Une conférence en anglais par le Professor Adrian Thomas

1. Introduction

Good afternoon, and welcome to the last of this season's Gresham lectures on Music. Over the past five lectures, I have tried to sketch out some of the main issues and features of Polish music before Chopin. Today, we come 'up-to-date', as it were, contemplating music and its contexts in 18th-century Poland and, perhaps most intriguingly, in the early decades of the 19th-century when Chopin was born (1810) and brought up, prior to his flight from Poland during the 1830-31 uprising.

We tend, in our general lack of access to Polish culture and history during the 18th century, to view Chopin as a symbol of a new spirit, of the artist battling with adverse circumstances. That, of course, is a perfectly justifiable approach to music in the 19th century. But it is also an approach which explains in different ways how and why Polish music - and Polish arts in general - developed during the Baroque period and the Enlightenment. As we have already witnessed, precise dates and biographical information are often thin on the ground, so a degree of historical conjecture combined with stylistic observation is sometimes the only way to build up a picture of music in 18th-century Poland.

Where we can be more precise is in the political and military contexts of Poland as a nation. I mentioned last time the disastrous connection with Sweden during the 17th century. The wars with Sweden and Russia severely weakened Poland's independence. Given the outstanding military genius of King Jan III Sobieski (1629-96, reigned 1674-96), who famously broke the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, was of no avail in halting Poland's decline. The country's system of an elected monarchy, combined with the increasingly self-regarding attitude of the Polish aristrocracy, led to the further weakening of what, in earlier times, had been an admirable and mould-breaking system of government. As western Europe developed strong military and political systems, Poland became fractious.

Jan Sobieski was followed by kings brought in from Saxony (1697-1764) and they proved too weak to withstand the imperial ambitions, not only of Russia but also of Prussia, whose monarch Frederick the Great once likened Poland to 'an artichoke, ready to be consumed leaf by leaf' (1752). 1 As the century progressed, there were increasing and increasingly violent protests against foreign influence.

The election in 1764 of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1732-98), was a move in the right direction, certainly culturally, but his reign was politically and militarily among the most disastrous. Squeezed by Frederick the Great of Prussia to the West and Catherine the Great of Russia to the East (and Poniatowski had, by all accounts, been Catherine's most ardent 'squeeze' in his twenties, so was beholden to Russia anyway), almost a third of Poland's territories were occupied and partitioned in 1772-73 by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

There was a second partition in 1793, when Russia and Prussia seized even more of Poland than in 1772 (let us not forget that in these intervening 21 years there was turmoil elsewhere too: not only the American War of Independence but also the French Revolution). Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817) led a Polish insurrection in 1794 which, typically, failed. And the inexorable result of this failure was the Third Partition a year later. Poland was then wiped out completely and would not regain full independence until 1918. How the mighty edifice of Renaissance Poland had crumbled, too often aided by poor leadership and internal strife.

2. Church Music

Such is the national and international context in which Polish music tried to survive and develop. For obvious reasons, music outside the church's influence was subservient to the whims of the prevailing political leadership, be that nationally - the Saxon kings Augustus II and III in the first six decades of the 18th century were apparently indifferent to music and in any case preferred their court in Dresden to that in Warsaw - or locally, in the smaller establishments of the Polish aristocracy. These latter were sometimes quite inventive and a number of members of the Polish aristocracy, especially in the last decades of the century, were significant performers and composers in their own right, much like elsewhere in Europe, often delighting in elaborate entertainments such as fetes galantes. Even so, there was not the infrastructure let alone the will to pursue music as singlemindedly as it was being developed in German-speaking lands to the West.

In contrast, in the early decades of the 18th century, Polish churches and monasteries continued to exercise great influence and patronage. In retrospect, we may say that, without them and their longevity into the 20th century, a great repertoire of vocal-instrumental music would never have been created and protected. The Polish church's conservative nature, however, allowed only a gradual influx of the high Baroque style developing primarily in German-speaking Europe. Here's a characteristic example, probably from sometime after 1690. It is the penultimate movement 'In manus tuas, Domine' (In thine hand I commit my spirit, Psalm 31, v.6), from the Completorium by one of Poland's most distinguished composers working in the early decades of the 18th century, Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (c.1665-1734). Gorczycki followed several composers whom we have met on previous occasions in becoming choirmaster of Wawel Cathedral in 1698.

        MUSIC 1 Gorczycki Completorium/6 'In manus tuas, Domine'

In his Completorium, Gorczycki demonstrates both the continuing vitality of the early Venetian Baroque style and the influx of a more contemporary chromatic style and expressive affekt (it is an example of how recent has been any extensive understanding of Polish music before 1800 that this multi-movement masterpiece was discovered only in 1961, in a parish church north-east of Kraków).

In contrast, the Veni consolator by a Piarist monk, Damian Stachowicz (c.1660-99), is a much more obviously contemporary work, even though it may well have been composed earlier than Gorczycki's Completorium. Its concertato idiom and form (that quintessential Baroque operatic structure, the da capo aria), as well as the evident vocal and instrumental virtuosity that it requires, are really rather stunning. Here are the opening and middle sections of Veni consolator.

        MUSIC 2 Stachowicz Veni consolator (beginning)

For my third example of music for voices, I have chosen a familiar text - Laudate pueri - by J. Staromieyski, who was active in the middle of the 18th-century. Not much is known about Staromieyski, not even his full first name. His Laudate pueri belongs to that wonderful strand of dancing Baroque choral music so familiar to us from the music of Bach and Handel


Text : Before Chopin
© 2016 Peter Vizard