7 Dec 2017

Psałterz Poznański: an interview with Andrzej Polaszek

A complete Polish-language Psalter using the Genevan tunes is on its way. In the meantime, the first fifty psalms have now been published. This is a modified google translation from Polish taken from the website of the Tolle Lege Institute:

Tolle Lege: First of all, congratulations on the release of the first fifty psalms, and we look forward to more. Could you tell us in a few words what the Psałterz Poznański is?

Andrzej Polaszek: Thank you. We are working intensively to make the whole come out in 2020. Psałterz Poznański is a project that aims to renew the custom of singing psalms in evangelical churches and Christian homes. Our intention is to develop a complete set of 150 psalms in contemporary Polish with notes and chords. The Psalter will be accompanied by a number of promotional tools and events: a psalterz.pl website, recordings, concerts, conferences. We hope that our psalms will be included in the repertoire of musicians representing different styles of Christian music.

TL: As a source of melody, you chose the sixteenth-century Genevan Psalter. What is it and why did you decide on these melodies?

AP: The Genevan Psalter was created on the initiative of [John] Calvin and is the best-known sixteenth-century psalter in the world. The Psalms were sung to these melodies in, among other languages, French, English, German, Hungarian and Dutch. At the end of the 16th century, the Rev. Maciej Rybiński, bishop of the Greater Poland Unity (Bohemian Brethren) created the Psalter with the French Melodies in Polish. It has been published over a dozen or so, and it has also been published, along with notes, in some editions of the Gdańsk Bible, which testifies to its wide range and popularity.

We decided to reach for Geneva's melodies because they are beautiful. My wife, looking from the perspective of a musicologist, claims that these are real masterpieces. They have passed the test of time; after several hundred years they are still in use. In addition, they adapt very easily to various styles of music.
When we play them on contemporary instruments and in contemporary arrangements, it is hard to believe that they come from the 16th century. 

TL: Is it difficult to prepare a musical version of a psalm? How do you usually create your psalms?

AP: From the musical side this Psalter is ready to go. The author of the musical arrangements is my wife Agata, who performed a truly Benedictine work. Using the original version of the Psalter from 1563 [sic], she made a completely original transcription of all the melodies into contemporary notation, broken down into measures, meter, etc.

For the musically arranged psalm, we write a contemporary Polish text, which is a paraphrase, as close to the original text as the structure of the melody allows. In our work on texts, we try to maintain the following principles:

  1. The text must reflect the meaning of each verse. 
  2. Most verses are built on parallelisms. The second part (usually the second line) is like the answer to the first part. This is related to the responsorial way of singing (dialogue of two choirs). We try to keep to this.
  3. No sentence can be lost from the text (part of a compound sentence) - for the structure of the text it is better to repeat something (as a last resort) rather than omit it.
  4. No comparison, metaphor, etc. can be lost.
  5. If the passage is quoted in the New Testament, we select from among the possible meanings the one that best suits the context of the New Testament.
  6. Choosing from among possible meanings, we remember the prayer character of the text and give it priority.
TL: Changing the subject a bit, why is it worthwhile to sing psalms? Do you think that they should stay in churches for good?

AP: The Psalms are the living Word of God which in our mouth becomes the prayer that Christ brings to the Father in the name of His Body, the Church. Jesus had the words of the psalms on his lips as he was dying on the cross. As Luther wrote, "everything that a pious heart wishes to express in prayer, it here finds spoken in the psalms in such a perfect and touching manner that no one would be able to express it better." "The Psalter is an anatomy of the human soul" (Calvin), etc.

That we should sing psalms is obvious. The basic question is: How could we allow the situation in which the Psalter disappeared from our churches ?! We sing at most songs based on a dozen or so favorite psalms. Luther compared this attitude to that of a man who, out of the entire Lord's Prayer, repeats only "give us today our daily bread."

The motto of our project is taken from the words of Bonhoeffer: "Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unimagined power." We believe that this is true.

TL: In addition to the choice of psalms, you also released the album We Believe with the songs of Martin Luther together with the band Cithara Sanctorum. Can we expect more such projects in the future?

It all started with the band Cithara Sanctorum, which popularizes the music of the Reformation. It was in this group that the idea of ​​the Psalter was born and grew. The band Cithara Sanctorum is doing well, giving concerts and recording. In the coming weeks we are releasing a CD with Reformation Christmas carols, and next year a new album with songs by Jerzy Trzanowski, known as the Slavic Luther.

TL: We have heard that you have recently started writing a PhD dissertation on the psalms. Could you tell us what will be the subject of your research?

AP: The Psałterz Rybińsky, or the first Polish Psalter using the Genevan melodies. I would like to look at the theology of this translation and its significance for the Polish Reformation. In the introduction, I would like to write something about what role the psalms played in the history of the Church, with particular emphasis on the metrical psalters, a phenomenon characteristic of the Calvinist Reformation. Much space will have to be given to the Genevan Psalter. And in the end there will probably be some mention of the Psałterz Poznański.

TL: Thank you for giving us an interview and we wish you success in your future work.
Andrzej Polaszek is pastor of the Evangelical Reformed Church in Poznań, Poland, one of the originators of the Poznań Psalter, co-author of the texts for the Psałterz Poznański, and a PhD student of the Christian Theological Academy.

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