he Polish-born singer Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett and other specialists in early music take us on the trail of Mikolaj Gomólka (1535-1609).
The Polish composer set to music the Psalms of David set to rhyme by Jan Kochanowski. He placed the highest value on the connection between text and music. his sophistication in handling the nuances of the Polish language paved the way for a national style of art.
Agnieszka Budzińska -Bennett – vocals, direction | Marc Lewon – lute, renaissance guitar and alto viol | Leonardo Bortolotto – bass and treble viol | Caroline Ritchie – bass viol | Masako Art – triple harp and renaissance harp | Elizabeth Rumsey: production
Vlog June 2022 on “Psalmy Dawida” – Melodies from the Polish Psalter
Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett – singer, harpist and musicologist
Thomas Christ (TC): How does a graduated Polish pianist come from Szczecin via Poznan to Basel to the Schola Cantorum? Did you come to early music via musicology or is there – as so often – a key musical experience?
Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett (ABB): Since I was a teenager, my heart beat for early music. First it was the baroque music. Key experiences were the voices of Emma Kirkby, Paul Elliott and David Thomas in the legendary “Messiah” with Christopher Hogwood – to this day I get goose bumps when I hear this interpretation.
But then, when I was about 16 years old, I discovered the Middle Ages. It was the visionary recordings of René Clemencic, David Munrow and Gothic Voices (very difficult to get in Poland at that time). I find them incredibly important even today thanks to their transparency, their respect for the work and thanks to the incredible creative power – these were actually the great pioneers!
The “borderline experience” you mentioned was an excerpt from “Beowulf” performed by Benjamin Bagby (Sequentia), one of the greatest early music artists I have ever encountered. Imagine a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon epic, perhaps sung at some point (with no surviving musical notation) and not a word of it to be understood, performed by a single singer accompanying himself on a six-stringed lyre. Sometimes you could pick out a word that sounded like a mixture of English, German, or Old Norse, but generally there was nothing to understand (this was back in the days when Ben performed this epic without subtitles!). And yet it was such an amazing experience, in its own way such a clear message that each of us (and it happened during one of the legendary medieval music festivals in Stary Sącz in southern Poland) knew exactly when in this melodramatically recited text the dragon moved the third claw of his left hind leg and what was going on in the soul of the heroic Beowulf. That fascinated me to no end. At that moment I realized with great clarity the power of words to reach the listener so directly, both intellectually and emotionally. That’s when it occurred to me that I too would like to and could do something like that one day.
So I owe my career and aesthetics to my mentor and friend Ben, through this influence I also ended up in Basel, at that time the only place where you could study medieval music.
TC: You have studied in depth the roots of music, especially folk songs. We know the early music of Italy, France, Germany and England to some extent – what are the main differences to early music in Eastern Europe, especially in your musical homeland Poland?
ABB: I have never studied folk music (only a few ethnomusicological modules in my studies), but I have studied the oldest written witnesses of musical creation of many countries – including Poland, which, by the way, belongs to Central Europe. The differences are not so great: at the beginning there is liturgical music in Latin with borrowed material, then comes the local production in Latin and then also in the national language, there is a lot of exchange with neighboring countries (Germany, Bohemia, etc.) and also a great transfer of repertoire. Because of the relatively late Christianization (966), everything develops somewhat later than in Western Europe, but already in the late 13th century the fragments of the manuscripts from the Notre Dame in Paris are found in the monasteries of the Poor Clares in southern Poland – whether they were actually performed is another question – and we know of local attempts to study the four-part harmony, which was extremely rare at that time. And in the 15th century in Poland we are indeed up-to-date: the international and local repertoires live harmoniously side by side, and there are composers who immediately incorporate the latest achievements into local practice, such as Nicholas de Radom, who shortly after Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474) also used a “fauxbourdon” (three-part chant over a psalm melody) in his compositions. And in the Renaissance, Polish composers and musicians become known throughout Europe – a prime example is Wacław z Szamotuł, whose motets are printed in Nuremberg, alongside Orlando di Lasso, Thomas Crequillon, Clemens non Papa, Adrian Willaert, Philippe Verdelot, Nicolas Gombert and Josquin.
TC: Given the occasion, I will take the liberty of traveling even more to the edge of Europe with my question. Not only did you perform early Icelandic music, but you also devoted yourself to studying Scandinavian studies. Is there a Scandinavian Baroque or even Renaissance music, or were these not rather imported courtly or ecclesiastical melodies?
ABB: The CD series “Mare Balticum” of my ensemble Peregrina is dedicated to Scandinavia (4 albums, released by Tacet 2017-21). The late introduced Christianity has promoted very individual solutions, in this respect the music from Denmark, Sweden or Finland is already somewhat different. On the one hand, there are common imported melodies (also contrafactures) – as an example I can mention here the mass parts with well-known chorale melodies but in Old Finnish (we also recorded them!). On the other hand, there are many experiments in the north, also in the field of polyphony, which are very peculiar. And thus incredibly fascinating!
TC: Almost 35 years ago you founded your ensemble for medieval music “Peregrina” – there we stay again with the topic, because the name has a programmatic meaning in its meaning of the wanderer or pilgrim. Did musical styles spread with the migration of peoples and enrich local melodies or rather displace them?
ABB: Diverse influences from traveling musicians have always existed. Our Notker Balbulus (scholar and poet from Carolingian times) from Saint Gall mentions a manuscript brought from Jumièges that gave him a revolutionary idea (it is about early sequences). On the other hand, many local idioms of the chant were lost with the Gregorian reform. It is an eternal game of mutually beneficial influences, but also a story of losses due to the onset of new trends.
TC: My last question, as always, is about the compositional, but also media comparison of the Renaissance discoveries to the Baroque music played today. The latter has enjoyed great popularity for several decades, while Renaissance music has remained somewhat intimate. Is this due to the spirit of the times, or to media mediation, or simply to the relative “unexploredness” of that early music?
ABB: Renaissance music (as well as medieval) demands much more from the listener. They are (unfortunately still) foreign sounds, foreign languages, complicated forms and genres whose context is not at all easy to explain and understand. The fast pace of life and the “unspectacular” nature of ancient art do not particularly favor the teaching of Renaissance music. But I have the confidence, and I see it in my many travels around the world, that there is an ever wider and more aware audience that appreciates and supports our work. This gives us a lot of strength. And that’s a good thing, because the work has only just begun.
(written in May 2022)
In a “hit parade”, the popularity of music titles is to be measured on the basis of the sales figures of sound carriers (incidentally, this was done before the triumph of the record initially on the basis of sold sheet music and later from jukeboxes set up in public, today streaming is also included). If one wanted to identify a “hit parade” of the Renaissance, one would have to look for it in the various Psalter settings that spread throughout the Reformed areas of Europe in the course of the Protestant Reformation. For it was mainly this music that was sung and played in the Reformed church service as well as for devotions at home.
In several concerts of “ReRenaissance” various examples of how Jean Calvin’s metrical translations of the biblical Psalter were musically realized could already be heard (I remember well the concert last October, where also the singularly in the Basel University Library preserved Hebrew “Rücktextierung” to a melody of the Geneva Psalter sounded). The next concert will feature the Psalter settings of the Polish composer Mikołaj Gomółka, which were published as “Melodies for the Polish Psalter” in Kraków in 1580 and were widely used in Poland. I am curious to see what place they will occupy in the Renaissance charts I have imagined …
(in January 2021; The concert is postponed to June 2022. Translation Marc Lewon)
For any music lover with a few years under their belt, one of the great fascinations in life is the sheer amount of music out there that you’ve never heard before. And that is the case for me with Gomółka. I know that his only known work is a set of 150 four-part psalm settings in plain style printed in 1580; furthermore, I know that Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett and Marc Lewon have been recording a complete set with Elizabeth Rumsey for some time. But to date I have not heard a single note, and I am really looking forward to learning about the composer to whom these wonderful musicians have devoted so much time and energy.
Niech co chce będźie
Quam bonus Israhel Deus (Ps.73)
2. Pana wołam
Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi (Ps.142bis)
3. Broń mię, móy panie
Eripe me Domine (Ps.140)
A Pollish Ayre
– Tobias Hume (c1579-1645)
The First Part of Ayres, French, Pollish and Others, London (John Windet) 1605.
5. Mocą imienia swego
Deus in nomine Tuo (Ps.54)
In te Domine speravi
(Ps.31) – Wacław z Szamotuł (c1520-c1560)
Psalmorum selectorum, Tomus 4, Nuremberg (Johann vom Berg) 1554
7. Jako na puszczy prędkimi psy szczwana
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (Ps.42)
(bass viol & harp)
8. Chwalćie Pana prze dobroć Iego niewymowną
Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus (Ps.107)
– anonymous (c1590)
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Musziekafdeling, Ms. 28.B.39 (“The Siena Lute Book,” c1590), fol.20r-v
10. Mam przecz Pana miłować
Dilexi quoniam exaudiet Dominus (Ps.116)
11. Panie, za Twoią zawżdy pomocą
Domine in virtute Tua laetabitur rex (Ps.21)
12. Błogosław, duszo moia
Benedic anima mea (Ps.103)
(Ps.149) – Adam Jarzębski (c1590-c1648)
Contrafactum on “Vestiva i colli” – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Canzoni è Concerti a due, tre è quattro voci cum Basso Continuo, 1627 (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms.mus.111)
(treble viol, bass viol, harp)
14. Kto syę w opiekę poda Panu swemu
Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi (Ps.91)
15. Pomni, Panie, Dawida
Memento Domine David (Ps.132)
16. Serce mi każe śpiewać
Eructavit cor meum (Ps.45bis)
17. Panu swemu daymy cześć rymy nowemi
Cantate Domino canticum novum (Ps.149)
18. panu swemu daymy czesc rymy nowemi Cantate Domino canticum novum
Polish-born singer Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett and other specialists in early music take us on the trail of Mikołaj Gomółka (1535-1609).
The Polish composer set to music the Psalms of David set to rhyme by Jan Kochanowski. He placed the highest value on the connection between text and music. His sophistication in handling the nuances of the Polish language paved the way for a national style of art.
Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett – voice, direction
Marc Lewon – lute, renaissance guitar and alto viola da gamba
Leonardo Bortolotto – bass and treble viola da gamba
Masako Art – Triple and Renaissance Harp
Caroline Ritchie – bass viol
Elizabeth Rumsey: Production
Admission free – collection
Historical Museum Basel