Music from the Krasiński manuscript (ca 1440)
The Krasiński manuscript, referred to by its old call number ‘Kras 52’, occupies a unique place among Polish musical manuscripts. It is not only one of the main sources for 15th-century Polish music, one that is inseparably linked with the musical culture of the city of Kraków and with Poland’s most important composer of that period – Nicolaus de Radom. It is also a manuscript whose vicissitudes reflect some of the tragic events in Poland’s modern history. Before the Second World War, it belonged to the Krasiński Library, ranked among most valuable book collections in Poland. Located at 9 Okólnik Street in Warsaw during the war, the library was almost totally destroyed after the crushing of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. On the orders of the German authorities, the special Brandkommando units carried out a wanton house-by-house destruction of the city. On 19 October 1944, the library in Okólnik Street was burnt down. Some 26 000 manuscripts, 80 000 early prints and 2 500 incunabula were consumed by the fire. Thanks to some still unexplained circumstances, the Kras 52 was spared destruction. It came to light by sheer accident in September 1948 in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. The Polish art historian, Professor Karol Estreicher, visiting the library as a member of the Commission for Reclaiming War Losses, happened to catch sight of a volume being carried from one place to another by a German librarian. It seemed familiar to him. When he asked to have a look at it, he instantly realized that it was the famous Kras 52. The manuscript was returned to the National Library in Warsaw, where it is currently kept in a fire-proof safe (call number III.8054). Unfortunately, other Polish musical manuscripts were not spared annihilation. These include the manuscript Wn 378, which was regarded as almost identical to Kras 52. It contained, among others, works by Nicolaus de Radom, which are known today only from pre-war copies.
The Krasiński manuscript is of great importance, mainly on account of its musical content although the various literary texts, in Latin, are also of much interest. They include 13th-century Lenten sermons by the Dominican friar Jacop da Voragine and a treatise about the casting out of demons. The manuscript consists of five separate parts, which had not been put together until the 19th century. The musical section of the manuscript – dated to around 1440 – comprises 33 folios containing 37 polyphonic works in so-called black mensural notation. It is not known who collected and written down all these compositions.
Even though the place of origin of the manuscript is not certain, it is reasonable to infer that it was created in the royal circles of the city of Kraków. The musical part of the manuscript opens with a hymn saluting the town, entitled Cracovia civitas. A work of undeniable musical value, it is also a highly interesting tableau of life in Poland’s 15th-century capital. Direct references to Polish history can also be found in other parts of the collection. One of the most often cited examples is a ballad by Nicolaus de Radom with the text Hystorigraphi aciem, attributed to Stanisław Ciołek, the royal Deputy Chancellor of the Treasury and the Bishop of Poznań. The text is a panegyric in tribute to King Władysław Jagiełło and Queen Zofia in connection with the birth of their son Kazimierz. Pastor gregis egregius, attributed to the little-known composer Nicolaus de Ostrorog is also a piece of local provenance. It is kind of a sequence devoted to Bishop (later Saint) Stanislaus of Kraków, the patron of Poland whose remains are buried in the city’s Wawel Cathedral. As regards the overall significance of the Krasiński manuscript for Polish culture, however, it is primarily valued as the most important source of the music of Nicolaus de Radom, a composer who is justly considered to be one of the most outstanding Polish composers of the pre-Chopin period.
Despite on-going research effort, music historians have not been successful in reconstructing the composer’s biography. This is due not only to a lack of many key documents but also to the fact that historical records speak of several people living at the same time and bearing the same name (‘Nicolaus de Radom’). It is assumed at present that ‘our’ Nicolaus de Radom was born in the 1360s. He is likely to be the same person who is mentioned several times in the documents from the chancellery of Pope Boniface IX as ‘Nicolaus Geraldi de Radom’. If such an assumption is correct, Nicolaus de Radom the composer was a priest of the Kraków diocese and stayed in Rome around 1390. The hypothesis seems all the more plausible as Antonio Zacara da Teramo, one of the most prominent composers of the time whose influence on Nicolaus’s music is undeniable, stayed in Rome at the same time. It was once believed that Nicolaus de Radom was a ‘clavicembalista’ to Queen Zofia, the last wife of Władysław Jagiełło, who was mentioned in a document dating from 1422. Although he undoubtedly was associated with the royal court in Kraków, the source in question speaks of Nicolaus, without giving the name of his town of origin. It is difficult to assume that in 15th-century Poland there was only one musician bearing what was at that time an extremely popular name.
The musical output is the only, and very important, testimony of the activity of Nicolaus de Radom. Even though rather modest in scope, its significance for Polish culture cannot be overestimated. His extant oeuvre consists of just nine works: three pairs of the central parts of a mass (Gloria–Credo), two ballads and the famous Magnificat. All of them are signed in the sources with the composer’s name: in the Krasiński manuscript they are marked as ‘Opus Nicolai de Radom’, whereas in the lost manuscript Wn 378 it appears in a Polonized form as ‘slowye micolayowo radomskego’ (‘the work of Nicolaus de Radom’). The Polish composer is also said to have to his credit an arrangement of Guillaume Dufay’s chanson Bon jour bon mois, whose original secular text was replaced with a joyous ‘Alleluia’. Nothing is known about any other works by Nicolaus de Radom. The above-mentioned manuscripts are the only ones to have been found.
The music of Nicolaus de Radom draws on the best models of European music of the early 15th century. His parts of the masses contain elements of the ars subtilior style, which was a specific medieval mannerism, typical of the 1370–1420 period. It combined the hitherto separate traditions of French and Italian polyphony. Its other features were a blending of secular and sacred elements and a certain predilection for constructing music from rhythmic, melodic and harmonic details. Nicolaus’s music exhibits parallels with the output of Antonio Zacara da Teramo and the most important composer of the time, Johannes Ciconia. The Polish composer’s ballads are of a somewhat different character, coming as they do closer to the French tradition. The texts to which they were set are not known. It can be assumed, however, that they were in Polish, as musical manuscripts of the time contain mysterious inscriptions testifying to the existence of a genre of Polish love poetry of sometimes frivolous character. The first ballad of Nicolaus de Radom has survived without a text (hence it is performed nowadays by an instrumental ensemble). The second ballad has been provided in the manuscript with a Latin text, Hystorigraphi aciem by Stanisław Ciołek. Even though a somewhat artificial practice, supplying foreign texts to works which had been originally composed to other texts was common in the 15th century. Secular French texts, for instance, were often replaced by religious Latin texts. Virginem mire pulchritudinis, another ballad from the Krasiński manuscript, which was sung in France to the words A discort son desir, is a good example.
The work which is by far the most interesting in the entire oeuvre of Nicolaus de Radom is his Magnificat, a musical arrangement of canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary taken from the Gospel according to St Luke. Works of this type were fairly common in the 15th century. It is important to note that in his work Nicolaus de Radom employed the fauxbourdon technique, which became a symbol of the transformations which were taking place in music in those years. The use of this technique had a profound bearing on the harmonic effect of the work, as it was the fauxbourdon which marked the beginning of the chordal thinking that was highly important for the music of later periods. It is particularly significant that Nicolaus de Radom was one of the first European composers who employed this avant-garde device. His Magnificat is often compared with the early works of Guillaume Dufay (b 1397, d 1474), the great master of the polyphony and the pioneer of the fauxbourdon technique who set compositional standards in the 15th century. Nicolaus’s Magnificat exhibits striking similarities with Dufay’s Magnificat sexti toni written roughly at the same time, not only on account of the use of the fauxbourdon and the melodic similarities but also because of the very symmetrical structure of both compositions.
There is no denying that Nicolaus de Radom was a composer of European stature. It was not without reason that his works were included in the manuscripts, which contains compositions of the most famous musicians of the turn of the 14th century. Both the Krasiński manuscript and the lost manuscript Wn 378 contain works by Antonio Zacara da Teramo (b 1360–70, d 1413) and Johannes Ciconia (b 1370–75, d 1412). Of particular interest is Ciconia’s pair of mass parts Gloria and Credo, which are an excellent example of ‘sublimated art’ (ars subtilior), with its characteristic capricious melodic writing and frequent changes of mood. In these works the composer used the melody of a composition akin to the Italian ballata (in the Krasiński manuscript with the text Regina gloriosa), whose opening phrase shows a striking similarity with one of the most popular motets of Johannes Ciconia – O felix templum iubila. The manuscript also contains works by other outstanding composers, such as Etienne Grossin, Dufay’s contemporary who was active in Paris.
At the other end, as it were, from these mass fragments are three anonymous compositions Ave mater o Maria, Salve thronus trinitatis and Christicolis secunditas. Although much less refined, they have their own charm and compositional mastery. They show links with Italian music of a more popular kind than represented by the works of Zacara and Ciconia. One can hear in these three pieces reminiscences of the Italian lauda, which was a song, musically simple and sung to religious texts. Ave mater o Maria, a hymn in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a typical lauda in this collection. In addition to the Krasiński manuscript, this piece has survived in several sources in Italy and Austria.
Even though the Krasiński manuscript contains relatively late copies of works by Antonio Zacara da Teramo and Johannes Ciconia, it is difficult to overestimate its significance for the history of 15th-century music, and not only in Poland. It is indeed unique among the musical collections surviving in Central Europe, in terms of its repertoire, stylistic diversity and clear references to local culture. On could hardly find in this territory a composer of the stature of Nicolaus de Radom, who, unlike Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz (b 1392), was not a musician of regional importance but one who was in the mainstream of the development of European polyphony. In this sense, Nicolaus de Radom and the Krasiński manuscript belong to the real pearls of Polish culture, conceived of not as a culture of a single nation but one that contributed to the overall European heritage. Bearing in mind the turbulent fate of this manuscript, one can only hope that such treasures are never again doomed to destruction or senseless wandering.