Sunday, 3 March 2013

Poland I: The Middle Ages

As you would expect from such a great European nation, Poland has a long musical history and one that often shows a full-blooded engagement with the Western European mainstream - in spite of the country's prolonged periods of  foreign occupation from the East.

Poland's decision to embrace the Western Catholic Church rather than the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 10th century is probably the crucial factor here. It opened the Poles to all manner of Western influences.

Gregorian chant came to Poland and became its dominant musical form for several centuries. (You can hear a programme - with examples - about plainchant in medieval Poland here). 

A tune from that time that has not only survived but thrived in Polish culture ever since is Gaude mater Polonia ('Rejoice, Mother Poland'), written for the beatification of the martyr St. Stanislaus of Szczepanów in 1253. It's been an important piece for Poles for centuries. It was used at royal coronations and weddings and after Polish victories in battle. What you will usually hear nowadays though is an elaboration of the hymn as a lovely four-part choral song composed in the 19th century by Teofil Klonowski. The work is still regularly heard throughout Poland (and beyond), especially in universities and on national holidays. I will admit to having some difficulties matching this up with the plainchant Gaude mater Polonia. (I am -officially! - confused over this point.) Please click on the links and see if you can reconcile them.

Even earlier (it seems) than Gaude mater Polonia and even more significant for Poles is Bogurodzica ('Mother of God'). This monophonic hymn - the first known hymn in the Polish language - was used to accompany coronations and inspire the armies of Poland in battle. Just how old it is and why is was originally written remains a mystery. It dates from somewhere between the 10th century and the 13th century, which is about an imprecise a dating as you will ever get in music. 

Bogurodzica still retains its power to stir the Polish spirit - and not just the Polish spirit. If you've never heard it before, you must try Panufnik's glorious Sinfonia Sacra. It is built on Bogurodzica and it always stirs my spirit.

Musicians came from the West to Poland throughout this period but the first significant Pole to stand out as an individual composer was Mikolaj z Radomia, whose career reached its peak around the 1420s. His music sounds very much of its age - the age coinciding with the early works of Dufay - thus proving the extent of Western European influence on Polish medieval music. Not much is known about the man behind the music. The music, however, is very pleasing.

Mikołaj's Magnificat shows his style at its simplest. You have two notated lines (the top and bottom ones), but a third (middle) voice is added by means of fauxbourden - that technique of harmonisation from Burgundy where the added voice sings in parallel to the upper voice (usually a fourth below). Moving on to one of his settings of the Gloria you will immediately hear that Mikołaj could also write imitatively and, as the same piece proceeds, you will also hear the effects of another late medieval technique, that of hocket - the process whereby lines passed rapidly between voices, aided by rests, resulting in a hiccoughing effect. A setting of the Credo also begins imitatively but this time continues (at least at times) in what's know as the conductus style - the technique where the upper voices tend to sing together and there's much more note-for-note writing. Mikołaj is giving us a one-man guide to some of the main features of medieval music! 

Other Mikolaj z Radomia pieces you might want to give a try include another Gloria, this one giving the treble (upper voice) the dominant part. Plus there's a delightful Alleluia (in a performance with instruments).

Poland's Renaissance was approaching...and with it a number of other stand-out composers. 

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