An Easter in Poland

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One of the beautiful wooden formerly Orthodox (now Roman Catholic) churches in the remote Bieszczady region of  S-E Poland

Below is an extract from Chapter 16  Vistula – Of Dragons, Martyrs and Lovers  taken from the book    

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran (London 2008) 

In Poland I feel strongly surrounded by the atmosphere of religion particularly at Easter. During my first experience it was as though childhood religious feelings had burst upon me with renewed vigour. The haunting feeling of Christ in his sepulchre lay heavy in the air. Easter is one of the greatest Roman Catholic festivals in Poland. In the Kazimierz Dolny parish church on that Good Friday rivulets of 'blood' ran to the floor from the body of Christ twisted in agony on the cross. His tomb was guarded by a pair of weary firemen in brass helmets holding silver axes. Three nuns were fervently praying while others performed the Stations of the Cross. Candles had been overturned and crucifixes were lying flat. Outside the sun was setting behind an old wooden barn and trees containing the nests of jackdaws and rooks thrust into a reddening sky. This beautiful Parish Church built in 1610-13 was inscribed by the builder Jacobus Balin and is decorated with elegant panels, rosettes and hearts in grey plaster. It is the finest example of the elegant Lublin Renaissance style which flourished in the south-east of the country in the seventeenth century.

On Easter Saturday the faithful bring święcone to the church. These are small baskets decorated with white flowers, green leaves and covered with a white lace napkin. They contain hard-boiled eggs, sausage, bread, cake, salt, pepper and other food which is blessed by the priest and sprinkled with Holy Water. The contents is placed on a plate on Easter Sunday morning and each member of the family takes a portion of blessed boiled egg and salt and extends individual good wishes. At Kazimierz Dolny traditional bread cockerels are sold at the bakers as well as bread in the form of crabs or pigeons. The religious intensity of Easter is unsettling to anyone brought up in the largely secular society of Western Europe.

Imaginative, brilliantly carved but shocking Stations of the Cross each in its own chapel situated on their own steep Calvary one must climb at the astonishing Shrine of Wambierzyce near Duszniki Zdroj in the South-West of Poland

Easter Day began with a peal of bells and a procession of little girls in white turning graciously and strewing flower petals before a priest carrying the monstrance containing the Eucharist. An enormous Easter breakfast was served with a delicious fermented yeast soup called żurek. Cold meats with wine were soon followed by smoked trout, steak, Easter cake and Bulgarian champagne. Replete we walked off the feast along the banks of the Vistula towards the tiny fishing village of Mecmierz.

No sooner had we set off than the wind began to rise and the sky to darken, but the low rushing clouds and occasional sunshine were invigorating. The river lies in a flood-plain with islands of lush green and wide sandbars, wavelets running up energetically against the shore. On the opposite bank of the Vistula a ridge of rock is exposed like a scar on the landscape which terminates at the village of Janowiec. A monumental Gothic castle was erected here on a dark green wooded escarpment with little evidence of habitation. This dream of a Sarmatian stronghold was once the seat of the Firlejs, one of the most powerful Polish families. It then passed to the fabulously wealthy Marcin Lubomirski and was allegedly gambled away at cards in a fit of madness one evening in 1783.

A squall began to engulf the fortress and sheets of torrential rain moved towards us. We hesitated, fascinated by the lightning flashing over the battlements until we took shelter under some low shrubs. A glow broke over the broad ruffled water and ghostly sandbanks, a suspicion of thunder rumbled in the distance. In the rain her sodden blouse and cotton trousers clung seductively to her body as we hurried along the muddy path and birds flew in wild arcs above the breaking wavelets. The spring squall passed as quickly as it had arrived and the sun emerged. Long, green weed was flowing in the swiftly moving river current like the hair of a bather. The wooden, thatched houses of Mecmierz straggled in picturesque disorder along the roadside. A windmill stood vacantly on a promontory. The sweeping panorama is strangely reminiscent of Asia with the rich, nervous greens of early spring marooned as if in paddy fields. Forested cliffs patrolled by birds of prey aroused the noble Sarmatian Poland of my imagination. We crossed fields with isolated trees and copses before a final descent to the town through a gorge dusted with bluebells.

Wooden folk carving of the crucified Christ at the Carmelite Monastery on magnificent Lake Wigry in the remote N-E of Poland near the Augustow Wilderness

Easter Monday dawned cold, windy and wet. We were awoken by the screams of children splashing everyone with water, an Easter custom in Poland called Śmigus Dyngus (‘wet Monday’). The weather had the changeable cruelty of spring. Snow, hail and freezing winds were pushing fast-moving dark cloud that broke up on occasion into clear, blue sky. We followed a bifurcation of the Małachowski Gorge along a track which led across meadows and wandered through fresh green orchards glittering with cool rain and ice, air filtered by sunlight. Unique fissures called loess gorges characterise the region, the deep sides sprinkled with tiny white, mauve and blue spring flowers. The steep descent led to a variety of 'cross-gorges' which led upwards in mysterious tunnels. Fallen leaves were densely packed underfoot in a thick carpet.

This labyrinth gave way to a sealed road which led to the Soviet War Cemetery. Reminders of war are never far from any experience of beauty in Poland. It is an emotional place with many unmarked mass graves each holding up to fifty bodies. There are a few single graves with the customary Russian porcelain plaques on the headstones with yellow plastic flowers and a photograph of the deceased - one a beautiful girl of nineteen. A squall of hail suddenly blotted out everything and we were forced to shelter. Sunshine again and then we were heading once more through sparkling fields asking directions at a dilapidated farmhouse with a dilapidated dog. Bright green moss, ice crust on the gnarled roots of trees, delicate flowers and clear, cool air.

[‘Loess is usually deep, fertile soil, rich in organic remains and characterized by slender, vertical tubes that are said to represent stems and roots of plants buried by sediment. When cut by streams or other agencies, loess remains standing in cliffs exhibiting a vertical, columnar structure.’Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth edition 2003]

Wayside Shrine to the victim of a motoring accident in Poland

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The book from which this extract was taken is available in both Polish and English.    (English version)

Polish language version is now available direct from the author. Contact:

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In addition to the 'usual' large scale and operatic Bach St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion, among the greatest masterpieces of the Western music, may I suggest at this time you also listen to this devotional piece by Franz Liszt on Good Friday. These intense miniatures of the greatest simplicity each depict one of the 14 Stations of the Cross. They are deeply personal but on the reduced scale of a Japanese haiku not what one would expect of LisztThey are extraordinarily modern in almost fractured tonality and profoundly inward looking creating a mood in one of deep religious meditation.

Here is the appreciation I wrote of it after first hearing the work at the 2011 Chopin i jego Europa Festival performance in Warsaw. It convinced me completely of the truly religious basis of much of Liszt's misunderstood thought and philosophy. One realizes after listening to the Via Crucis  that Liszt genuinely believed, was a fervent rather theatrical Christian and not the posturing Abbe of common view.

[Rarely recorded today but and excellent version available on Hyperion CDA67199 
    Corydon Singers and Thomas Trotter organ conducted by Matthew Best]

Ferenc Liszt
Via Crucis, les 14 stations de la croix
soloists, mixed choir and organ

What an extraordinary manner in which to end a music festival and what inspiration lies here.

The venue for the concert was the beautiful and historic baroque Kościół św. Krzyża (Church of the Holy Cross) in Warsaw. It was built between 1679 and 1696 by Giuseppe Simone Bellotti. There are a large number of monuments to famous Poles here including the novelist Bolesław Prus, General Władisław Sikorski but above all, on the first pier on the left, a portrait bust of Fryderyk Chopin and an urn containing his heart brought back to Poland by his sister Ludwika.

                      Kościół św. Krzyża (Church of the Holy Cross) in Warsaw, Poland

Franz Liszt arrived in Rome in September 1878 and took up residence in the Villa d’Este. He lived a simple life here rising with the lark, attending mass at the church at Tivoli and then composition. It was here shortly after arrival that he heard news of the death of his close friend Baron Antal Augusz – he wrote that they were ‘of one heart’. One outcome of his grief was the extraordinary sound world he created of the Via Crucis, les 14 stations de la croix which I heard for the first time tonight. He was also moved by a Service of the Stations he heard in the Colosseum one Good Friday. The Church of the Holy Cross is the most suitable setting imaginable for this sacred work and its resonant acoustic is splendid for the abstract nature of it. The work is in fourteen short movements with texts selected from the Bible by Liszt’s companion, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. It was written for mixed choir, soloists and piano or organ. In his official foreword to Via Crucis Liszt wrote:

‘Devotion to the 'Way of the Cross’ is very widespread among Catholics. Many churches feature images of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which in Good Friday, the faithful follow with an officiating priest. I have participated in this ceremony, notably at the Colosseum in Rome, steeped in the blood of the holy martyrs. In the pages of music which follow I have attempted humbly to express my devout emotion.

O crux, ave, spec unica! [Hail, O Cross, our single hope!]

(from the previously unpublished foreword quoted in Alan Walker Franz Liszt Volume 3 the Final Years 1861-1886 p. 381-2)

This was one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I have heard for a very long time. At the time it was composed it must have been shocking indeed it is so forward-looking in its atonality and avant-garde ‘harmonies’. Refused by publishers it was not performed until fifty years after it was written on Good Friday, 1929 in Budapest. Liszt himself said he ‘was quite shaken by it.’ Not only is the pain of Christ himself depicted but also the suffering of the witnesses, especially his mother.

An Albrecht Durer engraving in his Great Passion series (1497-1510)

The Prelude began with an old plainchant but this is a false indication of the astonishing music that follows. The organ has a heavy, simple phrase as Jesus staggers between Stations on the way to Calvary. He falls thrice. None of the Liszt pyrotechnics in evidence at all. Gone. Subdued. Sublimated into true religious feeling. ‘Jesus meets his mother’ was an absolutely heart-rending Stabat Mater by female voices. I have only ever felt this extraordinary devotional emotion scored for small forces in a performance at Versailles of Francois Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres.

The unfocused chromatic irresolution of ‘The Women of Jerusalem mourn for Jesus’ and then ‘Do not weep for me, but rather weep for yourselves and for your children’ – the grief seemed almost unbearable in light of our ghastly situation of horror, death and mutilation that pertains across many world cultures just now. The Crucifixion music was of extreme simplicity and all the more effective – such a surprise when you think of what Liszt might have written of it in his dramatic youth. I kept hearing Wagnerian chromaticism throughout. Liszt’s great biographer Alan Walker comments on this work ‘A work of outcries, whispers and laments….His music not only made history; it had a history of making history.’ (Vol.3 p. 383-4)

At the conclusion of this profoundly moving work I did not want to hear applause, I simply wanted to remain silent and meditate. The profound spiritual impact of this rarely performed music of Liszt in this unsurpassed setting was something I shall never forget until I too am taken away.


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