Sunday, February 25, 2018

'It is good to be here': Hymns and belonging in a Polish park

Sławcie usta Ciało Pana — Pange Lingua ('Of the glorious body telling')

Good things are always going on in the world, even if out of sight or over the horizon, and these days, it seems, quite a few of them are happening in Poland.  Here's an example of something we should know about in Britain: enormous open-air hymn-singing concerts which every year draw great multitudes, people in their tens of thousands, to a park in the city of Rzeszów.  It is ordinary folk  young and old, married and single, lay and consecrated religious, public officials and plain citizens, practising and less practising  who gather in the Sybiraków park to sing and pray, usually after the festivities of Corpus Christi.  There to lead them is a choir a hundred and thirty strong, a chamber orchestra and an array of soloists and other instrumentalists.  Candle-light spreads and strengthens as evening falls: they join hands and sing  hymns into the night.

These are the 'Jednego Serca Jednego Ducha' concerts (in English, 'Of One Heart, Of One Spirit'; the 'c' in 'Serca' is pronounced 'ts' as in 'dance'; the 'ch' in 'Ducha' as in 'loch'), and there seems to be nothing to contradict the claim that they are Poland's, and Europe's, largest regular concerts of  religious music.  Last year's gathered 45,000 people, the greatest number since they began in 2003: even those who came up with the idea  Jan Budziaszek, a drummer, Fr. Andrzej Cypryś and Fr. Mariusz Mik — might be forgiven for surprise at what they have created.  It is not only the size of the concerts that is remarkable, either.  They have a certain atmosphere, and something happens which Fr. Cypryś describes as a kind of transfiguration: "There are many events, better or worse, in which the crowd also enjoys itself and goes crazy. But the crowd reacts differently in this concert; people are elevated, spiritual. This brings about a spirit that can be raised from the heart, and above all, turn to the Lord God. The phenomenon is probably in this: it's good to be here".

Serce wielkie nam daj — 'Give us a great heart'

Of course, the musicianship has a great deal to do with it.  There is no cutting of corners.  Members of the choir, who tend to come from youth movements in the region, must audition and know the parts and words by heart, the orchestra is reinforced by players from the Rzeszów Philharmonic, and some of Poland's best-known musicians complete the ensemble.  Hubert Kowalski, who conducts the orchestra and orchestrates some of the hymns, is a composer and prominent figure in liturgical music. Marcin Pospieszalski, a bass guitarist, violinist and and composer of film music, produces the majority of the arrangements for the ensemble.  His wife Lidia Pospieszalska, along with Tamara Kasprzyk-Przybysz, leads the choir.  The solo singers and instrumentalists, too, tend to be prominent names in Poland — Joachim Mencel, Poldek Twardowski, Viola Brzezińska — and some are even from outside the country, such as last year's guests Levi Sakala (Zambia) and Fr. Stan Fortuna (U.S.A.).

For those of us who were struck in 2016 by the quality of the music at World Youth Day in Krakow (about which my tuppenceworth here and here), this all explains a great deal.   There, too, could be heard this compelling recipe of familiar or singable tunes heightened by rich, uplifting orchestration.  The same musicianship, it turns out, is behind both occasions, and by 'musicianship is meant both the same individual musicians (Marcin Pospieszalsi contributed to the WYD hymn) and the same strong underlying musical culture.  Jednego Serca Jednego Ducha goes a long way towards explaining how, when the world came to Kraków, the youth of Poland rose as it did to the occasion.

Even though such importance is placed on musical excellence, and in spite of their being called concerts, they are not really to be thought of simply as performances, as this article (translated here) explains.  It is not only for the musicians that the multitudes have gathered.  The distinction between stage and audience is blurred; the soloists' names, however famous, are not announced, and the words of the hymns are projected onto screens for everyone to sing.  There is a togetherness of music-making, itself in service of a togetherness of heart and spirit: "We believe deeply that it is a meeting of all of us," says Hubert Kowalski, "that is not only an artistic event, but our deep prayer, an expression of our belonging to God and our faith."

Ciebie całą duszą pragnę  'For you I long with all my soul', Psalm 63 (62)

What do they sing?  Hymns from every age and corner of the Church.  Taizénineteenth-century patriotic hymnsplainsongseventeenth-century German melodiesAmerican worship songsthe oldest known Polish hymn (the 'Bogurodzica') and even a rap, to whose lyrics presumably nihil obstat, performed by its author, a priest in full cassock.  (Now I've seen it all!).  All sorts, then, which is another sign of a concerted effort to unity.  Perhaps not all the music will be to everyone's taste, but some of it will be.  I don't think either traditionalists or innovators could complain, and I have to say I find most of it very appealing, especially with the choir's open, unaffected, even raw way of singing.  But maybe it is the idea itself that matters more, the idea that people might willingly choose to spend some hours in each other's company, and their Creator's.  This is perhaps why, in 2010, when a terrific rain-storm caused flooding in the region and nearly threatened the concert itself, those who did not have long or difficult journeys home decamped to a car park, where a new stage had to be set up, and kept singing under the deluge.

Chrystus Pan karmi nas — 'Christ the Lord nourishes us'

"Serdecznie zapraszamy", they say —  'we cordially invite'  all people to join the gathering in the park.  Even from afar it is possible to be drawn into this spirit of togetherness, and to notice certain heartening things: the range of the people who are there, roughly equal numbers of men and women, the presence of families and children, the breadth of ages (also, on the other hand, the large number of young priests and religious). Then there are other details: refreshing sights like the natural ornaments of celebration and goodwill (things as simple as flowers in the sopranos' and altos' hair, or exuberant balloons and banners among the audience), bishops' bonhomie, John Paul II lookalikes, and people holding hands, or couples with their arms gently around each other.  People are quite obviously having a good time.  The young in particular are visibly uncynical, relaxed and actually youthful in spirit.  This is the youth that Benedict XVI knew 'are not as superficial as some think', and surely it is precisely because of the concert's sincerity and reality — no artificial emotion, no pseudo-intellectualism, no fakeness, no nonsense, all of which young people can detect a mile off  that they come in such huge numbers.   Here all the good things about modern music and the modern world are taken and elevated to their highest purpose.  It makes me want to burst out and declare that we don't have to agonise and dither over the New Evangelisation.  This is what it looks like and how it is done!  Some of this music would evangelise a potato.

'A spirit that can be raised from the heart'...'an expression of our belonging to God and our faith'... Unison of lifted voices begets the unity of many lifted hearts and lifted spirits: one voice, one heart, one spirit.  So it is what it says on the tin, and most of us in Great Britain would find it a remarkable sight.  Yet what should be more natural than this, than gathering in a park to pray and sing?  Hymns were made to be sung anywhere, at home, at work, and to candlelight in the park as much as in church.  It is astonishing to us not because it is a strange thing, but because it is something that is completely natural yet, for us, not commonplace.  The concerts are not meant as a substitute for going to church, or the sacraments, or the ordinary practice of the faith — nothing of the kind is suggested — but it is simply the natural expression of a certain moral and spiritual culture, as well as a musical one, a culture that knows the meaning of purposeful worship. 
In other words, it is the reality of the occasion that is so startling: both in the sense that it is rather astounding that a gathering like this should happen in real life, and also that it is such a real, such a genuine thing to do, a thing so refreshingly free of illusion or falsehood.  There's nothing forced or self-conscious about it.  Really, the broadcasts and videos of the occasion show for themselves what is going on.  The presence of the Holy Spirit is not very easily faked. 

Dziękuję wam, organizatorzy, muzycy i śpiewacy koncertu 'Jednego Serca Jednego Ducha', za takie wydarzenie, tak podnoszące na duchu!

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