Lent Lament. History of Polish Passion Songs.
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Easter is undoubtedly the most important holiday of Christianity. In Poland, for centuries, they have developed numerous traditions, the most beautiful of which are undoubtedly the Lent songs. What is the genesis of these beautiful, moving pieces and what was - and still is - their role? To describe this, we must go back to the very beginning of the celebration of Lent - that is, the extraordinary time of experiencing and remembering the passion and death of Jesus. Let us remember that the secret of Christ's death and resurrection became the foundation of the Christian religion and as such it became a sphere of the sacred, a space of mystery. Theologians and philosophers have been analyzing it for centuries using knowledge and a rich bibliography.
Centuries ago, the Fathers of the Church wondered, however, how to convey this complicated, mystical content to the others - that is, the faithful, often illiterate, who gained their knowledge of the Gospel only from sermons or frescoes on the walls of temples? How else to explain it to them, how to move, how to delight and terrify? Certainly, this could be supported by unusual performances, such as medieval mysteries and liturgical dramas, during which the evangelical messages of the Passion were "staged". The Lenten Liturgy itself contained many dramatized staging elements. Processions with palms, with a cross, to the tomb, to the baptismal font, blessing fire, liturgical actions, division of roles and functions, officiating in the form of a dialogue - have become an integral part of the rites of Holy Week. They were accompanied by rich liturgical chants. Over the centuries, similar events have helped the faithful to sympathize with the suffering of Christ, to express the depth of their religious feelings and, above all, to come closer to the sacred.
We should remember that since mankind exists, it is music that plays a special role in most religious rituals. On the one hand, it is a primary form of expressing emotions, and on the other - through the magic of rhythm and melody - it allows you to almost touch the sacred. Therefore, it can be safely said that Polish Lenten songs are captured moments of grief, weeping, and suffering that the faithful wanted to express with the suffering Savior. How do we know this? The beginnings of Polish religious song date back to the 13th century. Previously, the faithful, unable to join the liturgy conducted in Latin, expressed their emotions related to the religious experience by crying, shouting or singing - not in Latin, of course, but in Polish. It is not surprising then that the Synod of Wrocław in 1248 ordered priests to pray the Our Father and I Believe in Polish after the Gospel every Sunday and holidays.
Then, during the Synod of 1285, Archbishop Jakub Świnka gives an order to recite and teach the people in Polish, Belief, Our Father, Hail Mary, after singing the Latin Credo. It was then, therefore, for the first time that the faithful began to recite and sing in Polish, and Polish songs began to be created. In the living tradition of the Polish people, they function to this day in a special way. They are performed during the culmination of Lent, i.e., during the Triduum Sacrum. The content of these songs is a meditation on the Passion, often being a translation of Latin religious poetry dating back to the early Middle Ages. The musical layer, as well as the manner of performance - also has its roots in the religious culture of the Middle Ages, which in oral transmission has survived until our times. In turn, the characteristic repetition, rhythm, and contemplation of these songs has its source in long, all-night vigils at the Holy Sepulcher.
The 16th century is a true flowering of Polish Passion Song. Under the influence of the Reformation, the national song is heard, numerous songs based on folk texts are written, there are also Passion songs, poetry combined into larger collections of the so-called cantionals.
The invention of printing has an impact on the development of Passion songs, and hence the first collections of songs - cantionals (the 19th century popular version of which are the so-called kantyczki). Among the para liturgical songs, the plaints (songs expressing the pain and despair of the Virgin Mary) disseminated in the 17th century it often reaching a high artistic level in the works of eminent composers, and lamentations, which were most often an expression of folk piety, deserve attention.
The first Polish Lenten pieces have survived without any notes. The only exception, from 1526, is the 1526 opening fragment of the melody “Jesus Christ, God-Man", recorded in the Marian codex. The melody of a great monument of the Polish language, i.e., " Żołtarz Jezusów", appears for the first time in the chancellor of Walenty from Brzozów (1554). Are the authors of the first Lenten songs known? Fortunately, several names can be listed. It is commonly assumed that the song "Jesus Judas was sold for meager money" was written by Władysław of Gielniów, the patron of Warsaw. To encourage the faithful to participate more actively in the daily liturgy, he composed religious songs in Polish and sang them together after sermons.
The intensive development of Polish Lenten songs took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, the texts, and melodies (mostly by anonymous authors) have survived to our times, among others thanks to the work of the first collectors of religious folklore, especially Michał Mioduszewski and Teofil Klonowski. One of the oldest is the song of the Holy Cross, which is a translation of the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt (translated from the 16th century). The lament of My people, the people, and the pieces "Jesus Christ, Dear Lord", by Abraham Różniatowski, the author of Baroque mystery performances, comes from the 17th century. Songs of "The Olive Garden"; "You, who bitterly" and "Hangs on the cross", were created in the 18th century.
In later centuries, numerous passion songs were also written, especially in the nineteenth century, when many Polish composers (including Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński) created religious works, also of a passion nature, which were readily perceived as a political manifesto and protest against the denationalizing practices of the partitioning powers.
Today, Polish Passion songs - including the oldest ones - are still readily performed during Lent. It is worth remembering that these extraordinary works, which are to prepare the faithful to experience the Easter miracle of the Resurrection, are a living monument of the Polish language and thus a unique record of folk sensitivity.
It is not surprising, therefore, that traditional Polish Lent songs have become the domain of historians of the Polish language, ethnographers, musicologists, and religious scholars, but also of numerous artists who, seeing their uniqueness and universality, often interpret them anew, such as Stanisław Soyka or Maria Pomianowska, or try to capture them at their very source, like Adam Strug.
Written by Zuzanna Ducka.
Translated from Polish by Magdalena Moszczyńska.
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