Monday Music: Miserere by H. Gorecki

In preparing for this post, I was reminded that my introduction to Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010) – along with thousands of others in Western Europe and the English-speaking world – was his gorgeous Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” A recording of the symphony by the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw sold a record number of copies (for a Classical album) while bringing Gorecki a level of international attention he’d never previously attained. I don’t listen to the Symphony No. 3 that often because it is impossible for me to do anything else while it’s on. It’s simply too beautiful and heart-wrenching to be in the background.[1]


Gorecki wrote the Miserere in 1981 as a protest against the government instigation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. It wasn’t performed until 1987 due to the imposition of Martial Law and an unfavorable political atmosphere. The recording below is from the Chicago Symphony Chorus, released in 2005.


While the score of the Miserere may look simplistic at first glance, that first glance is deceptive. It is not harmonically or rhythmically complex in the way a motet by J.S. Bach might be, or even in the way that Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 is, but there is a complexity of sound based in the density and intensity of the vocal lines. The Miserere is scored SSAATTBB (Soprano I & II, Alto I & II, Tenor I & II, Bass I & II), requiring a minimum of 120 singers. At the most dense point in the score, the voices are split into ten parts, SSAAATTTBB. The parts are layered on top of one another, sometimes in unison, but more often in harmonic voicing reminiscent of early polyphony (open 4ths and stepwise melodic motion). The dynamics and tempo variations, combined with the layered voices, are what convey the deep emotion of this incredible work. The text is short and simple: “Domine Deus, Miserere Nobis.”

I have three overlapping perspectives on the Miserere: first, my experiences singing it; second, as a music student analyzing the score; and third, as a listener now, well over a decade after both singing and analysis. I already loved Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 when my undergraduate advisor, conductor of the university choir, and conductor of a community choir with whom I also sang, decided to have both choirs perform the Miserere. This was the spring of my senior year – the performance of the Miserere was actually on the night of graduation, what a day – and one of my courses was based around Jan LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis. Learning the score simultaneously as a singer getting ready for performance and as a student analyzing the work according to LaRue’s method gave me a combined perspective that I might not have had otherwise. Performing the Miserere was an unforgettable experience; analyzing the score was one of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating projects I undertook as a music student.

Listening to it now, I’m impressed by the sense of scale that the gradual addition of voices/parts conveys. Each time a part is added, with a slightly different iteration of the “Domine Deus” musical line, I was struck by the image of a small group of people gathered slowly drawing in others one and two at a time. Then, suddenly, there are dozens of people making a powerful sound. By the time all of the men’s/lower voice parts are added, Gorecki presents us with the full effect of those voices, and it is magnificent. The swell of sound is immediately contrasted with the start of the next section at a much quieter dynamic level. However, even though it is softer, it is split into multiple harmonic lines rather than a return to the voices singing in unison. I love the section where the upper altos and sopranos are being added: the lower voices remain on a single note, acting as a drone for the chant-like melodic movement in the upper voices. (The early music enthusiast in me really appreciates the parallels to early polyphony which often used the lowest voice to hold a drone or “tenor,” while a second, higher voice would move above the drone on the primary melody.)

Around 27 minutes into the piece, the urgency and tension increase via the tempo, dynamics, and the full number of voices (the SSAAATTTBB split I mentioned earlier) to reach the climax of the work. It seems like water bursting free of a dam, the sheer power unable to be contained. Is it possible for the speaker’s plea to go unheard in light of such a sound? And yet, Gorecki is not done. The final section, where the “Miserere Nobis” text is used for the first time, is the calm after the storm. There is both peace and sorrow in this section, as if the peace came at a high price. The ending and resolution may seem abrupt after the slow build, and the work does not end the way it began with an individual voice in unison. The multiplicity of voices is still present while speaking as a harmonized whole.




I found myself asking “if the Symphony No. 3 is such a moving piece of music, why isn’t it the topic of this post instead of the Miserere?” This got me thinking about how I view and define ‘sacred’ music as a category. (As well reminding me that academics like to categorize things, even if those things don’t always neatly fit into any one category…)  My automatic response is that the Symphony No. 3 is, well, a symphony and therefore is in a different category than ‘sacred’ music. An unsatisfying answer, no? All of my posts about ‘sacred’ music thus far have featured works by white, Western, almost-entirely male composers who were writing for the Roman Catholic Church. At some point in the future, I sincerely hope to branch out into other traditions and genres. (If you have any suggestions for me, leave them in the comments!) However, my musical preferences since pre-adulthood have tended towards music prior to the 19th Century. The earlier, the better, in fact. The side-effect of this preference is that a significant amount of the music from pre-19th Century periods falls under the ‘sacred’ music categorical umbrella, where ‘sacred’ means Western, Christian, vocal/choral, with or without instrumental accompaniment, and with text drawn from Biblical, liturgical, or visionary writing sources.

As a side note, it wasn’t until I started studying Religious Studies and Feminism that I fully realized just how narrow my musical education and exposure was. There’s so much music to account for in the Western Classical tradition that anything outside of that tends to be placed in the ethnomusicology sub-category. Where is the study of music used in Jewish ceremonies or Buddhist chant? My guess is that if undergraduates encounter non-Christian, non-Western music, it’s going to be in a semester-long “world music” course. This is a bit ironic because in some music programs (and I don’t have experience with conservatory-level courses in music), world music courses are designed for underclass-level or non-majors courses, so the number of students enrolled in those courses who are intending to graduate with a degree in music are comparably fewer.

A piece like Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 doesn’t fit into the ‘sacred’ music category as I’ve just defined it – it’s more instrumental than vocal, there’s a single voice rather than a chorus (which isn’t entirely a disqualification on its own), and the text is not from a standard religious text/source. It is a gorgeous, haunting, and heartfelt work, but that doesn’t mean that it should or can be placed in the ‘sacred’ music category. There are many, many pieces that stir emotions – which some might say argue for inclusion in the ‘sacred’ music category because such emotional responses can be indicative of religious or spiritual experience. However, the ‘sacred’ descriptor is already broad enough; were it to be applied to anything that produces an emotional response in the listener, it would lose any useful, descriptive meaning. So for the moment I’m going to mark the boundaries of ‘sacred’ music as a work that is composed for, or inspired by, a religious tradition or experience. It’s still problematic, but it will work for now.
Back to main text ↩


Information about Gorecki and his music:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *