Polish Splendor:
Songs and Traditions from the Crossroads of Europe

February 2019

Program Notes

PROGRAM NOTES:  Polish Splendor:  Songs and Traditions from the Crossroads of Europe

 

From the Artistic Director:

I’ve often been asked this question: “Jonathan, you’re not Polish. Why is your professional ensemble, Chicago a cappella, doing a program of Polish music?” Well, when your metropolitan area has one of the world’s most significant and influential Polish populations, it’s a good idea to get to know the cultural riches in your backyard. Our organization decided to send me to Poland in May 2017 to conduct original research. The concert you’re hearing today is the first major fruit from that journey. We even have an a cappella choral version of a piano etude by Chopin on this concert! For most of its history, Poland has been an unusually eclectic place, with a cultural heritage built on the mixing of peoples. We begin our program with the medieval hymn “Gaude Mater Polonia,” the national anthem of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—an unusually tolerant period of ethnic intermixing between about 1550 and 1792. By contrast, present-day Poland is more culturally and ethnically homogenous than ever; nevertheless, dozens of different influences continue to have ripple effects in the culture. Even within Polish folk culture, there are many threads and traditions, documented in the classic compendium of folk songs collected by the ethnographer Oskar Kolberg.

What does this mean for choral music?

                                                           * * * * * *

The main assumption I took on my research trip to Warsaw and Kraków was quickly overturned. I assumed that I’d be easily able to find choral arrangements of “Polish folk tunes,” the Polish choral equivalents of “Shenandoah,” “Home on the Range,” and “Red River Valley.” But no! My first meeting was with Paweł Łukaszewski, the leading composer in Poland today and a musician of international stature—one of the “titans” of Polish music. Paweł spent over an hour with me in Warsaw, kindly debunking my myths and giving me a crash course in recent Polish choral-music history.

Under Communism, Paweł explained, the government attempted to dictate what “official” folk music was. In response, Polish composers resisted the regime by writing motets in Latin. Why? The Roman Catholic Church had been granted in 1956 an unusual amount of autonomy for a Communist country, on the condition that the clergy avoid politics. This gave the country’s choral composers a way to develop their skills while ignoring folk material that smacked of partisanship. Latin is therefore the dominant language in Polish choral composition over the last many decades. This is why you’ll find a Latin prayer to St. Theresa on this program, as well as Marek Jaciński’s superb, haunting “Stabat Mater.” I did find a few gems in the Polish language while I was in Kraków, including “Trzy Baby,” as well as the Lutosławski song cycle on soldier themes, a remarkable achievement; and you’ll hear Sykulski’s rollicking arrangement of the famous folk melody “Czerwone jabłuszko,” a new favorite tune of mine.

I also met Eleanor Schapiro, an American scholar who was doing her doctoral field work while I was there. She taught me a great deal about Jewish life and music in Poland since World War II. She told me that the two forms of Jewish-influenced music that have survived over the past 80 years are kabaret and klezmer, precisely because they were adopted by the wider culture. Kabaret is the tradition of torch songs, old standards, and radio hits, many of which were written by Jewish songwriters. You’ll hear a Polish tango from the kabaret era to close the first half, the delightful “Warszawo, moja Warszawo,” a love song to the capital city.

This program has been a labor of love and discovery. I am deeply grateful to my friend and colleague Brian Zakem for encouraging the project and for his insistence to always keep the wider picture of tolerance and peacemaking in mind. We are also grateful to Kasia Dorula for her masterful diction coaching and collaborative spirit. Thanks also to the Chicago a cappella board for supporting the research that led to this program, to Matt Greenberg for his cheerful support of the idea, and to John Trotter for expert musical direction.

Thank you, most of all, for being here. Enjoy the show.
—Jonathan Miller

Historical Notes by Brian Zakem

The idea that seeded this concert began for me nearly 60 years ago. In spring 1960, an elder relative, Fred Zakem, outlined for a family holiday gathering the process by which (so he thought) an ancestor selected our family’s surname, Zera Kodesh (abbreviated, according to Hebrew custom of taking the initial letters, as Za’k) from Isaiah 6:13. The family came from a small town, Ruhzany, first settled in 1552. Now part of Belarus, it was then part of what is commonly known as the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795).

In the 1650s, the Commonwealth was the second-largest country geographically in Europe, with a population approaching 11 million. It was also one of the most diverse and tolerant nations on our planet. The multi-ethnic history of the Commonwealth includes not only the current majority Roman Catholic population but also Lithuanian, Swedish, Jewish, the Lipka Tatar Muslims, Roma, German, Russian, French, and many more peoples. Despite the Commonwealth’s previous environment of religious tolerance, between Passover 1657 and Yom Kippur 1659 the Jewish community in Ruzhany was brutally attacked, with the events chronicled in a Yizkor (remembrance) book. I was mesmerized by this history, and I have pursued this story for decades as a lay historian. I am fortunate to have a well documented family history, complemented by a richly factual broader scholarship of this important European crossroads.

Perhaps, just as I continue to discover more about the lives of my ancestors’ and their diverse neighbors within the relevant historical context, you will be inspired to delve into your own family’s history and uncover meaningful connections to your past. We hope that today’s concert, through its a cappella musical selections, will stimulate your interest in this remarkable cultural and religious crossroads. Our selections are rooted in music primarily from Europe—mostly Eastern and some Central—starting with the medieval hymn “Gaude Mater Polonia,” which was the Commonwealth’s national anthem of sorts. Some of the more contemporary selections spring from political events. As Jonathan notes, the history of Polish choral music in the 20th century includes composers’ responses to the post-WWII regime in the Soviet-bloc Republic of Poland, a subtle form of resistance to a party line that attempted to dictate what “official” Polish folk music would be.

Of course, not just in music but in the wider culture, an emerging group of secular and religious leaders, still including Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik, have persisted in championing the cause of building a robust democracy and safe guarding religious freedom. These two pioneers of the Solidarity movement are still fighting “the good fight” toward sustaining and strengthening the democratic institutions that were created in Poland following the Soviet Union’s collapse. We now hope that the societal conflicts that have come to the surface of Poland’s national life, as well as many of their neighboring nations, will be addressed through civil dialogue, toward a future that promotes the continued building and sustaining a more vibrant, freedom-loving democracy.

For centuries, various peoples have taken turns invading and “carving up,” so to speak, lands that made up the Commonwealth. While such political and cultural changes sometimes led to societal enrichment, too often they tragically led to social instability, friction and an increase of “acted out” prejudices. With our Polish Splendor music crossing several important roads within Europe, we aim not only to keep open the door to beautiful culture but also reinforce the healthy paths that lead to truth and reconciliation. At their best, history and culture can help point us toward incorporating the virtue of telling the truth and, where needed, facilitating peacemaking to take the place of strife, fear, and hate-inspired violence.

If you would like to learn more about such ongoing efforts in reconciliation both here and abroad, send your contact information to me at bzakem@comcast.net.

On a personal note, it has been extraordinarily gratifying and meaningful to closely work with Jonathan over the last few years. Not only has our friendship grown while we “unearthed” more and more about some of our ancestor’s roots, but this work together also has led to this concert that we share with you now. We hope that it adds an important chapter of rich heritage to Chicago and beyond!

—Brian Zakem, historical consultant

 

Notes on the Music by Jonathan Miller

Trad. Gregorian chant melody, arr. Teofil Klonowski: Gaude Mater Polonia
This was the national anthem of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The tune is closely related to the Gregorian hymn O salutaris hostia. The text was composed by Vincent of Kielcz to commemorate the canonization in 1254 of Saint Stanisław. The song became associated with royalty and coronations in the centuries that followed, along with victories in battle. It is also sung at university inaugurations and major holidays in Poland.

The story of Saint Stanisław’s miracle says that, after his body was cut up into pieces, it miraculously put itself back together again. This of course is an allegory or analog.

Witold Lutosławski, arr. Pawel Łukaszewski: 10 Polish Folk Songs on Soldier Themes (U.S. Premiere)

A major force in classical music inside and outside Poland, Witold Lutosławski was a prolific creator and
conductor of orchestral and chamber music. When he died in 1994 at the age of 81, the New York Times
summed up his place in history as follows:

Mr. Lutoslawski prized beauty in music and made a point of saying so even when beauty in new
music was out of fashion. His works are distinguished by long-lined melodies, an ingenious use of
orchestral structure and harmonies that vary from comfortable lushness to pungent acidity. Yet it
would be wrong to think of them as neo-Romantic. In creating what he called his “sound language,”
Mr. Lutoslawski drew freely on avant-garde techniques, spicing his works with a light atonality and
limited improvisation.

In other words, although he availed himself of the various emerging techniques that came in and out of
fashion in the mid-to-late twentieth century (such as 12-tone and aleatoric writing), Lutosławski was not a
trend-follower and insisted on his own integrity and path.

The strength of character that the composer displayed in his musical language was matched by his
unwillingness to kowtow politically. Lutosławski wrote this cycle originally for men’s chorus in 1951, a
time when Stalinist politics and financial difficulties prompted the composer to accept a commission from
the Home of the Polish Armed Forces. Despite the obvious pressures, the composer managed never to
write a work that glorified Stalin. Lutosławski made a point to seek out melodies that had been collected
by the great ethnographer Oskar Kolberg, writing later in his life that “All of them have very innocent
lyrics, without any politics whatsoever.”

Paweł Łukaszewski tells us that this cycle of ten songs are among the only a cappella pieces that
Lutosławski ever wrote. The famous Polish choral conductor Jan Łukaszewski (no relation) of the Polish
Chamber Choir found out about the cycle from the Swedish conductor Eric Ericson and was very happy
to learn that Paweł Łukaszewski undertook a mixed-voice version of the cycle, saying that the reworking
“makes it possible to introduce new sounds into the interpretations of [these] works.”

We made the decision to scatter the Polish Soldier Songs throughout our concert today, rather than
presenting them in a single set. We will sing them two at a time, therefore, in five pairs at various points in
the program.

1. Pod Krakowem czarna rola—this song is sometimes performed as a polka

2. Nie będę łez ronić—a tender song about a woman who steadfastly loves her man, even though she
knows he may not return to her alive

Arr. Jacek Sykulski: Czerwone jabłuszko

The song Czerwone jabłuszko is based on a traditional kujawiak dance tune, which is a genre of tunes in
3/4 time from the Kujawy region. The kujawiak usually has a lyrical melody, not too fast, which is danced
with knees slightly bent.

The tune feels very old and probably is. The text is so well suited to the tune that it also feels old, but this
is where we get a surprise. The text dates only from the time of World War II. The tune was being played
by street musicians in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and it was used as a song of warning to alert
people in the underground to the presence of spies, collaborators, and “ladies of light morals” who would
deal sympathetically with the Germans.

The prolific composer and arranger Jacek Sykulski is the director of the Poznan Boys’ Choir, a well-known
ensemble that tours internationally and has a strong reputation for musical excellence. Sykulski has
arranged everything from folk songs to pop tunes, and Chicago a cappella has done several of his works
over the past 15 years or so. He has a strong and eclectic stamp to his music, and once he gets onto a
musical idea, he pursues it with drive and intensity; one might think of Finland’s Jaakko Mäntyjärvi for a
contemporary composer of similar individuality.

The combination of Sykulski’s intensity and the lyrical folk tune give a somewhat dark cast to the
experience of the song. The tune migrates among various voice parts; the key changes from time to time;
and the frenzied buildup at the end makes one feel that one is whirling in an intense kujawiak rhythm.

Witold Lutosławski, arr. Pawel Łukaszewski: 10 Polish Folk Songs on Soldier Themes (U.S. Premiere)
This is the second set of two songs from Lutosławski’s cycle.

3.. A w Warszawie—a song about a soldier who is being outfitted with his first uniform

4. Zachodzie słoneczko—a lyrical song about the sun setting

Marek Jaciński: Stabat Mater (U.S. Premiere)

This major work is a powerful statement by a composer who wrote choral and instrumental music as
well as choral-orchestral works. Jaciński played piano from the age of six and studied in Szczecin. He
was a faculty member at schools in Szczecin and Poznan and for over a decade taught at the Music
Academy in Bydgoszcz. He continued to produce new works while teaching composition, counterpoint,
and harmony; among his famous works are his Psalm 100 (in English) for mixed choir, which, like the
Stabat Mater, was championed and recorded by the Polish Radio Choir under the direction of Szymon
Wyrzykowski. Marek Jaciński died suddenly in 2010 while teaching composition in Romania. His students put together a Requiem concert for him in his memory.

The “Stabat Mater” prayer is a pillar of the medieval Latin liturgy. It focuses on the grief of the Virgin Mary as she watches her son, Jesus, dying on the cross. The text runs to 20 stanzas, of which this
composer only sets the first two and the last three. Jaciński’s setting is in what we might call the late 20th century international style, with chords that hang in the air with intensity and ringing clarity—neither as dissonant as Whitacre or as contrapuntally conceived as Lauridsen, but occupying a satisfying middle place. There is very little “Polish-sounding” about this style, but it is probably the most representative style of post-WWII Polish choral composition thus far in the program. (See the introductory notes for more historical background.)

Wojciech Kilar: A Prayer to St. Therese “The Little Flower” (U.S. Premiere)
A composer mostly of orchestral and film music, Kilar found his biggest fame with the score to the 1993
film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Other honors include accolades for his
scores to The Promised Land (1975), Le Roi et l’Oiseau / The King and the Mockingbird (1980), and From
A Far Country (1981) about the life of Pope John Paul II. His studies took off when he moved to Rzeszów
in southern Poland in 1944 and met the charismatic and intuitive teacher Kazimierz Mirski. Kilar’s
later study included sessions at the avant-garde school in Darmstadt, Germany in 1957 and a year with
Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1959-60; with Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki he was sometimes
grouped in the “New Polish School.” Later in his life he abandoned avant-garde musical techniques for a
simpler language, and he was inspired by the Gorals highlander folk melodies.

“I think, that’s how I see myself, that I’m a joyful-sad man, like that very banal chord used since the
impressionists’ times—minor with an added minor seventh,” said Wojciech Kilar in autumn 1996.
During the period of 1981-83, when martial law was imposed in Poland, the composer began visiting
the shrine in Jasna Góra, Częstochowa. He grew in religious feeling from this point forward and began
composing sacred works. These included a simplifying of his musical language, with much repetition and
stark contrasts, which we see in the work on today’s program. A Prayer to St. Therese was written right
before the composer’s death in 2013. The priest Jerzy Szymik, who wrote the words to celebrate the 45th
anniversary of the University of Silesia in Katowice, recalls seeing Kilar smiling as he leafed through St.
Theresa’s Yellow Notebook.

Witold Lutosławski, arr. Pawel Łukaszewski: 10 Polish Folk Songs on Soldier Themes (U.S. Premiere)

This is the third set of two songs from Lutosławski’s cycle.

5. Oj, I w polu jezioro—a mother cries, asking her son who gave him to the army

6. Jam Kalinkę Łamała

Marek Jaciński: Scherzo (U.S. Premiere)

It is wonderful when one has the opportunity to experience two very different sides of the same
composer. Marek Jaciński is not only the creator of the intense serious, and legato Stabat Mater that we
heard earlier; he is also the funny and playful composer of Scherzo, which is itself a clever name (it means
“joke” in Italian and is often the title of a third movement of a four-movement sonata or symphony).
In this case the joke is on us further still: the composer’s lyrics are taken exclusively from the sorts of
comments a performer would see in a musical score to indicate how a phrase should be played. These
include things like staccato, marcato, martellato, and much more. We’ll let the music speak for itself.

Andrjez Włast and Zygmunt Karasiński / Szymon Kataszek (music),
arr. J. Miller: Warszawo, moja Warszawo (tango)
The two Jewish musical forms to survive the Holocaust are klezmer (instrumental music for weddings and
dances, usually with clarinet and other lively instruments) and kabaret (popular songs from the 1930s,
torch songs and tangos and the like). Mikołaj Gliński gives us some more background as he writes for the
website Culture.PL:

The story of Polish pre-war [pre-WWII] entertainment music is a soundtrack made up of songs
written and composed by authors of Jewish descent. Poets like Julian Tuwim, Marian Hemar,
Andrzej Włast, Jerzy Jurandot, Ludwik Starski, … along with composers like Henryk Wars, Artur
Gold, Jerzy Petersburski and Zygmunt Białostocki, stand behind the vast majority of the pre-war
music hit chart titles.

Sounds just like Tin Pan Alley and the American Songbook, doesn’t it? The 1930s were a superbly creative
time for Jewish writers on both sides on the Atlantic. The writer continues:

They all belonged to a generation of acculturated Polish Jews, with virtually no ties to traditional
Jewish culture and little connection to modern Yiddish culture. To a large extent this group of artists
invented popular culture in Poland, and the songs they wrote became classics known today by every
Pole.

Many Polish music-lovers are unaware that the songs they love, and which they grew up singing, are by
Jewish songwriters; of course, Americans may not be aware that “God Bless America” and even “White
Christmas” were written by Jewish people!

Here we have a terrific example of a Polish-Jewish tango, made famous by the heartthrob singer Adam
Aston in 1932. Warszawo, moja Warszawo is a love song to the capital city. The lyrics are sweet and clear.
Jonathan Miller’s new edition for choir is based on that 1932 recording.

                                                      I N T E R M I S S I O N 

Fryderyk Chopin, arr. Franck Krawczyk: Lacrimosa
This is a choral transcription of a classical work that wasn’t originally intended for choir. Franck
Krawczyk, a composer who trained in Paris and Lyon and works internationally, took Chopin’s Etude in
Eb minor, Op. 10, No. 6, and transcribed it for a cappella choir for the Accentus ensemble, directed by
Laurence Equilbey (a woman conductor and an ensemble of superb accomplishment). Krawczyk captured
the pianistic qualities of Chopin’s piece very well; he also gave his transcription new lyrics that were drawn
from the “Lacrimosa” movement of the Mozart Requiem. On hearing both works, one can sense some of
the similarities in feeling, as both Chopin’s etude and Mozart’s piece are in 6/8 meter and in a minor key.
Accentus’s recording of choral transcriptions of non-choral classical works, called simply Transcriptions,
made quite a splash upon its release in 2013.

Witold Lutosławski, arr. Paweł Łukaszewski: 10 Polish Folk Songs on Soldier Themes (U.S. Premiere)
7. Gdzie to jedziesz, Jasiu?—a ballad about a girl (Kasia) offering to go after her love (Jasiu) to the eastern
front in Ukraine. Lutosławski only sets the first verse, though there are several others.

8. A na onej górze—this is a tune that Oskar Kolberg collected in Mazovia. As with the previous song, the melody is mostly found in octaves within the soprano and tenor parts. The text is about a pretty girl encountering a group of soldiers on a mountain – and the things that the soldiers think about her.

Juliusz Łuciuk: Trzy Baby (3 Peasant Women)
This is a superb cycle of three short songs by one of Poland’s leading composers, now 92 years old (born
on New Year’s Day, 1927). Like his countryman Wojciech Kilar, Juliusz Łuciuk studied at Darmstadt
and with Nadia Boulanger, also taking seminars with Olivier Messaien. Łuciuk has been focusing solely
on composition since he finished his studies. He has written orchestral, chamber, choral, and solo vocal
works. Most of his later choral output is of a sacred nature, making this cycle somewhat unusual; the
musical expressiveness is so powerful that we wanted to give it a place on this program.

This cycle is original music based on folk texts. The musical language is reminiscent of the Danish
composer Vagn Holmboe’s middle-period works such as Solhymne, which Chicago a cappella performed
very early on in its history; Łuciuk’s harmonies create soundscapes without being either strongly tonal or
highly dissonant, and yet they have strong character and evoke color and emotion.

Paweł Łukaszewski: The Last Letter of St. Maximilian to his Mother (U.S. Premiere)
Paweł Łukaszewski is professor of music and Rector at the Fryderyk Chopin Academy of Music in
Warsaw, where he studied with Marian Borkowski and currently teaches and mentors a growing
number of young composition students. A prolific composer and choral conductor, Paweł Łukaszewski
has had his works recorded on more than 110 CD recordings and performed on more than 400
festivals worldwide. In recent years he has seen great success with British choirs, giving him a strong
introduction to the English-speaking choral world. Reviewer Ronald Grames wrote in Fanfare, after
listing some of the greats of sacred choral music including Górecki, Pärt, and Taverner, “… it is clear that
Paweł Łukaszewski belongs in this company of titans.”

Paweł Łukaszewski’s musical style is characterized by what critic Mark Rochester calls “luscious and
luminous qualities.” Łukaszewski writes primarily sacred music, and there is a power to his work that
feels spirit-filled and urgent. His catalog is so tilted toward a cappella work that one could easily create
an entire concert (or three) consisting of his own works alone. He also doesn’t shy away from difficult
texts: the lyric here comes from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

St. Maximilian was born as Raymund Kolbe in 1894 in the Kingdom of Poland, which at the time was
part of the Russian Empire. Kolbe was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar. He had a vision of the
Virgin Mary when he was 12 and decided to devote his life to her service. Kolbe founded the monastery
at Niepokanalów, which at one time was the largest in the world. He also founded monasteries in Japan
and India.

Niepokanalów became a major publishing center, including anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II.
For this, and for hiding 1,500 Jewish refugees, Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo, taken to Pawiak and
then imprisoned at Auschwitz, where he volunteered to take the place of a family man in the hunger
bunker. This was a wing of the camp created to warn against escapes by subjecting its prisoners to death
by starvation. Kolbe led prayers to the Virgin Mary with his fellow prisoners and remained calm to the
end. The guards gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid, for which Kolbe raised his left arm and
calmly awaited death. When canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II in 1982, St. Maximilian became
the patron saint of drug addicts, prisoners, families, and the pro-life movement. Niepokanalów has also
become an important devotional site for laypeople.

1994 was the centenary year of the saint’s birth. The friars of Niepokanalów commissioned Paweł
Łukaszewski to set St. Maximilian’s last letter to his mother, written at Auschwitz, to choral music. Father
Roman Soczewka from the monastery writes:

It was the composer’s aim to express the prayerful, mystic character of the text by placing a
maximum limitation on resources and musical elements, both rhythmic and harmonic…The
composition is quiet, but at the same time full of unusual tension, indicative of the atmosphere
and mood of the place from which the letter was sent.

One might say that this piece of music, like its text, is a masterpiece of understatement. One example
is line, “U mnie jest wsztstko dobrze” (“everything is fine with me”), which is so shatteringly modest in
its untruth; the composer puts an unusual amount of harmonic tension right there before calming down a bit.

Witold Lutosławski, arr. Paweł Łukaszewski: 10 Polish Folk Songs on Soldier Themes (U.S. Premiere)
9. Już to mjia siódmy roczek—this is a tune from Kraków, collected by Kolberg.

10.Małgorzatka—this tune is from Mazovia, a whirling dance describing Maggie as she dances with the soldiers.

Paweł Łukaszewski: Prayer for the Homeland
This is an a cappella movement from the composer’s famous Missa Pro Patria (Mass for the Country),
premiered in 1998 in Częstochowa. It features a disarmingly simple alternation of chant and block
chords. The lyrics are by a famous priest who was a leading voice for reform during the early years of the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

On the page, this piece is disarmingly simple, but once again, Łukaszewski pulls on the heartstrings.
Starting in D major, he alternates block chords, a soprano line soaring over long-held notes in the other
voices, and a reciting tone marked “quasi canto gregoriano” (like Gregorian chant), which propels the
music along while remaining in a contemplative vein. The composer moves up to E major and then
finally to F-sharp minor, heightening the tension and adding sharps before a final moment of repose.