Melodies for the Polish Psalter
Ars Nova ˇ Il Canto


Melodies for the Polish Psalter

Jan Kochanowski's Psalter of David was printed in Cracow in 1579. Kochanowski had spent many years on the translation of the masterpiece of Hebrew poetry perfecting and transforming it. This special book of the Old Testament, filled with prayers to God (it includes 150 psalms) and the spirit of a close relationship between man and the Creator, exerted a strong influence on him for a long time. For many centuries, including the 16th century, David was thought to be the author of the psalms. At present only 73 psalms from the whole collection, compiled between the 11th and 4th centuries BC, are attributed to him. Kochanowski spoke with a voice of an inspired Jewish ruler as if were new David. A masterpiece of Polish Renaissance was created.

Kochanowski did not translate the psalms from the Hebrew original but from Latin. However, it was not translated from the Vulgate, but from a translation made by a Scottish Renaissance humanist, George Buchanan (published in 1556), who in a much better way rendered emotional and stylistic richness of the original text. And it was the splendour of the psalms that was most important for the Polish poet. The Psalter of David is a manifestation of private piety – so characteristic of Jan Kochanowski – which focuses on intimate ties between the human being and God (and which was described in 1932 by Jacques Langlade in an undeservedly forgotten monograph of the poet). His piety reaches its climax in threnodies published a year later and expresses the Renaissance passion for speaking Christianity in this existential dimension derived from human experience.

The Psalter of David is at same time a show of the master's virtuosity. Being a 16th century classicist, Jan Kochanowski remembered about the diversity of style and ...make references to the Roman antiquity. The strophic form is very characteristic of the psalms: although parallelism typical for Hebrew poetry can be observed, the poet applies antique versification including the so called Sapphic stanza. Indeed Renaissance knew how to combine these aspects.

A lyrical masterpiece was created. Kochanowski wrote with pride to the bishop of Cracow, Piotr Myszkowski in the foreword that he "climbed the rock of beautiful Calliope" holding "David's golden fiddle". He addressed in this way the muse of epic poetry as he had created an epic story about human deeds which are subject to the Creator's will.

Antoni Czyż
(Translated by Michał Górski)

Mikołaj Gomółka (ca. 1535–1591) has gone down in history as a composer of Melodies for the Polish Psalter – one of the most important achievements of old Polish music, published in Cracow by the printing of Łazarz Andrysowicz in 1580. Gomółka was a musician and played the woodwinds (fistulator) at the court of Sigismund II August and later held the post of the family governor of Sandomierz. Melodies… were dedicated to the bishop of Cracow, Piotr Myszkowski, who was a patron and contributed greatly to the creation of Melodies.

The idea to link Polish music with the Polish language derived from humanistic ideas of Renaissance. Gomólka's psalms have made up for the lack of such genres like madrigal or chanson in the Polish musical tradition. Some of them, especially psalms no. 47, 97 and 103, resemble dances popular at the time.

All 150 psalms were composed for four voices. Having in mind that at the time it was possible for instruments to play music written for voices. I worked out mixed vocal and instrumental and purely instrumental versions of the psalms. The use of numerous Renaissance instruments has created a good possibility of enriching the sound and has made room for playing rich ornaments. Psalms sang by a soloist accompanied by instruments created a possibility of putting even more stress on the words and the expressive interpretation of the ingenious text written by Jan Kochanowski. Performed in this way the psalms have become a more personal and deeper way of expression.

Jacek Urbaniak
(Translated by Michał Górski)