A lute-like city
In his Polish Chronicle issued in the late sixteenth century, Marcin Bielski compared the perimeter of Krakow’s Old Town to … a lute. ‘When you look at it from the Zwierzyniec Hill (as this is where it is best viewed), it is somewhat similar to a lute with its roundness; and Grodzka Street with the castle is precisely like a lute’s neck’, the old book reads. The association frequently reappeared in later sources.
The ‘well-tuned’ city of Krakow distinguishes itself with a long musical tradition, strongly rooted in history. It is connected, most of all, with old music heritage, creatively re-interpreted classics and, on the other hand, post-war traditions of singing poetry. It was the place of Krzysztof Penderecki’s debut and early success; it is where manuscripts by Mahler, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Szymanowski, preserved in the collection of the Jagiellonian Library, tell the story of the development of the composing art to subsequent generations. Finally, Kraków is home to about a dozen world-renowned and highly appreciated genre-specific music festivals as well as distinguished, active institutions.
Let us try to hear and name the most important voices in this centuries-old chorus.
Founded in the eleventh century, the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec was Poland’s first monastery belonging to the oldest and best-known order of Western Christianity. The monks from Tyniec disseminated the Gregorian choral tradition on the shores of the Vistula River.
Another centre of development of music could be found in the Wawel Royal Castle. Mikołaj Radomski and Wacław z Szamotuł are but two of many composers active at the royal court. In the sixteenth century, the seat of the kings, flourishing under the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty, saw the establishment of the Kapela Rorantystów – a male vocal ensemble participating in the most important ceremonies at Wawel.
Numerous churches in both Krakow and Kazimierz resounded with organ music. Its most precious testimony is the XVI-century tablature by Jan z Lublina. Music was one of the seven liberal arts taught at Krakow University.
Today, Krakow is Poland’s leading centre of historically informed performance. Traditions of old music are cultivated by the Capella Cracoviensis, founded in 1970. The ensemble, highly appreciated in Poland and worldwide, has been closely connected to the Music in Old Krakow festival (inaugurated in 1976) since the festival’s beginnings. Capella Cracoviensis is also a co-organiser of the Opera Rara festival, the only one in Poland to produce original premieres of operas from all the periods of the genre’s history.
One of the major European events dedicated to old music is the Misteria Paschalia Festival, organised since 2004 in the Easter period. Its attractions include concerts in historic Gothic churches of Krakow, such as the Corpus Christi Basilica and St Catherine’s Church at Kazimierz, as well as unforgettable musical soirées in the famous Chapel of St Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
The festival has hosted many important representatives of historically informed performance: Jordi Savall, Fabio Biondi, ensembles Il Giardino Armonico, Europa Galante, and Le Poème Harmonique. In summer, old music concerts are also held as part of the ‘Wawel at Dusk’ cycle at the famous Arcade Court of the Royal Castle.
Classics and avant-garde: centuries of dialogue
Krakow’s long history has produced a unique dialogue between classics and avant-garde, the spaces of the sacrum and the profanum. In the nineteenth century, the city hosted such composers as Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Henryk Wieniawski and Karol Lipiński; in the following century, Ada Sari taught singing here.
Autographs of symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, mazurkas by Chopin and other manuscripts by Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Witold Lutosławski, and Krzysztof Penderecki, held in the Jagiellonian Library are all part of the world heritage gathered in the university’s book collection. Maestro Penderecki, who had lived in Krakow for many years, rendered invaluable services to the city and was buried here. The name of the famous composer and conductor was conferred to the Auditorium Hall of the ICE Krakow Congress Centre where major musical events are held. The Centre regularly hosts stars of classical music within the framework of the ICE Classic cycle.
Another active group is the city orchestra Sinfonietta Cracovia, established in 1994 and known for performances of classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music as well as film music recordings. On warm July days, the streets of Krakow become filled with the concerts of the Polish Music Festival featuring our native creations in a broader, European context. The Henryk Górecki Festival of Polish Composers, in turn, celebrates the art of composition.
Between the old and the new
This polyphonic structure includes a clear voice of continuous change and experiment. The Sacrum Profanum Festival, organised since 2004, which has hosted such international stars as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Kronos Quartet, explores the currents of contemporary music in dialogue with classics. The Audio Art Festival and the world-renowned UNSOUND Festival – the latter more focused on electronics – go even further in their search for new sounds. Krakow’s musical space can indeed contain the interest in tradition and openness to the unknown.
In 2012, Krakow pianist Sławomir Zubrzycki reconstructed, based on original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, an instrument called the viola organista. Currently, the musician tours concert halls worldwide, playing continuously improved versions of the unusual, harpsichord-like object. It would be hard to find a better example of how the contemporary creators’ sensitivity restores the musical heritage to culture.
Folk music and urban folk
Krakow’s musical heritage consists, however, not only of what is conventionally referred to as ‘high art’ and the equally conventionally understood voice of the musical academy.
Every year in early summer, Krakow’s Kazimierz and other areas of the city attract artists representing different traditions and currents of ethno music worldwide. The EtnoKraków / Rozstaje festival is one of the events originating from the time when, in 2000, Krakow held the title of the European Capital of Culture. The festival has managed to bring together numerous circles of lovers of folk traditions.
Here, we cannot omit the urban folk tradition, represented in Krakow by such bands as Andrusy. Some inhabitants still remember the beginnings of Maciej Maleńczuk’s musical career; in the late 80s and early 90s, the musician busked on Szewska Street singing simple pieces, very similar in nature to those written by Stanisław Grzesiuk, sung on the streets of Warsaw.
Many local bands, connected to both folk and contemporary music, take part in the Wianki (Garlands) celebration in June. This centuries-old custom, rooted in pre-Christian practices, consisting in throwing a garland onto the waters of the Vistula River on the night of the summer solstice, has changed its formula in recent years. Mass concerts at the bend of the Vistula near Wawel Hill have been replaced by smaller-scale performances on different stages in city squares, as part of a Music Holiday inspired by the French tradition of the Fête de la musique.
The centuries-long history of Krakow’s Jewish community was connected to folk music, too. It was here, at Kazimierz, where the popular folk singer Mordechai Gebirtig lived and worked, this is where the Holocaust survivor, singer Yaakov Hollander comes from.
Kazimierz was also an important centre of development of the klezmer music, closely related to the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition. Leopold Kozłowski, called ‘Galicia’s last klezmer’, was the unquestioned master of its preservation after the tragedy of the war. In the late 80s and early 90s, Kazimierz became home to the Jewish Culture Festival. In the first years of its existence, it focused primarily on the burning need for the reintroduction of the heritage of Polish Jews after the difficult decades of post-war silence. It was a period of “golden years” for such bands as Kroke and The Cracow Klezmer Band (today, Bester Quartet). Their achievements inspired many of Krakow’s musical formations that play in small clubs around the centre of the city.
From the very beginning, an important point of the Jewish Culture Festival, besides the klezmer music, was the traditional singing of cantors – synagogue oratory singers. Every year, concerts of cantors from around the world in the Tempel synagogue are a highlight of the beginning of the festival.
Poetry singing and post-war music heritage
Another automatic association with Krakow is related to poetry singing and sing-song writing. The post-war Krakow – one of the few architecturally surviving Polish cities – became a new living space for writers. In the grey realities of post-war Poland, a song with lyrics that are equally important as the melody became a method of tempering customs through art; on the other hand, it was a way of expressing oblique criticism of the political system. It was not the first time that the city became a space of artistic ferment: barely half a century earlier, in the famous Jama Michalika (Michalik’s Den), the artists of the Young Poland era organised the Zielony Balonik (Little Green Balloon) cabaret.
After the war, the Piwnica Pod Baranami (Cellar Under the Rams), with the charismatic Piotr Skrzynecki at the forefront, became a place of comparable influence. Personalities including Ewa Demarczyk and Marek Grechuta connected their careers with it; Zbigniew Preisner or Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz would compose the music for its productions.
Also, Kora Jackowska, who would later become a star of Polish rock, was closely related to literary and theatrical circles associated with the cabaret. Other outstanding artists from Krakow who started their careers at that time – multi-instrumentalist and composer Zbigniew Wodecki, endowed with a brilliant voice, or the tragically deceased rhythm-and-blues singer Andrzej Zaucha – took yet other directions. In parallel, the student song genre was developing, fostered by the Klub Pod Jaszczurami; from 1962 onwards, also within the framework of the Student Song Festival.
Grzegorz Turnau’s well-known ballad of the rain falling on Bracka Street, often associated with Krakow, can be understood as an extension of that tradition, very diverse, but always closely related to the student-literary spirit of the city.
The city of jazz
Jazz, of which Krakow is also an important centre, is barely a step away from there. The revolutionary sound from the US came here in the 1930s, but it was not until after the war that the interest in jazz literally exploded. A particularly popular place at that time was the Helikon Club at ul. Św. Marka, decorated with frescoes by Wiesław Dymny. In the early years, the communist authorities’ attitude to jazz was, at the very least, sceptical and closely linked to the Cold-War rivalry against the superpower from overseas. The ‘degenerate’ music, as the propaganda called it, quickly gained an extra role as a genre which also expressed resistance to official power.
At Helikon played such aces of world jazz as Krzysztof Komeda or Tomasz Stańko; the latter obtained his musical education in Krakow. It was also here that Jarosław Śmietana, a virtuoso of jazz guitar, was born and raised.
Krakow hosts the oldest jazz festival in Europe: Krakowskie Zaduszki Jazzowe (named after All Souls’ Day), an acclaimed review for young musicians – Jazz Juniors, renowned competitions for guitar (Jarosław Śmietana Competition) and violin players (Zbigniew Seifert Competition). In summer, Poland’s largest Summer Jazz Festival takes place. The most important contemporary clubs known for jazz concerts are Alchemia located in Kazimierz, Harris Piano Bar and U Louisa at the Market Square, as well as the Globus Music Club in Podgórze.
Last but not least, the musical genre profile of Krakow must include film music. Such recognised representatives of this specific field on the border of sound and image as Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz, Zygmunt Konieczny and Zbigniew Preisner all have a connection with the city.
In 2008, it became home to the Film Music Festival, known for spectacular film screenings with live music on the largest stages of the city. The record-breaking event is a space for the presentation of the most famous works of film music as well as compositions specially commissioned. Over the years, its guests included Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winners Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Howard Shore, Craig Armstrong, Trevor Morris, and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek. The special Scoring4Polish Directors series presents music for films by the most important Polish directors, such as Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland.
Another important thematic path of the festival encompasses concerts and educational programs promoting young composers’ work. It was here that Bartosz Chajdecki, Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, and Lukasz Targosz hit important milestones in their careers.
The festival is organized by the Krakow Festival Office (KBF) and the nationwide Radio RMF Classic broadcasting from the studio near the Kościuszko Mound – Poland’s only radio station profiled primarily for film music fans.
To close this review, we must mention the most important musical institutions.
The Krakow Philharmonic, Poland’s first musical institution after the war, has been operating in Krakow since 1945. Among the artists who performed at the hall at Zwierzyniecka Street, we can find Artur Rubinstein, Ida Haendel, Światosław Richter, Yehudi Menuhin, as well as such conductors as Tadeusz Strugała and Jerzy Maksymiuk.
Operating since 1954, the Krakow Opera stages numerous ballet productions, organises the Summer Festival of the Krakow Opera, and collaborates in events including the concerts at the Wawel Castle.
Music education in Krakow is provided by a network of first- and second-cycle institutions: the Krzysztof Penderecki Academy of Music the roots of which reach back to the Conservatory of the Music Society, founded in 1888 on the initiative of Władysław Żeleński. In the beautiful, Neo-Renaissance Pusłowski Palace at ul. Westerplatte operates the Institute of Musicology of the Jagiellonian University – Centre for the Documentation of Polish Music with a rich library donated by virtue of the will of Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
Founded in 1945 in Krakow and based here to this day, the Polish Music Publishing House (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne) is a unique institution in the country. It publishes sheet music and books popularising the musical heritage; it is also the initiator of numerous musical festival projects for which Krakow is known.
The Krakow Music Centre is going to join the list in the near future. A modern concert hall with an auditorium for 1,000 seats is being built at the Krakow Błonia, opposite the Cichy Kącik tram terminus, after the design by a Krakow studio BE DDJM Architekci. The facility will be the seat of two municipal orchestras: Capella Cracoviensis and Sinfonietta Cracovia, as well as an open space hosting the most important musical events in the city. The first concerts at the Krakow Music Centre will take place at the beginning of 2024.
In a music bookshop
This long and exciting journey through the musical landscape of Krakow ends at the Main Market Square, in the small bookstore-café named Kurant. This ‘Arch-Cracovian little clip’, as Grzegorz Turnau called it, is one of the favourite places for socialising and spending the evening talking about music. You can come here for a concert or a meeting accompanying a festival. You can also just sit here with a cup of ‘little black’ coffee and listen to the sounds of the city that lives music in so many ways.
The text uses information from the study entitled Polifoniczny Kraków by Mateusz Borkowski, compiled for the needs of the Krakow Culture portal.