Mateusz Borkowski

Polyphonic Kraków

Reading time: approx. 12 minutes

Kraków’s musical portrait is painted by myriad voices and dazzling colours coming together to present a multidimensional, diverse landscape intertwining a range of genres and cultures. Kraków once welcomed Liszt, Brahms and Ada Sari; it is where Krzysztof Penderecki launched his career, and where the once-forgotten instrument designed by Leonardo da Vinci was reconstructed. Today’s musical landscape is sketched by artists such as Szymon Nehring, Piotr Orzechowski, Kaja Danczowska and Elżbieta Stefańska joined by myriad ensembles and institutions, drawing audiences from the world over.

Without a shadow of a doubt Kraków is rooted in music. It is Poland’s unquestionable capital of all genres from early music, via film soundtracks all the way to jazz; it hosts international festivals, showcases the heritage of Penderecki and Schaeffer and supports up-and-coming artists at the threshold of their careers. The music resounding in the city comes together to paint a dazzling soundscape of acclaimed institutions and festivals, vigorous vocal and instrumental ensembles, numerous music schools, churches filled with music and performances by individual artists. This extraordinary polyphony is the direct result of grand international events, intimate concerts, artistic oscillations and growing numbers of spontaneous initiatives all of which continue shaping the soundscape.

Living heritage of early music

Kraków’s rich history has been inseparably linked with the advancements in Polish music. The Benedictine Abbey in the nearby village of Tyniec helped spread Gregorian chants throughout the country, the Jagiellonian University taught music as part of its liberal arts programme, while the royal court and Wawel Cathedral welcomed composers such as Mikołaj Radomski, Mikołaj Gomółka, Wacław of Szamotuły, Bartłomiej Pękiel and Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki. The Kapela Rorantystów, a male vocal ensemble performing at religious ceremonies at the Sigismund Chapel on Wawel Hill, was founded in 1540. The most valuable musical relic of 16th-century Poland, the Tablature of John of Lublin, originated in Kraków around the same time as the organ tablature found at the Library of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (1548). Kraków’s rich musical heritage was noted in the late 16th century by Marcin Bielski’s “Chronicle of Poland”, with the author comparing the outline of the city walls (today’s Old Town) to an upturned lute. This heritage has been the subject of extensive research since the foundation of the Institute of Musicology at the Jagiellonian University.


Through reaching back to its traditions, Kraków is now one of the most important European centres reviving early music. In 1970, Jerzy Katlewicz founded the Capella Cracoviensis ensemble specialising in performing music by early masters. Led by Stanisław Gałoński for almost forty years, the ensemble has been involved with the Music in Old Cracow Festival since 1976. Today, under the baton of Jan Tomasz Adamus, Capella Cracoviensis is both a world-famous ensemble of musicians performing on historic instruments and an acclaimed choir. The group captivates critics and audiences the world over, records albums for renowned record labels and works on a range of pioneering projects such as performing all of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies. Capella Cracoviensis also co-runs the Opera Rara Festival, presenting early and largely forgotten operas alongside bold projects intertwining music, theatre, dance and visual arts directed and choreographed by some of the finest artists working today.

Living heritage of early music

One of Europe’s most important festivals dedicated to early music is Misteria Paschalia; founded by Filip Berkowicz in 2004, it is held annually during Holy Week and Easter. Since 2017, the festival has been run by artistic directors-in-residence including Vincent Dumestre, John Butt and Antonio Florio. As well as presenting music composed between the Middle Ages and the 18th century, the event also showcases recent discoveries and the latest interpretations of lost or forgotten works. One of the festival traditions is holding concerts at the Chapel of St. Kinga, 101 metres below the ground at the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Eminent festival guests include Jordi Savall, Fabio Biondi, Marc Minkowski, Ottavio Dantone, Christophe Rousset, René Jacobs and Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett, and the Il Giardino Armonico, Europa Galante, Les Arts Florissants, Le Poème Harmonique, Les Musiciens du Louvre, {oh} Orkiestra Historyczna and Capella Cracoviensis ensembles. Misteria Paschalia is a steadfast advocate of the finest and most interesting contemporary phenomena in early music.


A recent arrival on the festival scene is Musica Divina, launched in 2018. It showcases sacral music without limiting itself to early music, with the majority of artists specialising in Gregorian chants, elaborate polyphonies and Russian Orthodox music. Former guests include the Graindelavoix, Les Chantres du Thoronet, Linnamuusikud, Sirin and Jerycho ensembles.

Countless events dedicated to sacral music include organ festivals held at the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec, the Kraków Philharmonic and of course Kraków’s many beautiful churches.

And there are plenty of instruments to choose from: modern organs at the Philharmonic and the Ark of the Lord Church, historic instruments at the Church of the Holy Cross and the Basilica of St. Mary, and Kraków’s largest organ at the Church of Corpus Christi in Kazimierz.


While we’re on the subject of early music, we mustn’t forget concerts held at the Academy of Music in Kraków, including Bach Days in March. Kraków is also home to music innovation on the global scale. Between 2009 and 2012, Sławomir Zubrzycki worked on designs by Leonardo da Vinci to construct an instrument named the viola organista. The artist has been touring concert halls all over the globe with his construction ever since.

Kraków resounding with the classics

During the 19th century, Kraków welcomed virtuoso composers such as Karol Lipiński, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Henryk Wieniawski and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, as well as acclaimed prima donnas Angelika Catalani, Marcelina Sembrich-Kochańska, and, in the early 20th century, the great Ada Sari. To add to the tradition, the collection of the Jagiellonian Library includes manuscripts of scores by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Szymanowski.


The Kraków Philharmonic, founded in 1945, was the first music institution created in post-war Poland. The concert hall has welcomed performers including Artur Rubinstein, Ida Haendel, Światosław Richter, Dawid Ojstrach, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Zubin Mehta, Garrick Ohlsson and Yo-Yo Ma. The Philharmonic has also had the honour to work with leading conductors such as Stanisław Skrowaczewski, Henryk Czyż, Gabriel Chmura, Tadeusz Strugała and Jerzy Maksymiuk. The Philharmonic Choir performs historic world premieres, such as compositions by Krzysztof Penderecki. The Cracovian institution, located at a recently renovated historic site, hosts concerts and a wide range of educational events. It has been presenting popular concerts for kids and young people for over forty years, and more recently it has also been hosting workshops for mums and toddlers, based on the theories of Prof. E.E. Gordon. The Philharmonic serves as Kraków’s versatile home of music.


Another Cracovian institution is the Sinfonietta Cracovia Orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Kraków, founded in 1994 and led by the charismatic conductor Jurek Dybał. The ensemble is acclaimed for their interpretations of 19th and 20th century music, numerous world premieres and recordings of film music. The orchestra has also released albums of music by its informal patron Maestro Penderecki. Since 2015, the ensemble has also hosted the annual Sinfonietta Festival dedicated to contemporary music. The cycles of concerts and workshops for kids run by the orchestra’s indispensable violinist Danuta Augustyn are eternally popular. Founded in 1989, the Krakow International Festival of Composers under the direction of Marcel Chyrzyński focuses on contemporary Polish music.

Kraków resounding with the classics

The Kraków Opera, founded in 1954, based at a distinctive modern venue at 48 Lubicz Street, presents opera, operetta and ballet performances prepared by artists such as Michał Znaniecki, Laco Adamik and Jerzy Stuhr. The institution also hosts the annual Kraków Opera Summer Festival featuring premieres and special events such as concerts at Wawel Castle.


And there is plenty more on offer for fans of the sound of the human voice, with the previously mentioned annual Opera Rara Festival. Kraków is also a city of choirs, with numerous professional and amateur vocal ensembles. The Polish Radio Choir, founded in 1948, performs world premieres of Polish music, attends festivals all over the globe and hosts its own concerts.


Music fans with their finger on the pulse keep a close eye on the ICE Classic cycle. Concerts held at the Krzysztof Penderecki Auditorium Hall of the ICE Kraków Congress Centre have so far welcomed artists such as Aleksandra Kurzak, Edita Gruberová, Diana Damrau, Elīna Garanča, Philippe Jaroussky, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Isabelle Faust, Ivo Pogorelić and Piotr Anderszewski. Conductors who have appeared at ICE Kraków include Kent Nagano leading the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Sir Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Herreweghe performing with the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées.


Many Cracovians simply cannot imagine summer holidays without classical music. July resounds with the Festival of Polish Music, directed by Paweł Orski and juxtaposing compositions by Polish composers with European music. The festival’s forte are artists, including those at the threshold of their international careers, and an ambitious programme featuring performances of forgotten Polish operas and sacral works by composers such as Prince Józef Michał Poniatowski, Józef Elsner, Karol Kurpiński and Józef Kozłowski. The Wawel at Dusk Festival also resounds with Polish music performed by pianists from home and abroad, while the Music in Old Cracow Festival, starting on 15 August every summer, features world-famous instrumentalists, vocalists and conductors. As at other summertime music events, performances are held at concert halls, churches and synagogues, courtyards and university halls throughout the city.

Kraków today

As well as cherishing its history and heritage, Kraków is also proud of the here-and-now, as shown with myriad festivals showcasing contemporary and experimental music and events intertwining different genres and fields of the arts. Sacrum Profanum presented world premieres of works by Agata Zubel and Paweł Mykietyn’s opera The Magic Mountain. One of the greatest achievements of the festival, curated by Krzysztof Pietraszewski, was the premiere of the opera “ahat ilī – Sister of Gods”, commissioned especially for the event. Presented in autumn 2018, it featured music by Alek Nowak with a libretto by Olga Tokarczuk who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. As well as showcasing the musical avantgarde, the festival provides a platform for experimental and niche artists, presenting their work in unusual contexts and exploring issues facing today’s society. Marek Chołoniewski’s Audio Art Festival is an important event focusing on electroacoustic music with extensive references to the worlds of the multimedia, visual arts and science. A relatively recent initiative is the Spółdzielnia Muzyczna cooperative. Launched in summer 2018, it is hosted by the Spółdzielnia Muzyczna contemporary ensemble, specialising in performing classics of contemporary music, mainly in chamber line-ups. The cooperative presents concerts, performances and sound installations by bold young artists. The PWM Edition music publishing house, headquartered in Kraków, is a cultural institution on a Polish and European scale. Founded in 1945, PWM Edition publishes music scores and books, curates the heritage of Polish composers and co-organises festivals, competitions, multimedia projects and interactive apps.

On the red carpet

As we discuss Kraków’s music landscape, we mustn’t forget the distinctive and highly popular genre of film music. Acclaimed composers of cinematic scores Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz, Zygmunt Konieczny and Zbigniew Preisner have all studied and worked in Kraków, and the city hosts the highly popular Film Music Festival, directed by Robert Piaskowski. Since the inaugural festival held in 2008, Kraków has become an important centre for composers writing scores for cinema and TV and for filmmaking circles in general. The acclaimed festival presents grand concerts of film music, frequently performed live for the first time by celebrated symphonic orchestras and choirs. Some of recent guests of the FMF have been artists awarded the Oscars, Emmies and Golden Globes, including Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Howard Shore, Craig Armstrong, Trevor Morris and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. The cycle Scoring4Polish Directors presents soundtracks from films by masters of Polish cinematography such as Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Agnieszka Holland. The festival also promotes up-and-coming composers, and so far it has helped to launch the careers of Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz and Abel Korzeniowski.


As well as the city’s myriad concerts, festivals and events, Kraków’s musical atmosphere is shaped by sounds emanating from music schools and the Academy of Music and melodies resounding at Planty Garden Ring. The Kurant music café on the Main Market Square intertwines the aroma of coffee with beautiful strains. Ever since the Middle Ages, Kraków has been written for myriad voices, sounds and scores coming together to a create a unique, polyphonic city soundscape.

Mateusz Borkowski

Graduate from musicology at the Jagiellonian University, music critic and publicist and pedagogue. He works with Radio Kraków and the “Ruch Muzyczny” weekly. Author of two books. He developed a tour of Kraków’s musical world of the 19th and 20th centuries for the Polish Music Association.


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