Sunday, 3 March 2013

Poland II: The Renaissance

Humanist waves began washing ashore in Poland not long after they they had begun forming. Renaissance musical trends naturally washed in too. 

Foremost among these pioneering Polish composers was Sebastian z Felsztyna (aka Sebastian de Felstin). His dates are unclear but he thrived in the early years of the 16th century and is acclaimed for bringing the influence of Netherlander composers into Poland. Not much of Sebastian's music survives but we can hear his two Alleluias Ave Maria and Felix es Sacra Virgo. These are both four-part works, which was far from common in Poland at the time. Each piece uses a plainchant melody (presented in long, even notes) in its tenor. There are occasional imitative touches, a few melismas and passages of note-against-note counterpoint ( meaning that the counterpoint moves parallel to the rhythm of the cantus firmus.)

Even less survives of the music of his contemporary, Mikołaj z Chrzanowa (1485-c.1560), namely a single motet Protexisti me, Deus; indeed, this had to be reconstructed from a transcription for organ found in a manuscript. It's a rather lovely piece, with some imitative writing and note-against-note counterpoint.

Continuing with the Nicholases, let's turn to Mikołaj z Krakowa (or Nicolaus Cracoviensis). He's best known for the delightful Aleć nade mną Wenus ('You, Venus, above me'), thought to be Poland's oldest madrigal, and wrote many sacred works (including a setting of the Salve Regina) and works for the court (such as Wesel się Polska Korona - 'Rejoice Polish Crown'). There's not much of his instrumental music at hand, however. Still, I bet you'll enjoy his popular little organ piece, Hayducki (I'll pass on the translation of that), and the just-as-short Alia poznanie.

Wacław z Szamotuł

Fine as all of these composers are, I'm sensing a major step up in standards when we come to our next composer, Wacław z Szamotuł (or Wacław Szamotulski), c.1520-c.1560. The a 4 motets In te Domine speravi and Ego sum pastor bonus carried his name - and the name of Polish music - abroad, making him the first Polish composer to gain an international reputation. With Wacław we are firmly in the mainstream of the international style that came from France and the Netherlands - fully-formed, richly polyphonic music. If you listen to In the Domine speravi you will hear very little homophony but lots of imitative writing. There is also a new richness to the music's play of rhythms. This is great music, repaying time spent re-hearing it. If you enjoyed it I'm sure you'll also enjoy Nunc scio vere.

Now, Wacław was capable of many things. He could write beautiful homophonic pieces too. I've read that he was involved in Protestantism and, just as in the radical England of young Edward VI composers like Thomas Tallis began writing simpler but luminous hymn-like works, so (it seems) Wacław began penning pieces like Powszechna spowiedź ('Daily Confession'), the lovely Lenten hymn Kryste dniu naszej światłości ('O Christ, Day of Our Light') and the chordally-harmonised setting of Psalm 85. I'm also taken with the joyful and, possibly to use an anachronistic term, part-song-like writing of Pieśń o narodzeniu Pańskim ('Song of the Nativity'). The most treasured of all his works, however, is the tender and radiant Już się zmierzka ('A Prayer When the Children Go To Sleep') - another 'part-song':

Fewer works have survived by Marcin Leopolita (Marcin of Lwów), c.1540-c.1584, a man whose music seems to bring a strong scent of the Italian Renaissance into Polish music.

Please take a listen to the beautiful Missa paschalis. Beginning with an upwards flourish of close imitation in all four parts, the mass carries on contrapuntally, weaving itself from four Easter plainchant melodies. That opening passage of imitation is based on an elaboration of the one of those melodies - a tune which reappears in every section. You will, for example hear it again (newly elaborated) at the words "et in terra pax" in the Gloria.

For more Leopolita, you might like to try his two introits - Mihi autem or (in a purely instrumental arrangement) Cibavit Eos.

Moving on, finally, to Mikołaj Gomółka (c.1535-c.1609), well, I think I'll let Wikipedia make the introductions here - as they do it rather well:
The only preserved work by Gomółka is a collection of 150 independent compositions to the text of David's Psalter by Jan Kochanowski, for four-part unaccompanied mixed choir. The music is fully subordinated to the contents and the expressive layer of the text; he illustrates the mood or particular words by means of musical devices. In some works the composer applies dance rhythms characteristic of canzonetta. The "Melodies for the Polish Psalter" are a valuable monument of Old Polish culture showing the lay achievements of the renaissance adapted to the Polish conditions.
To give you a sense of the expressive range of Gomółka's psalm settings please try the sorrowful Psalm 137 ('By the rivers of Babylon I sat down and wept') and then contrast that with the good cheer of Psalm 81 ('Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob'). Other examples for your delectation are Psalm 29 ('Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength') and Psalm 11 ('I trust in the Lord').

And with Gomółka we reach the end of this short survey of Polish Renaissance music. You can probably guess what's coming next...Kompozytorów polskiego baroku (according to Google Translate).

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