Orange Hair and Symphonies

When punk rockers with spiked orange hair go into music stores in London asking for a classical symphony, you know there's something unusual about that symphony. And when that same classical symphony is at the top of both the classical music charts and the pop music charts, then you know this is no ordinary symphony. The piece I'm talking about is the Third Symphony by Henryk Gorecki, an obscure 60-year-old Polish composer who has suddenly turned into a pop icon. Once a leader of the avant-garde in Europe, Gorecki has now turned to a style some call "Holy Minimalism," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the religious overtones of the music. You see, Gorecki is a devout Catholic, who has composed several pieces under commission from the Pope. In fact, under the Communist regime in Poland, Gorecki once lost his job for defending the Pope. His music has a hauntingly beautiful liturgical sound, borrowing on one hand from medieval music and on the other hand from folk melodies. Every time the radio stations play the Third Symphony, switchboards light up with calls from listeners asking, "What is that music?" Gorecki's sudden fame has astonished everyone—no one more so than the composer himself. He once asked an interviewer, in a tone of self-deprecating humor, "How can young people become so interested in a piece so slow and boring?" Well, the piece is slow, with sounds drifting and piling like clouds before a storm. But young people don't find it boring in the least. For many listeners, the appeal of the symphony is precisely its sense of spirituality. As one reviewer puts it, people want music that "addresses the soul." Gorecki's symphony consists of three songs, all on the theme of suffering. The first is a fifteenth-century lament representing Mary at the foot of the cross. The second is from Nazi Germany—the words of a prayer scratched on a cell wall by a prisoner. The third is a Polish folk song, the lament of a mother searching the battlefield for her dead son. Though the music is melancholy, with themes of sorrow and suffering, the symphony ends on a gentle note of hope—the tonality changing from minor to major in the final chords. The underlying message is that through faith, all our suffering can be redeemed, just as Mary's sorrow at the cross was followed by the joy of the Resurrection. So why don't you join the spiky-haired punk rockers—and the middle-class folks as well— who are hurrying out to buy Gorecki's Third Symphony. If you were brought up on rock and pop music, give yourself a chance to feel the power of classical music—its power to communicate deep streams of religious feeling and religious truth.


Chuck Colson



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