We conclude this series with Thomas Zajac’s program notes on Renaissance music for this program. Tickets are available online or by phone.
Polish Renaissance Music
The works of the polyphonist, Wacław z Szamotuł (c. 1524 – 1560), survive mainly in German sources. Like many Polish composers of his day, Wacław was multi-talented. Besides being a composer, he was also a poet—he published a number of Latin panegyrics celebrating events in the royal family—and worked as a secretary to governors and aristocrats. He died young, probably while in his mid-30s, which led a contemporary writer to claim: “If the Gods had let him live longer, the Poles would have no need to envy the Italians their Palestrina, Lappi and Viadana.”
Among what does survive from the 16th century, at least regarding instrumental music, the Jan of Lublin Organ Book (c.1540) takes pride of place. This manuscript contains some 300 sacred, secular, and didactic works, making it the largest surviving collection of keyboard music in Renaissance Europe and a vast repository of repertories including dances, fantasies, songs and motets. Written in German organ tablature and owned and perhaps compiled by the organist Jan z Lublina, it includes pieces by such western notables as Senfl, Josquin, Sermisy and Jannequin, as well as a large number of Polish pieces both anonymous and attributed. The instrumental ensemble plays a set of three untexted works, but many pieces in this collection have been reunited by modern scholars with their texts, either literary or scriptural. By way of an example, we hear a work by Mikołaj z Krakowa, his beautiful setting of Date sicerum merentibus, with a text from chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs. Mikołaj has a number of pieces in the tablature book, but nothing is really known about him except that his name appears as an organist in the Kraków court records. In this motet the keyboard ornaments have been stripped away so as to make the piece more appropriate for vocal ensemble.
Mikołaj Gomołka (c. 1535 – 1609?) is known only from his printed collection of the 150 psalms, Melodiae na Psałterz polski (1580), which sets to music the idiomatic vernacular translations from the Latin, done by the great 16th-century poet Jan Kochanowski (1530 – 1584). This collection proved tremendously popular, for it made the psalms accessible to the rising merchant class, who sang and played from the book as a form of home entertainment. In his early years Gomołka held a position in the court musical establishment, but later in his life he returned to his hometown Sandomierz, got married and eventually become head of the town council.
A large number of Polish dances survive in the Lublin organ book as well as many other keyboard and lute sources, but we’ve chosen to be rather more adventuresome by exploring the connection between Poland and its surrounding neighbors, thus emphasizing the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe. The Cossacks’ Dance from a Ukrainian source and the Taniec Wołoski (Wallachian Dance) from Romania both share a melodic twist that is often associated with Klezmer and other Eastern European Jewish music. Hayducki refers to the legendary brigands who fought against the Turks and when that threat was diminished turned their attention toward fighting against greedy landowners, thus becoming the Robin Hoods of their day. The piece makes for a very nice bagpipe solo. And finally we play for you a lusty Hungarian dance from an unlikely source, the Sopran virginal book. The virginal, a soft keyboard instrument, seems to be a surprisingly dainty instrument for such a piece.
An early 17th-century work at the conclusion of our program shows strong influence from the Venetian style of the Gabrielis and their contemporaries. This six-voiced anonymous Song of the Zebrzydowski Rebels shows a masterful hand at quick meter changes in the service of emotive expression. The text is bloody to the extreme, and although none too subtle, it expresses well display the passions of a most passionate people.