8ve in HKCEE music exam theory!) But most teachers can’t explain why parallel 8ve is bad, they just told the students “you shouldn’t write parallel 8ve because it is bad”. But why is it bad? It is bad only because when two parts suddenly plays the same pitch, it sounds like suddenly it is a 3-part harmony, not a 4-part harmony, and the parts which play the same pitch will stand out, that makes it sound odd. BUT, it does not mean that parallel 8ve should never be used. It is often used in medieval music (organum) as well as in modern music (especially Debussy who deliberately breaks this rule), and also in music in other parts of the world (e.g. 自然和聲 in Sheng in Chinese music). It is just because parallel 8ves contributes a sound that does not sounds like music in the common practice, from baroque to romantic period. But even Beethoven and Bach wrote some parallel 8ve. (You can find a few parallel 5ths and 8ves in Waldstein sonata). Music comes before rules. Most rules in music theory are not universal, they are just a description of how some music works, but NOT all music.
A chord has only 3 notes, and the 3 notes can either go up, go down, or keep at the same pitch when it arrives at the next chord. So when it comes to 8-part writing, it is unavoidable to have parallel 8ve. In this particular case, parallel 8ve is an advantage, not an disadvantage, because by doubling the other parts, it makes the texture clearer. And these things contributes to the “renaissance” or even “medieval” sound of this piece. And here is a reduction of the 8-part canon, try to play it on the piano and you will discover the mastery of his work. It is not easy at all to write an 8-part canon like this.
A midi demo of the 8-part canon:
After going through the cycle of 5th eight times, the canon already go back to the tonic. (tonic-dominant-supertonic-submediant-mediant-leadingtone-subdominant-tonic) Lastly, the upper half of the 2nd violin and 1st violin enters, but they are just doubling the uppermost parts at an octave above.
And this is the structure of his first movement: