Over the next 2 weeks, we will be bringing you a three part series on the historical background behind this program, contributed by musician and scholar Thomas Zajac.
Part 1 – Historical Background
From the 15th through early-17th centuries Poland was one of the richest and most powerful countries in Europe. It was also geographically large, the largest it’s been before or ever since. It encompassed an area which included present day Lithuania and Latvia and large portions of what is now the Ukraine, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany. Through a combination of fortuitous events and favorable economic and political conditions, Poland reached the height of its powers by the middle of the 16th century. As the population of Western Europe grew, Poland became its breadbasket, providing wheat and other agricultural products. A long-standing alliance with Lithuania dating from the end of the 14th century culminated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of 1569. This Commonwealth benefited from an early form of parliamentary government that gave the landed gentry, some 10% of the population, unprecedented civil liberties and political influence. Religious tolerance was consciously cultivated, thus largely avoiding the internecine wars that plagued much of the rest of the continent.
As the middle class prospered, patronage of the arts increased and Poland looked westward, particularly to Germany and then to Italy for its cultural influence. In the fields of architecture, sculpture and painting in particular, this influence was pervasive. Kraków, the capital city at the time was, by all appearances, an Italian city. The Jagiellonian University, founded there in 1364, attracted students from all over Europe. By the second half of the 15th century 40% of the student body were foreigners from as far away as Spain and England. Perhaps its most illustrious student was the astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus. Humanism, another Italian import, was pervasive in Polish poetry, philosophy and letters, having been spearheaded by the great poet and Latinist Jan Kochanowski.
Poland’s cultural ascendancy was reflected also in its music. Unfortunately, relatively little of the untold riches, whether in manuscript or print, survived the ravages of the many wars and social upheavals in the intervening years. Even the leading composers of the day are each scantily represented by only one or two sources. Enough survives, however, to give a vibrant picture of the musical life of Kraków and other musical centers.
Next: Music from the World of Copernicus: Medieval Music in Poland