Stanisław Moniuszko’s Four Litanies of Ostra Brama and their contexts

Publikuota: 2019-06-10 Autorius: Prof. Dr. Stanisław Dąbek (Poland)
Stanisław Moniuszko’s Four Litanies of Ostra Brama and their contexts

Prof. Stanisław Dąbek, musicologist and music theoretician, professor emeritus of the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw


The first "nodal moment of life" of Stanisław Moniuszko (using the term by Mieczysław Tomaszewski, an outstanding Polish musicologist) was Vilnius. The eighteenth-year (1840-1858) stay of the composer in this city significantly influenced his biography and creativity. I will not invoke generally known facts, I will limit myself only to the issues related directly to the subject taken.

After a relatively short stay in Vilnius, in the late 1840s, the 30-year-old composer belonged to his "prominent citizens." Not accidentally the cantatas Milda and Nijoła composed to the poems of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (Anafielas, Song of Lithuania, 1846) were inspired by Lithuanian tradition and mythology.

Also created in Vilnius in an important, because early period, between 24 and 36 years (1843 - 1855), four Litanies of Ostra Brama (I - 1843, II - 1849, III - before 1854, IV - 1855) reveal extraordinary talent and are a truly great music of the young composer. Paradoxically, none of them appeared in print during the composer's life; they were published only at the beginning of the 20th century.

The liturgical Latin text of the popular Litany of Loreto to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the romantic nature of music - as universal features, allow to perform these works in every center. However, it is worth popularizing not only the music of Litanies by performing them at concerts. The general knowledge regarding these works is also important.

I published my scientific monograph of Litanies, the first in Polish musicological literature since they were composed titled Twórczość litanijna Stanisława Moniuszki i jej konteksty,Warszawa 2011/ Stanisław Moniuszko’s litany works and their contexts, Warsaw 2011. The methodology adopted in it, by definition, goes beyond the problems of the work. The contexts that have not been accounted for so far are representative of Litanies. The author is going to outline shortly the main research results.

Litanies of Ostra Brama as votive music

The origin of Litanies. A very important reason in creation of Litanies in the context of the tragedy of the three foreign partitions of Polish-Lithuanian state (1772, 1793, 1795) was the growth of importance and popularity of Marian worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mater Misericordiae in the chapel of Ostra Brama in Vilnius and Litany of Loreto during that service. Even in poetry the invocations of Litany of Loreto were used.

Perhaps that is why the composer has chosen musical form of this Latin litany. 4 Litanies of Ostra Brama could be called votive music in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mater Misericordiae. Shows it: 1 - title of the composition referring to the Holy Mother of Mercy in Ostra Brama [Pol. Ostrobramska], 2 - intention of the composer of the destination for liturgical performance in the chapel Sancta Mater Misericordiae in Ostra Brama, 3 - specific contexts of Litanies: tradition of Marian worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mater Misericordiae, the choice of the text of the Litany of Loreto and the musical form of the litany, 4 - symbolic „musical supplications” and „musical reading of the words” of Litany of Loreto in the piece (see Example 1).

Moniuszko: ”All means of secular music have been transferred to the church”

The composer’s views on church music. Moniuszko was deeply aware of the secularisation and the deep fall of church music and he passionately protested against it.

As a romantic, he appreciated the vocal polyphony of old masters e.g. Roland Lassus and (Polish composer) Mikołaj Gomółka. He criticized pathos, virtuosity (aria) and elaborate polyphony (fugue) and consciously eliminated the aria and the fugue from Litanies.

Litanies of Ostra Brama – type of symphonic litany

The type of musical form of Litanies. Litanies have been scored for solo voices (SATB), mixed choir (SATB) and instruments (except for the Litany no.4). They are stereotypically referred as the type of cantata litany.

However, there is no aria and fugue, attributes typical of the cantata, in accordance with the composer’s view. And the instrumental score is written for the symphony orchestra. By analogy when we talk about symphonic mass, we can also talk now about symphonic litany.*

Theological structure of Litany of Loreto and „musical suplications”

The style of Litanies and their spiritual aspect. In order to discuss this subject, it is very important to understand the theological structure of Litany of Loreto: 1 initial acclamations and opening invocation to The Trinity (Kyrie eleison – Sancta Trinitas, unus Deus, miserere nobis), 2 Marian invocations (Sancta Maria – Regina Sanctorum omnium, ora pro nobis), 3 closing invocation to Jesus the Redeemer (Agnus Dei – miserere nobis).

The composer strongly and expressively differentiates these parts in “musical suplications”. From solemn prayer (supplicatio solemnis), through intense (supplicatio intensiva), inner (supplicatio inferna), radiant (supplicatio serena) to the (exceptionally applied) ecstatic prayer (supplicatio extatica).

“Musical reading of the words” – Marian invocations

Continuation of spiritual aspect in Marian invocations (Sancta Maria – Sancta Mater) by the example of the third movement (Molto agitato) of Litany No. 3 . The text of Marian invocations in this movement is particularly important for Moniuszko.

He introduces a new invocation (unheard of solution) Sancta Mater, symbolizing undoubtedly the Marian worship of Holy Mother of Mercy=Sancta Mater Misericordiae in chapel of Ostra Brama.

* Recordings: Moniuszko. Litanies of Ostra Brama, CD Accord ACD 137-2, 2006; I. Hossa, A. Lubańska, A. Zdunikowski, Cz.Gałka (soloists), Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, cond. Henryk Wojnarowski. Moniuszko. Litanies of Ostra Brama, CD Polskie Radio PRCD 1928, 2014; A. Dennis, M. Cukrova, V. Hartinger,

J. Bręk (soloists), M. Lisak (pfte), Polish Radio Choir, Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, cond. Jacek Kaspszyk.

Example 1, III Litany, part 3, B. 221-224. A new invocation Sancta Mater*

*Litanie Ostrobramskie, in: Stanisław Moniuszko, Dzieła, vol. 30, ed. J. Berwaldt, Kraków 1972.

The invocation Sancta Mater is the main culmination of this movement (see Example

which is preceded by invocations Virgo potens (Virgin most powerful), Virgo fidelis (Virgin most faithful) and Turris Davidica (Tower of David). Sancta Mater Misericordiae represents Power and Faith, while the Ostra Brama becomes the Tower of David. It is also worth noticing that the musical expression of this part is achieved by rarely used in Litanies ecstatic prayer (supplicatio extatica).

European context of the religious music of Litanies: Schubert - Moniuszko

An attempt to place Litanies of Ostra Brama in the context of the European religious music. Composers such as Schubert, Rossini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Gounod can be generally considered.

Unique, astonishing stylistic relationship occurs in Credo from the Mass A flat major by Schubert and Agnus Dei of the Litany No.4. The same key signature (C major) and fast tempo (Allegro maestoso e vivace in Credo and Vivace in Agnus Dei) and time signature (Alla breve). But above all the type of ecstatic prayer.

This comparison proves that Litanies of Ostra Brama are truly great music of young Moniuszko. That's why I would like to repeat it again: the liturgical Latin text of the popular Litany of Loreto to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the romantic nature of music are universal features that allow to perform these works in every musical center.

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