July 11th Tuesday | St. Mary’s Organ Festival: Ernst Wally at Bazylika Mariacka | Kraków, Poland

July 12th Wednesday | International Summer Organ Festival: Bogusław Grabowski at Bazylika OO. Karmelitów “Na Piasku” | Kraków, Poland

July 14th Friday | International Summer Organ Festival: Irena Wsełka-Cieślar at Bazylika OO. Paulinów “Na Skałce” | Kraków, Poland


Hearing contemporary organ music inside a 14th-century Gothic church is a soul-shaking experience. There is nothing quite like this.

Truth be told, I’ve never stepped inside the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica before. The architecture itself is worth a single visit. I remember reading about the famous altarpiece in my Polish class, but it never made much sense to me until I saw it in person for the first time tonight. It was indeed worth learning all the Polish art history terminology I don’t even know in English. However, what catches my eyes first is not the wooden altarpiece but the ceiling. Deep blue decorated with golden stars, reminding me of my visit to Giotto’s Cappella degli Scrovegni—only the blue is deeper and the ceiling is much much much higher here at Mariacki.


I sat down and dared not to move inside such a solemn and magnificent basilica. The last organ concert I attended was at the Adophus Busch Hall back in Cambridge. But the chapel was much smaller in comparison to the Gothic Mariacki, so is the echo. When the Austrian organist Ernst Wally began with his compatriot Martin Lichtfluss’s modern Toccata, I was shocked partly by the acoustics and partly by the modern composition itself. It was strange, and as I said not like anything else I’ve experienced. The G-Major Fantasia by Bach that follows reminded me of the episode from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks involving the organist Herr Pfühl from Marienkirche (which happens to be Bazylika Mariacka’s name in German). Herr Pfühl adores Bach and detests Wagner. The fascination of hearing Bach after a modern organ piece at Mariacki tonight makes me wonder what it must be like to be the little Hanno in the Buddenbrooks. Herr Pfühl played Wagner’s “Liebestod” upon the request of Hanno’s mother Gerda and “converted” to Wagnerism. Had I only heard it myself played with church organ pipes would it have also made me a Wagnerian instantly!


I’ve decided, perhaps subconsciously, that the theme for this week is church. Wednesday night I went to the Carmelite Church, which is only a 10-minute walk from where I live. There is a free organ concert for the 26th International Summer Organ Festival. I’d say it was more “low-key” than the one at Mariacki, and the program was also less “avant-garde.” But interestingly I heard Bach’s Fantasia in G-major (BWV 572), and not surprisingly the acoustics were so different that I felt as if I had heard two completely different pieces. This time I sat on the side, quietly admiring the more affable interior and the more intimate music. Bathing in this realm of the sacred I felt calm and uplifted at the same time, because of this basilica or because of this music? And what have I done to deserve such a transcendental experience? I left before the concert ended, and walking into the not-yet-dark night of Kraków I was content.


I had a break on Thursday, but I finally paid a long-awaited visit to the Franciscan Church to see Wyspiański’s marvelous stained glass. I was inspired by the discussion we had in class the day before on “The Wedding”—Wyspiański’s masterpiece in theater which is also on my reading list. By invoking the “Gesamtkunstwerk” concept, our teacher encouraged us all to go see Wyspiański’s artwork “around the corner.” At that moment I felt so privileged to be here, reading Polish at the heart of Polish culture not to mention in the very building where Pope John Paul II used to study. It reminded me of going to my Dante class in Bologna years ago, when the professor would casually mention places around the city that Dante eternalized in his Divine Comedy. Being inside the Franciscan Church and looking at the flow of vibrant colors on Wyspiański’s stained glasses, I felt blissful.

Friday we had a “field trip” in the center of Kraków, and I was exhausted afterwards. I woke up from a long nap, reluctant to venture outside again. But it’s Friday night, and I’m in such a dreamy place. There’s no excuse not to leave the house. I brushed away my fatigue and trekked all the way to “Na Skałce” by the Vistula for my third organ concert of the week. 


The church is called is considered as Poland’s Panthéon, and one of my favorite writers Czesław Miłosz was buried underneath among many illustrious Polish intellectuals, including the artist/writer Stanisław Wyspiański and the composer Karol Szymanowski. My walk along the river at dusk reminds me of being back in Boston again, where I like to bike along the Esplanade on summer evenings before the sun sets. Here I am by the Vistula overhearing chatters in a completely different language yet still thinking about the Charles. Thankfully the weather here is perfect, making me miss Boston just a bit less. It was fresh, breezy and just a tiny bit chilly. I entered the garden of “Na Skałce,” immediately finding myself in a world outside the world, in a realm of timelessness. 


The sun cast a very soft beam on the façade of the church, and I could already hear the music inside. The program is very traditional, consisting of Bach and his contemporaries. Having had only a glimpse of the shining altar, I walked to the side and sat down. 


My view is dominated by the Baroque interior of the church, which is more elaborate and colorful than the Carmelite Church I visited on Wednesday. What’s more is that I know that underneath where I’m sitting lie Miłosz, Wyspiański and Szymanowski in eternal peace. Is it organ I’m listening to or the music of their souls?


Walking out of “Na Skałce” the sky is still not dark yet, as if coming to standstill. On my walk back home along the Vistula, I saw the tower of the Wawel Castle up on the hill, as if telling a similar story of time. I recall a scene from the novel I’ve been reading, when the protagonist, a non-believer, paid a visit to church: “Now I understand why visiting a church intensifies faith. Here everything is arranged so as to remind us of eternity.” For me timelessness is not only a realm of the sacred but also of the musical, and when they are combined, it is a kind of pure magic that can lift up your spirit to a whole new world. 

 

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