Jezus was sold by Judas...
Polish Passion Songs
Collegium Vocale Bydgoszcz ˇ Ars Nova


Polish Passion Songs

Lent holds a place of special importance in the historical development of Christian art. Poland is no exception. From the Middle Ages onwards, many works of literature and music on the Lenten theme have been written and composed. All of them are connected with the truth of Redemption and Salvation and the unique dramaturgy and setting of Passion as described in the Gospel. The works rooted in the evangelic description of Christ's Passion and the paschal offering of God the Man are very diverse in form and genre. The present CD features works describing the last days of the life of Christ by composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, representing different genres – sequences, laments, Passion canonical hours, planctus, liturgical and paraliturgical forms. This important strand of early Polish culture, expressing reflection on life, repentance, collective and personal tragedy and hope of redemption, has produced an extensive heritage of outstanding relics of Polish literature and music. Lent drama with musical accompaniment (from Maundy Thursday with the sound of rattles only) was of paramount importance for the formation of European drama and theatre. This prompted us to precede and conclude the musical selection with a melodic recitation by a prominent Polish actress, whose interpretation of old Polish texts gives them a contemporary dimension. The leitmotif of the recordings is the ominous sound of rattles which on Good Friday reminds us of both death and hope.

The sequence Salve, alma crux beata, to a text written by an anonymous author before 1526, used to be sung during the Liturgy of the Cross. Its content blends two kinds of Cross-centred piety: an earlier one focusing on the glorification of the very tool of Redemption, and a later one, characteristic of the late Middle Ages, which concentrated on the meditation of the suffering of Christ and the circumstances of His death.

Another popular 16th-century Lenten song is Mądrość Ojca Wszechmocnego (The Wisdom of the Almighty Father). The four-part version recorded by Collegium Vocale Bydgoszcz and Ars Nova is by one of the greatest Polish Renaissance composers, Cyprian Bazylik of Sieradz.

The oldest extant Polish Lenten song is Jezus Chrystus Bóg Człowiek, mądrość Oćca swego (Jesus Christ, God the Man, the Wisdom of His Father). It dates back to c. 1420 and its ancestry can be traced to an anonymous 14th-century Latin text beginning with the words Patris sapientia. The Polish translation was by Abbot Jan of Witów. The consecutive stanzas of the song describe the capture of Christ in Gethsemane, the trial in front of Pontius Pilate, the flogging of Christ, the crowning with thorns, the way to Golgotha, the death on the Cross, the deposition from the Cross and the Entombment. The song achieved great popularity in the 16th century and is now known in many versions. In the present CD it is performed in three versions: an austere, homophonic medieval version and two vocal-instrumental Renaissance arrangements, three- and four-part, with a richly ornamented part for the positive organ. The original Medieval melody has been included in the tenor part. Imbued as it is with awe and realism, the text even today overwhelms the listener with its inner truth, expressive power and freshness of the language. The Passion scenes, so well known from paintings and sculptures, are evoked with unique vividness.

In Wszyscy mieszkańcy dworu niebieskiego (All the Inhabitants of the Heavenly Court), the prayers, lamentations of the choir and the Mother of God, as well as the descriptions of tortures are enhanced by the variable instrumentation of a consort of recorders and the austere sound of the fiddle.

Bóg Wszechmogący, Ociec nasz niebieski (Almighty God, Our Heavenly Father) is a simple, chordal song with a typical Renaissance structure. The song is joyful rather than sombre. "Let us be joyful in the Holy Spirit" – sung in the last stanza, directs the listeners thoughts to the theme of the Resurrection and redemption for human sins.

Żoltarz Jezusów, czyli piętnaście rozmyślań o Bożym umęczeniu (The Psaltery of Jesus or Fifteen Reflections about God's Suffering), beginning with the words "Jezusa Judasz przedał za pieniądze nędzne" ("Jesus was sold by Judas for humble money", is a distinctly Polish Lenten Office song. It is most probably by the Blessed Władysław of Gielniów, a Bernardine monk and patron of Warsaw. In the present recording the popular medieval melody is played on the pommer. During the Renaissance it was arranged as a 4-part version, with the cantus firmus placed in the tenor part.

The lamentation Chryste Panie Wszechmogący (O Christ, the Almighty God) is modelled on the lamentations from the Biblical Book of Jeremiah. It gives a very realistic description of the Passion of Christ, including the slapping of and spitting into His face, the nailing to the Cross, the piercing of His side, and the offering of the vinegar and gall. A simple melody based on three notes is interspersed with the names of letters from the Hebrew alphabet sung by the choral ensemble. The melodic recitation, in which the spoken word has the most important function, is accompanied by the ominous sound of the hurdy-gurdy and rattles.

The literary-musical equivalent of the medieval pieta – a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ on her lap or in her arms – is the planctus. It is rooted in the medieval liturgical dramas performed during Lent. Lament świętokrzyski – Posłuchajcie bracia miła (The Holy Cross Lament – Listen Dear Brethren), from the Benedictine monastery of Łysa Góra in the Holy Cross Mountains, is a real gem of Polish literature. Most probably a part of a more extended drama of the Ludus passionis type, it is considered by literary historians as the best example of Polish sacred literature prior to Jan Kochanowski. The character of the despairing Mother has a timeless, symbolic and deeply psychological dimension. The music to the piece is not extant; the gemshoms accompanying the recitation improvise on the tune of the Latin hymn Crux fidelis.

The piece Krzyżu święty i chwalebny (O Holy and Glorious Cross) can be described as an adoration of the symbol of Christ's Passion. The mournful aspect is not present here; instead the Cross becomes a symbol of triumph and Salvation.

In the 4-part elegiac lament O Jezu, jakoś ciężko skatowany (O Jesus How Mercilessly You Were Tortured), not only people but the whole of nature indulge in lamentation. The singers are accompanied by an ensemble of four bass recorders (later soprano recorders), which enrich the final section of the work with ornamentations brightening the overall mood. This symbolizes the hope for Resurrection.

The song Ciebie dla, człowiecze, dał Bóg przekluć sobie bok (It Was for You that God Let His Side Be Pierced) was included in the so-called Lviv Manuscript as a continuation of the old Polish hymn Bogurodzica (The Mother of God). In other sources the text was written down much earlier than the music. It has a didactic character extolling faith, repentance and the love of God. The paraliturgical and free form of the piece in the present recording refers to medieval morality plays.

The 4-part song Wszechmogący nasz Panie, dziwnoś świat swój sprawił (Our Almighty God, How Strange is the World You Created) is unusually colourful in its literary aspect. It contains many dialogues and quotations, its 34 stanzas providing a very vivid description of the life and death of Christ. Three stanzas were selected for this recording.

Some Polish Lenten songs are translations of songs in foreign languages. One such an example is Ach nam nędznym grzesznym nasze grzeszenie (We Vile Sinners) which is a Polish translation of Ach, wir armen Sünder by Herman Born and Johannes Bertram.