...to warm the Baby up
Jolanta Palasz talks to Rev. Professor Kazimierz Szymonik, the artistic director and conductor of the Academic Choir of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.
Jolanta Palasz: – Christmas is approaching. What is the role of sacral music and singing in our experiences of this Mystery?
Rev. Prof. Kazimierz Szymonik: – At present, we are reading the documents of Benedict XVI who shows us that sacral music in the Church is the language in the liturgy that lets us go beyond the boundaries of meanings and enter into the depth of the Mystery. Therefore, where the meanings of words end singing begins. The liturgy has always used singing. According to Benedict XVI singing connects heaven and earth. And John Paul II, speaking about the Eucharist and stressing that singing is its integral part, stated that Holy Mass celebrated at the altar of some country church had a cosmic dimension, and through singing believers are placed in that space, being close to Lord God, close to the heavenly hosts, close to heaven. Singing expands our earthly life and embraces the Mystery of eternity. Here we deal with mysticism.
– Sacral music includes Christmas carols – Christmastide is the time of singing carols, which has had a very rich tradition. What were the beginnings?
– Speaking about carols we need to go back to the Middle Ages, to the figure of St Francis of Assisi who built the first living Nativity scene in Grecio, Italy. And if it were a scene with people and animals, the custom still preserved by the Bernardine friars and by some modern parishes, there must have been special songs to depict those events that were performed in the Nativity scene. But in fact, carols originated much later. In the Middle Ages pieces of music that praised God’s Birth were called sequences or songs of the Lord’s Birth. The word ‘carol’ concerned the Roman calendar. The word ‘Calendae’ in Latin means the first days of the month and is connected with the solemn first days of the new year when people paid visits, said wishes and gave gifts. Today our pastoral Christmas visits refer to this meaning of the word. The Polish term ‘carol’ was first mentioned in 1545, in ‘Tabulator’ by Jan of Lublin in the composition ‘Nuz my dziatki zaspiewajmy’[Let us sing, children], which is called ‘Colenda severi.’ But the oldest Polish carol is ‘Zdrow badz, Krolu Anielski’ [Hail, King of Angels] dated 1424, which was found in the Christmas sermon written by Professor Jan Szczekna from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
– Did carols originate in Italy?
– Italy could have been the country where Christmas songs originated. We took the Latin songs from the West, calling them sequences for Christmas. Currently, Poland is a vast region of carols. We had ca. 300 carols in the 15th and 16th centuries. More carols were also created in the 19th century, during the time of the partitions. Since during that period religiousness and patriotism were hidden at homes, gathering wide popular readership, as well as in churches, and carols have always carried these two values. Currently, we have ca. 1,000 carols. Among the Catholic countries Poland has the biggest number of carols and Polish people sing them most often. For comparison let us say that the French sing only three or four carols. I remember one of our tourneys several years ago. We prepared two French carols, which were specially arranged for that occasion by Prof. Feliks Raczkowski, and we sang them trying to do our best. But the French shrugged their shoulders because they did not know those carols.
– It is commonly said that the Franciscan friars had a big influence on the development of carols in Poland...
– Yes, the Franciscan and the Bernardine friars’ contribution concerned mainly living Nativity scenes. And such scenes required songs. Besides, the beginnings of carols can be dated to the Medieval plays, i.e. illustrations of the Gospel. The Bethlehem night tempts us to perform it: we have a Child, the Mother of God and Saint Joseph; there are animals, angels and shepherds as well as the Three Magi. The theme is marvellous, so people could write dramas and the Medieval dramas were sung. Therefore, the Franciscan scenes inspired songs, which could be called carols.
– What are the characteristics of Polish carols?
– First of all, they are characterised by the emotional attitude towards the Mystery of the Nativity. God humbled himself so we were very moved. We looked for the most poetical and beautiful words to express this Mystery. But we differentiated carols and songs, at least in the 19th century. Carols had more sacral character – they were ecclesiastical and they spoke directly about the Mystery whereas songs were to be sung e.g. during recreational activities in religious orders. The words were light, non-sacral. They illustrated the whole Mystery as folklore or religious traditions but they could not be used in the liturgy. They contained some jokes, too. Besides, they were based on dancing rhythms so they could not be sung in church.
– In a way carols reflected the soul of both simple people and the wise, of children and adults. They speak to all...
– The key is to interpret the mystery of Christmas. I want to remind you of a story written by Fr Janusz Pasierb, a professor at the Academy of Catholic Theology, an art historian, a very good preacher and a poet who told us that when he had been spending Christmas with his friends-priests in Switzerland he was surprised to notice that fires were burnt in the mountains during the Bethlehem night. He asked them, ‘Why are burning fires?’ The answer was, ‘To warm the Baby up.’ So a carol is an attempt to warm the Baby up, not by fire but by the human heart. If you really understand the mystery that the Word of God became flesh, that God became man, you want to give a humble and cordial answer. For the very reason carols are so poetical, warm and cordial. They move both simple people and the greatest poets. And the real key lies in the Gospel.
– All poets emphasize the charm of carols. Are carols popular in other countries?
– I have only the impressions, not supported by my research, that people in the East are only beginning singing carols. There are many Ukrainian carols. Carols from Belarus, where Catholics also draw on the experiences from the Orthodox tradition, have reached Poland as well. Even the repertoire of our choir contains some Ukrainian carols. In the original language they resemble Polish carols to some extent. Today we are observing a tendency to change carols into songs and shows performed by popular authors but in such cases carols lose their essence, i.e. humble reflection on the great Mystery. Carols about this Mystery are replaced by songs about Christmas but this is not the same category, theologically speaking it is not the same.
– What do carols mean to you personally?
– They are wonderful songs that have lived in Poland all the time, in fact since new songbooks were published, new carols have been written. I can only say a word to the composers from the Academy of Music in Warsaw and they come with a nice carol the next day. Others write lyrics and some can even write them in Latin. For me a well-written carol glorifies the Mystery, and I try to sing it is such a way as not to show off – not to show man himself – but to show the Mystery, the Child Jesus. And I think that the success of our recording, which was made ten years ago but is still sold and regarded as the most appropriate carol recording in Warsaw, lies in its humility. It shows music and praise of the Child Jesus, nothing more. If you want to add something, to show the choir’s virtuosity or your own interpretation, your carols are not interesting because it is their simplicity that should charm us. I think that I was able to discover at least how to apply this simplicity in performing carols on the above-mentioned recording. The most serious musicians try to compose carols. There are also carol contests, for example the Christmas Carol and Song Contest in Bedzin. Naturally, amateurs also compose carols and they try to do it with humility and love. Since the Mystery inspires every creator. Because God has made so much for us I can also do something. Carol is an answer to the Mystery.
– Which carols do you like most?
– I value these carols that are really true. I would say: if I did not like carols I would not sing them and did not record them. I must say that my heart is always moved by the carol ‘Mizerna, cicha’ [Only a Manger bed] arranged by Stanislaw Niewiadomski. It is so simple but it truly evokes so many emotions.
We have inserted a collection of traditional Christmas carols performed by the Choir of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, conducted by Rev. Professor Kazimierz Szymonik, into this issue of ‘Niedziela’.