Archive for December 12th, 2010

Miłosz on Christmas carols: “perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry”

Sunday, December 12th, 2010
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I’ve always liked Christmas carols — even with their sing-songy obvious rhymes (bright-light-night) and simplicity of form.  Perhaps that’s why I like them.  I’m happy to say Czesław Miłosz shares my enthusiasm.

In any case, last Thursday I made the terrible trek to Berkeley during rush hour.  The occasion:  the eighth annual “Slavic Choral Concert Christmas in Kraków” at the Historic Hillside Club.  I guess all the recent posts about Katyń have returned my mind to Poland.

Carols are an important part of Christmas for all Slavic peoples, especially Poles.  The program brochure put it this way:  “The melodies are truly Polish – jolly, meditative, tender, and sometimes humorous. The Polish Christmas carol occupies a unique place in the musical literature of Christianity.”

The event was heavily attended – a crush, really – and among other seasonal accoutrements was a Polish szopka, an elaborate, cathedral-like Nativity scene.

Miłosz wrote in his A Year of the Hunter, “In Poland, it isn’t easy to separate ‘folk’ elements from the contributions of Church writers and musicians, not to mention seminarists and minstrels who worked for the parish.  The most intense activity occurred in the 17th century; thus, old Polish ‘folklore’ and, most of all, the carols bear a strong imprint of the Baroque.”

My favorite is “Bóg się rodzi” – a Polish Christmas carol that is, in part, a national anthem.  The carol is actually a mazurka,  which is to say, a Polish folk dance in triple meter, with an accent on the second or third beat.  The lyrics (“God is Born”) were written in 1792 by Franciszek Karpiński, a leading poet of the Enlightenment period.

In the Andrzej Wajda movie Katyń, the imprisoned Polish soldiers sing “Bóg się rodzi on their somber Christmas Eve.  A mazurka usually has a lively tempo, but not this one  (it’s a little after 6.20 on the Youtube video here); the melody remained with me long after the carol movie was over.

In a controversial move (and I can’t remember why it was controversial), Miłosz ended his A Year of the Hunter with a story attending the Pastorałka: “Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry,” he wrote.  “My susceptibility to that performance can be explained by my having listened to carols from childhood, but also because only the theater has such an impact, appealing to what is most our own, most deeply rooted in the rhythms of our language.”

The occasion, of course, was not just for Poles.  A number of other national groups performed – each accomplished, and together emphasizing the distinct and very vibrant cultural groups of Eastern Europe — a Ukrainian performance; the curious flattened singing of the Hungarian Christmas carols that’s a sound unlike any I have heard; the loud and noisy Bulgarians, with bagpipes, singing and stamping — the brochure referred to their “antique, pre-Christian and Hellenistic roots”

Miłosz wrote that “to this day I am united in enthusiasm … with the entire audience, when Pastorałka concludes with a Dionysian dance.  This is total madness, an unbridled frenzy on stage, a letting-go beyond all bounds, although the words are as plain as can be.”

I thought the same, as I pulled away during the intermission for the trek back to Palo Alto.  The excited crowd had spilled out into the sidewalk and curb.  And in the midst of the clapping mob, the exuberant Bulgarians with their bagpipes, stamping and singing and dancing as if it were their last night on earth.