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Mikołaj z Radomia (ca.1400 - ca.1450)

   As we approach the music of Mikołaj of Radom his worth remembering that he was the first Polish composer whose talent and learning were of an European calibre: the first whose knowledge and skills allowed him not only to imitate foreign models but to contribute creatively to the development of European music. His work should be judged against the same exacting standards as compositions by his early 15th century’s contemporaries Ciconia, Pycard and Grenon, with no preferential treatment.

   Today, when interest in early music has allowed us to discover hitherto unknown areas of music, it is easier to place Mikolaj and his works on the musical map of late Medieval Europe. Post-war research by Polish musicologists (notably by Mirosław Perz) has enriched our knowledge about the origins of polyphony in Poland, pushing back its beginnings to the end of the 13th century - at which time compositions from the School of Notre Dame of Paris were already current in the nunnery of the Order of St Claire in Stary S±cz. Thus Mikolaj of Radom considered before World War II to have been the first Polish polyphonist, was working within a century-old tradition. As such his emergence loses its air of singularity, the more so if we realise that he was not active in a cultural void but in the capital of a powerful state growing in international importance and standing on the verge of a great spiritual emancipation.

   The reign of Władysław Jagiełło which coincided with Mikołaj’s lifetime was memorable not only for the spectacular victory over the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (Tannenberg). There was, in 1400, the revival of the first Polish university in Cracow with its colleges of law, medicine, liberal arts and later, theology. There was the growing international prestige of Poland as shown at the Council of Constance where the erudition and diplomatic skills of the Polish envoys Paweł Włodkowic and Archbishop Mikołaj Tr±ba commanded universal respect. Then there was the tolerance unparalleled in other countries, which prescribed respect for every human being regardless of how much their beliefs contradicted accepted opinion. ("It is not meet to worry the persons or the estates of unbelievers who wish to live peace freely among Christians", wrote Paweł Włodkowic, "Sins the ruler who deprives these of anything without cause, as even the Pope may not take anything from them.") There were in Poland enlightened men "spreading the renown of the Polish state throughout the world" (as Jan Długosz put it in his chronicle); there were illustrious knights, famed as paragons of virtue (to mention only Zawisza the Black). Mikołaj’s elitist, intellectual music would have had an appreciative audience at court and in the University’ milieu. Many of his ideas are to be found in the so-called Old flail manuscript (compiled 1410-15). The music therefore occupies a rightful place in high European culture. Both manuscripts with Mikołai’s works contain compositions by Ciconia, Antonius de Civitate and Zacharias. The young Mikołaj (about whose studies nothing is known) could well have learned his craft from the works of Ciconia, the greatest composer of the turn of the 14th century. How he got his knowledge of Dufay’s compositions written when the latter belonged to the Papal chapel remains a mystery. He did nonetheless introduce some of the Burgundian master’s innovative ideas into his own works (as in the Magnificat for instance). All this distinguishes Mikołaj as an artist using the complex musical idiom that made up part of the European cultural heritage. Only ten works by Poland’s greatest 15th century composer have come down to us. Even on the basis of such scant evidence it is possible to define the artist’s style. All the pieces were written for three parts their tone typical of the late Medieval period. With the exception of the Magnificat they all dispense with references to chant and the isorhythmic structure of the material. The works are primarily sacred (liturgical) in character: three paired settings of the Gloria and Credo, a Magnificat, an Alleluia, a panegyrical motet the Hystorigraphi aciem mentis and one probably secular composition without text.

 Mikołaj’s "missal pairs" are constructed according to the same principles as Ciconia’s. The two elements share basic motifs, have analogous settings and contrapuntal schemes. Both Gloria and Credo culminate in a long virtuoso coda on the word "Amen" in keeping with Medieval treatments of the form. In spite of their general resemblance Mikołaj’s paired settings differ greatly in detail. The first pair Gloria - Credo is notable for its fluid and very vocal melodic structure and the frequent use of imitation. Ciconias influence is very’ apparent here, the analogies extending as far as individual phrases. The second Gloria - Credo pair has a typically Burgundian setting and character: one vocal part with a soft, lyrical and refined melody and two instrumental pans indicated by the absence of text under the notation. The third Gloria - Credo pair has a pronounced, syncopated rythmic and melodic structure with a Medieval angularity, full of large shifts of interval often difficult for the singers to handle. It is also the most virtuoso of the three, sometimes to the point of audacity (as in the "Amen"). At times the composer adds a fourth part, engaged in lively discourse with the descant. The pair also stands out by virtue of its tone-resounding chords briefly interrupting the vivid narrative and certainly endowed with a symbolic meaning, stressing as they do the words "Jesu Christe" (a similar device is incidentally employed by both Guillaume de Machaut and Dufay.)

   Of no less interest is Mikołaj’s three-part composition which, perhaps owing to neglect by the scribe, lacks words. In form it is a typical French ballad with a simple, flowing melody, distinctly different from the intricate (and sometimes fairly jagged) arabesques found in the composer’s sacred music. It would be interesting indeed to learn in what language the piece was written. The Hystorigraphi aciem mentis is a panegyrical motet to a text by Vice-chancellor of the Crown Stanisław Ciołek celebrating in far from classical Latin the birth of prince Kazimierz and praising the royal couple: Władysław and his wife Zofia. The music is joyous and optimistic, forceful and simple compared to Mikołaj’s ornate sacred compositions. And finally the Magnificat - the most beautiful and inspired of Mikołaj’s works, and the most modern. Here the composer refers directly to Dufay’s famous Magnificat sexti toni with its stately progression of falsobordone chords (made up in descending order of a fourth and a sixth) unprecedented in their softness and fullness of sound. It is here that Mikołaj’s melodic talents are best revealed as the composer shows his lyrical side. The work is meticulously structured in its symmetrical plan of repeated and interweaving passages. Mikołaj’s Magnificat is rooted in Gregorian chant, for centuries the well-spring of European polyphony. It is also firmly set in the cultural reality of its time, dominated by the soft, lyrical style known as international Gothic.

   When listening to this intricately arranged, meditative music we realize that works written centuries ago contain some still-relevant knowledge about man and his innate need for beauty. This might explain the surprising resurgence of early music in an age when all values have apparently been questioned. In the light of this growing fascination it is worth pausing to consider Mikołaj of Radom’s music, long known to Polish musicologists, as it might turn out that its time has come.

Quoted from a CD cover. Author: Ewa Obniska.
Supplied by Bogusław Krawczyk

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