“My music is a way to be a better human,” Paweł Łukaszewski tells me. “It’s a way for praying, maybe because I’m not a talented believer, but maybe because I’m a talented composer who believes in God. Also, it’s my tradition, my family tradition.” Łukaszewski was born in Częstochowa in southern Poland, a city which he describes as “the spiritual capital” of Poland and which is home to the 600-year-old Black Madonna, one of the country’s most potent religious icons and a destination for pilgrims analogous to Lourdes or Fátima.

Paweł Łukaszewski
© Piotr Dłubak

“Maybe I’m a talented composer” is something of an understatement, given the hundreds of works that Łukaszewski has under his belt, which include seven symphonies and seven oratorios and make him one of Poland’s most accomplished living composers. All of his music is deeply spiritual, and the vast majority of his works are explicitly sacred, forming part of a rich tradition of Polish Sacred Music that goes back many centuries, to the early years of northern Christianity. Still, compared to similar music from Western Europe, it's a genre that remains relatively little known outside its home country.

That’s something that Łukaszewski has been wanting to change for many years. Fifteen years ago, he discovered that British choirmaster Stephen Layton had recorded two of his Antiphons; he got in touch with Layton and a fruitful relationship began between the two, together with Hyperion Records and ensembles including the Britten Sinfonia and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. “My idea was to make something for Polish music in Great Britain, because you have fantastic choirs and you don’t know Polish sacred music very well. Górecki’s Totus tuus is popular; Penderecki is too difficult for choirs. My idea was to persuade the Adam Mickiewicz Institute that our sacred music can be an export: not only Polish avant-garde, Polish art, Polish film, but Polish sacred music, because it’s something really important and different.” For a long time, the timing was always wrong, but finally, in early November, Łukaszewski will get his chance: he has been appointed Artistic Director of the “Joy & Devotion” festival: four concerts in London and Cambridge performed by English ensembles – The Gesualdo Six, Tenebrae and Echo – and packed with sacred music from a dizzying array of no less than 23 Polish composers spanning seven centuries.

Echo choir
© Laurel Turton

That last sentence raises a host of questions. How are audiences going to take in so many unfamiliar pieces? How can English ensembles – who, after all, haven’t exactly imbibed this stuff with their mother’s milk – get the best out of it? What, exactly, should audiences expect to hear? Łukaszewski seems puzzled at my concerns. “Each concert isn’t longer than 60 minutes, with an organ piece in the middle. Sometimes, it’s a little bit older music. It can be music by Mieczysław Surzyński or Feliks Nowowiejski, very important Polish names. Last year, we had Nowowiejski Year in Poland, with a lot of performances, publications, CDs and so on. Nowowiejski was a master of organ symphonies, but for me, an important composer was Marian Sawa, who died in 2005. He was my good friend and the biggest master of organ improvisations in Poland, as well as a composer of organ music: I wanted to show that in Sawa we have a treasury of organ music. And each concert will have a mass setting: we have older masses by Marcin Leopolita and Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki, two really important settings. We also have important Polish hymns like Gaude Mater Polonia, about the Black Madonna, or Bogurodzica from the Middle Ages, which was sung during the Battle of Grünwald in 1410.”

The intention of the festival, he is clear, is to attract English audiences to Polish sacred music, as opposed to aiming for the many Poles resident in London. Łukaszewski feels that the music speaks for itself and doesn’t need additional explanation of its ideas, and that pieces like Gaude Mater Polonia or Totus Tuus create a kind of sacred time for the listener, a time for reflection on our life and our humanity which, without the help of music, can be difficult to find in our high-speed modern world. He has a particular place in his heart for Górecki’s Totus Tuus, which was composed for the 1987 pilgrimage to his homeland of Pope John Paul II (the Polish-born Karol Wojtyła), an event of immense significance to Polish Catholics. “I was a student in my first year at the Academy of Music in Warsaw and I sang the first performance of the piece in the open air at the airport when the Pope was returning home.” During the Soviet years, choral music in Poland had been limited to folk traditions and Łukaszewski sees 1978, the year that Wojtyła was elected to the papacy, as having been the watershed after which it became possible for many composers to write sacred music.

The festival will include two world premières, by composers from Warsaw from his composition class: Aleksander Jan Szopa and Łukasz Farcinkiewicz. It will also include four of Łukaszewski’s own compositions. As in regard to his own musical style, he doesn’t like to be part of a crowd and he relates with relish that his style has been described as “anti-modernism”. He makes a distinction between “modern music” and “contemporary music”, distancing himself firmly from composers of the Darmstadt School who, he considers, wrote music “for a small group of specialists. But we need to give our music to normal people like you and me. I don’t like this Darmstadt School; it may be important for students of composition as a subject, but the place for this music is in a museum. I always find myself on the opposite side from my colleagues from the Warsaw Autumn Festival; I think it’s interesting to think about what composers listen to in their car. Not Xenakis or Ligeti, I think, maybe I prefer Tony Bennett.” He also makes the distinction between “religious music” such as masses or cantatas, whose primary purpose is to accompany religious services, and “sacred music”, whose purpose is to help us find a place in our hearts, to enable us to explore our relationship with God.

Tenebrae choir
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Łukaszewski has had plenty of time to evaluate many forms of modern sacred music as chair of the jury at the Musica Sacra Composers Competition, a jury which is always mixed, split between choral conductors and composers. This is important because the two groups have different interests: the conductors prefer scores which aren’t laden with performance difficulties, whereas the composers like things that look more interesting on paper. “But if we have 50-50 between conductors and composers,” he explains with a grin, “we can agree at the end and there never was a problem with our decisions.” 

As to English ensembles, he has no fears: in addition to the recordings of his music made with Hyperion, he points out The Sixteen’s Polish Collection, recordings of music by Gorczycki, Bartłomiej Pękiel, Marcin Mielczewski and others, which he describes as a “treasury of Polish music” and a “really good cooperation between The Sixteen and the Polish government” (the albums were another project with funding by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute).

The government seems to be the driving force behind a lot of music in Poland: when I ask Łukaszewski about the outlook for young composers, he points at the Culture Ministry’s programmes as the major source of commissions: perhaps surprisingly, the church only gives occasional commissions, an important one being his Symphony on the Mercy of God, which was commissioned for the anniversary of the creation of the archdiocese of Białystok.

Łukaszewski originally started composing on a small scale at 16 years old, his main musical training having been as a cellist. But then he joined the Choir of the Catholic Academy in Warsaw (“not only for priests, also for normal people and also for ladies,” he assures me). Many composers wrote music for the choir, including his teachers and celebrated composers like Górecki, and he was inspired to take up composition as the main focus of his career. What advice, I ask, would he give a young composer today? “I think it’s important that they must wait for the right time. To be a composer is not a job for one year. Sometimes career comes, but it’s a long investigation; it may come after 20 years. Next, they must be truly composers and know what they want to compose. Mostly for themselves, not because somebody likes this style or another style: they must trust themselves.”

You can see full listings of the Joy & Devotion festival here.
This interview was sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.