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Say Who? Mikolaj Zielenski

Mikolaj Zielenski was a minor composer but nonetheless a good one, and his music deserves to be heard more often.

Gniezno Cathedral, Gniezno, Poland.

Mikolaj Zielenski  isn’t a familiar name that just rolls off the tongue—even to most early music aficionados. Zielenski was a minor composer, but nonetheless a good one whose music probably deserves to be heard more often.

Zielenski’s style lines up in many ways with that of the late Renaissance, but a recurring use of concertato, along with certain expressive tropes, and compositional techniques requiring organ or other specific accompanying instruments, belie a move toward something more Baroque. During Zielenski’s lifetime, a great shift in European music was underway, influenced in large part by Giovanni Gabrielli and his fellow composers in Venice. An epicenter for musical change at that time was St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice where the practice of cori spezzati—or divided chorus—flourished.  Members of the choir would split into two or more groups and sing from choir lofts on either side of the church, often in alternation, creating a sort of ‘surround sound’ experience. Zielenski’s  polychoral writing in particular reflects the Venetian practice–the composer even noting in his preface that his compositions had been  ‘laid out in a new fashion.’

Offertoria/Communiones Totius Anni

This Polish composer spent much of his career working as organist and director of music for Baranowski the Archbishop of Gniezno. And it was to this archbishop that Zielenski dedicated his one surviving collection of works, the Offertoria/Communiones totius anni of 1611.  The bishop clearly liked Zielenski, and supported the publication—it was a huge undertaking both financially and otherwise, and Zielenski acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the archbishop in the preface to his publication.

The Offertoria/Communiones totius anni includes two separate cycles for the liturgical church year, along with some additional pieces listed alternately as either motets or sacred symphonies—that latter title, an obvious tip of the hat to Giovanni Gabrieli and his important volume of Sacrae symphoniae published several year prior in 1597. Most of the Offertoria are all polychoral.  Of the 56 pieces in the Offertoria 12 works are composed for seven voices and 43 for eight voices divided into two choirs.  One piece though stands out in particular for its even greater complexity, that is, a monumental 12-part Magnificat for three separate choirs with continuo organ and other additional instruments.  By contrast, the Communiones are much more intimate pieces with only three, four, or five parts–some are scored for a solo voice with the accompaniment of string, wind or plucked instruments and are in some ways, sound similar to Monteverdi’s early works.  Additionally in the set there are a few purely instrumental fantasias which bear the distinction as the earliest Polish works written specifically for an instrumental ensemble. Unfortunately, some parts of these instrumental pieces are lost or incomplete.

Les Traversees Baroques

Even though the Offertoria/Communiones totius anni is the only surviving collection of music by Zielenski that we have, the 1611 publication offers a fair amount of material– all in all, 131 pieces. We hear a sampling of them on a 2014 release from Les Traversees Baroques.

Les Traversées Baroques was founded in 2008 as a collective who in their own words are “striving to  remedy the Czech Republic’s isolation on the early music scene and it’s all too long neglect of a forgotten musical past…” As such, the group focuses mainly on 17th c. repertory of Central and Eastern Europe found mostly in the archives of Poland and the Czech Republic.

Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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