November 19th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Terrorism: Australia's moment of truth

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Voters suspicious about workplace reforms

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Canberra fails to defend Australia's trade interests

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: Brazil, Argentina threat to Australian exports

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Icarus and I / Drugs and getting on with our neighbours / France's Muslims - and ours / Varieties of bribery and corruption

SCHOOLS: Doing without grammar, punctuation and spelling

MEDICAL SCIENCE: Embryo stem-cell research - hype and hope

ECONOMICS: Sun still rising - Japan's invincible might

UNITED STATES: Court assault on parental rights

THE HOLOCAUST: 'Auschwitz' and Górecki: reflections on evil and hope

RU-486 a recipe for nightmares (letter)

Saddam and the Australian Wheat Board (letter)

Labor Party's morass (letter)

BOOKS: THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold, by Geoffrey Robertson

THE COST OF 'CHOICE': Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, edited by Erika Bachiochi

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'Auschwitz' and Górecki: reflections on evil and hope

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, November 19, 2005
Sometimes music can express truths that documentaries and films cannot convey, writes Pat Byrne.

Music from Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs formed part of the theme music of the recent six-part BBC television documentary series, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.

What this recently screened documentary shows as cold, calculating, industrial-scale evil, difficult for the human mind to comprehend, Górecki's symphony drives like an emotional stake into the soul. What the visual and narrative fails to emotionally convey, the music somehow makes realisable in a way that only the human soul can grasp.

The BBC documentary series commemorates the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Using records made available only since the fall of communism - along with computer graphics to visually recreate the gas-chambers and other killing facilities - the series is an all-encompassing portrait of Auschwitz, which is taken as a metaphor for the Nazi's industrial-scale killing machine.

It painstakingly re-enacts crucial meetings that led to the development of the death camps, revealing the hatred and bigotry the Nazis used to justify mass murder and the Holocaust of the Jews.

Auschwitz directly asks searching questions about human behaviour. What was in the minds of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, and of those who let them act in this way? And what was in the minds of their victims?

Patrick Gallagher of the American Historical Association notes that many scholars participated in the development of the series and in the carefully re-enacted dramatisations of historical events.

For example, the original minutes of a critical meeting, held just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, is used to dramatically portray the Nazis' decision on a policy of genocide by starvation within the soon-to-be-occupied Soviet states.

Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (his Symphony No. 3) was rightly used as part of the Auschwitz series theme music. Born in Poland in 1933, his step-grandfather died in a concentration camp, and he later suffered harassment at the hands of the communists.

Górecki (pronounced "Gor-etski") wrote the music to expiate his nightmares after visiting a death camp as a young schoolboy, soon after the war. The shingle on the camp pathways was the crushed bone of the murdered inmates. He said he felt he was walking on dead people.

The symphony was written in 1976, but not released until 1992. It sold two million copies in two years, something unprecedented for classical music.

It left commentators asking how it was that, in this secular world of religious indifference and instant material gratification, there was still a deep hunger for spiritual answers to fundamental human issues, such as the nature of good and evil.

Music reviewer Chia Han-Leon, has beautifully described the symphony:

"The symphony has a prayer-like quality, is slow in tempo and uses very little material to 'grow' huge musical structures.

"[It] radiated within its darkness a powerful and universal light. Its simple harmonies spoke of its simple messages, its need to tell the world of its terrible story but also its prayer of hope."

Souls of the dead

The first movement begins "in the darkest of the dark, the double basses lead the strings in a great canon of deep sorrow ... The souls of the dead float in their hundreds and thousands by us, invisible in the darkness, marked only by the music as it gains in intensity. And yet, within the blackness and the tragedy, there always lies the hint of hope, asking you to listen on, to hear the tale.

"Nestled in the heart of the movement is a 15th-century Polish prayer known as the Lamentation of the Holy Cross ... Heralded ominously by an orchestral piano, the Mother (of Christ), accompanied by floating chords, begs her dying son to speak to her."

The second movement has made the symphony famous. It begins with "a simple rising and falling motif, it makes all the more poignant the words of the movement's text".

But then the music darkens. From deep inside the Gestapo Headquarters in Zakopane an 18-year-old Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna scratches a prayer to the Queen of Heaven on the wall of her prison cell:

No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Help me always.
Hail Mary.

"In a voice of gloom, Helena asks her Mother not to cry for her, thus linking this prayer to the previous where she mourns her dying son. Out of the darkness, the ringing radiance of the opening theme returns as the soprano calls out to 'Mamo' (Mother).

"In music, which weaves subtly between misery and hope, the great current of love in all its joy and pain melds together mother and child, child and mother. The movement ends with the soprano praying, reciting 'Zdrowal Mario', the equivalent of 'Ave Maria' in Polish."

The final movement is around the text of a folk song where a mother seeks the body of her dead son.

"But here, in the reality of the Holocaust," writes Chia, "the Mother cannot find her boy. She traverses great distances, as portrayed in the music with its insistent ostinato. Resigned, she asks the songbirds of God to sing for him, and beseeches the flowers to make for him a bed of peace for which he may sleep forever.

"By her love, the music surges into the radiant luminosity of A major - transcending all cultures, all peoples, all places, all time.

"Although the texts here are implicitly Christian, the theme of motherhood and of maternal love is universal."

The music is so profoundly sorrowful that some people cannot often listen to it. Yet we all need to let this powerful symphony cuts into our souls, so we can recognise and confront such evils that should never again be unleashed on the world.

  • Patrick J. Byrne

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