Reconstructing, Performing & Recording Marcin Mielczewski’s ‘Vesperae Dominicales' for 50th Wratislavia Cantans Festival

The National Forum of Music in Wrocław commissioned me to 'recreate' cornett and sackbutt parts for Marcin Mielczewski's Vesperae Dominicales. The original version of the piece has eight vocal parts, two violin parts, a dulcian part and basso continuo, though historical sources indicate that this would have been extended to include cornetts and sackbutts in a later version. A later manuscript from Gdansk (1688) includes only the final movement of the work, with written out sackbutt parts. This movement, the Magnificat, was to provide the analytical basis on which I would be able to 're-develop' or 'recreate' suitable cornett and sackbutt parts for the earlier movements. We would use these parts to perform a concert in Wrocław Cathedral and another in Bardo for the 50th Wratislawia Cantans Festival before recording the work in the new concert hall at the National Forum of Music.

Marcin Mielczewski - 'Vesperae Dominicales'

 a otto voci e tre strumenti con basso continuo

Marcin Mielczewski was a Renaissance Polish composer. We know little of his biography, including precisely when or where he was born or indeed the exact details of where and with whom he studied composition. By 1632 he was working as a composer at the Royal Chapel in Warsaw under Władisław IV. He became the Kapellmeister in the service of the King’s younger brother Prince Charles Ferdinand Vasa, who was the bishop of Wrocław and Płock. Finally, we know that he died in September 1651 in Warsaw. 

"120 of his works are known by title of which 70 survive complete in source material… [Mielczewski’s] surname (or monogram) can be found on copies of works originating not only in territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but also in Slovakia, Silesia, Denmark and Germany"

- Elžbieta Zwolińska - Wratislavia Cantans, Programme Notes

On the 14th of September 2015, around 364 years after his death, we were to perform Marcin Mielczewski's 'Vesperae Dominicales' (Sunday Vespers) in Wrocław Cathedral.

I was invited to participate in this project by the director of the National Forum of Music, Andrzej Kosendiak. The project would involve two concerts in the 50th Wratislava Cantans festival and it would result in recording a CD in the new concert hall. The director had read and researched this work and he found that the original 'Wrocław version' would most probably have had cornetto and sackbutt parts. I was booked to play the cornett and I was asked to invite the other cornett and sackbutt players for the project. Additionally, I was asked if I would be willing to 'reconstruct' the cornett and sackbutt parts for the 'Wrocław version'. I agreed. I began researching, sketching ideas and booking the players at the end of June 2015 before undertaking the typesetting of the parts in July and August.

"The work is scored for a four-part vocal ensemble of soprano, alto, tenor, bass; two violins, bassoon and organ with a historically warranted possibility of enlarging the performance forces by trombones and cornetts."

- Elžbieta Zwolińska - Wratislavia Cantans, Programme Notes

Recreating the cornett and sackbutt parts might sound like a relatively simple task but in reality it raised several musicological and practical issues.

Firstly, I wanted to work in such a way that the edits that I would make to the work would be removable and non-invasive. In other words, I wanted it to be clear from looking at the parts what was in the original version and what was modern. Perhaps paradoxically, I also wanted the parts to be clear to read in a performance situation. Resultantly, when dividing out the violin parts to make an 'arrangement' between the cornetts and violins, I adopted a system of using cue-sized symbols for anything that had been omitted from the original violin part. I also decided to do the inverse in the cornetto part, including cues from the violin part. This was in case the director wanted us to play anything outside what I had arranged. This meant that everything was easily interchangeable and flexible, though I had still given clear indications and suggestions of when to play. This was useful for us and it will be especially useful in case anyone ever re-uses these parts with more limited rehearsal time. The ability to make last-minute changes proved to be particularly important for us, as I had such little contact with the musical director prior to the first rehearsal. He was exceptionally busy overseeing the opening of the new concert hall and I was trusted to carry out the work independently. He was very complimentary of the work I had done and he made only a few slight changes to suit his personal preference, which I was very open towards.


The task of making this 'reconstruction' was also perhaps slightly complicated by the modern history of the Vesperae Dominicales. Most of the ensemble, including all of the singers, would still be using the Zygmunt Szweykowski edition (1962) derived from the undated primary source at the Archdiocesan Archives at Kroměříž in Moravia. Fortunately this seems to be a good edition. However, the first question was, should the parts I 'recreate' be influenced by this modern source? Then, to add to the potential confusion - Szweykowski's 1962 edition also has a modern organ realisation by Kazimierz Sikorski. I needed to decide whether the new version with reconstructed trombone and cornetto parts should fit with these sources as well.

To add to the mix, one of the historical manuscripts of the Magnificat from this piece was made in 1688 - 37 years after Mielczewski’s death. This manuscript included trombone parts and an indication of violino and cornettini on what had been purely violin parts in the older version. Were these definitely written by Mielczewski and copied later, or were they written by somebody else? Does it even matter whether somebody else wrote the trombone parts as they still have provenance of being from the 17th Century?

"G. Nauverck, a musician from Gdańsk, having added the parts of two cornettini - doubling two violins, viola bass - doubling some of the bassoon part and violone gross, repeating the basso continuo, and three trombones, the lowest of which doubles the bassoon or basso continuo, while the two others are more independent."

Zygmunt Szweykowski  
- Translated by Marianna Abrahamowicz
 - Early Polish Music Publications

As you can see, it was beginning to become quite complicated. To add to this fact, I really didn’t know what to call this creation. Would I be abusing the term 'reconstruction'? Was this an attempt at emulation, replication, version-reconstruction, style-copying, re-imagining or worse, forgery? I suppose I wanted to be able to understand the original work so deeply that I would develop a competence or scenario-based 'sixth sense' of what the composer may have done in a similar situation. Analogous to developing a linguistic skill, I wanted to be able to gain "the ability to extrapolate new but correct expressions in a foreign language and to reject unacceptable ones", to borrow the words of Bruce Haynes. There are certainly no shortcuts towards this and I felt that this could only be achieved by spending a lot of time analysing what was written.

Of course the way I would write for cornetts and sackbutts would be inevitably influenced by the music I know from other contemporary and geographically plausible influences - composers like Mikołaj Zieleński, Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli etc. The practical thought in the back of the mind that 'we have to record this' probably exercised some influence too.

As I began planning the reconstruction, I was aware of the issues raised in Bruce Haynes' The End of Early Music. For instance, what do we do when we run out of canonised music? One of Haynes' possible solutions was to create more in style-copies - or to borrow, adapt and edit other existing music with a sense of freedom, as they commonly did with rhetorical music in and around the 17th and 18th centuries.

After consultation with the director, it was agreed for practical reasons that the reconstructed parts should work with the 1962 edition (including the bar numbers etc.) and that I should include the trombone parts, verbatim, from the 1688 version in the fifth movement - the Magnificat. It was then down to me to create similarly-styled trombone parts in the four preceding movements and to designate where the cornetts and violins should play together, independently, in a mixed consort or colla voce. Initially, I was hesitant about starting from the 1962 version. Though after considering the 17th-century ideals of the piece, I came around to the idea. Including cornetts and sackbutts in the 1688 version would have been an addition to the original version of the piece, rather than an integral part of the original. I decided that adding to a completed work (in this case, a complete edition) would place me in a similar scenario to the original composer, regardless of whether the trombone parts were written by Mielczewski or Nauverck. I hoped that if the starting-point was similar, the results would be more likely to be similar.

It was not necessary for me to submit a complete score of the work to the orchestra, as they were mostly using the Szweykowski edition. Although I did have to provide fresh violin, cornetto and sackbutt parts. To satisfy the perfectionist in me, I decided to make a full score anyway. I wanted to be able to easily provide cues and lyrics from the vocal parts in the instrumental parts. It gave me a clear idea of what was going on in the texture as I was writing the music, allowing me to view the score in its complete form. It also helped to avoid errors and inconsistent bars and numbers, so it was definitely worth doing - despite the extra work and time involved.

Vesperae Dominicales is a a five-movement work embracing four psalms: Dixit Dominus, Confitebor tibi DomineBeatus vir, Laudate pueri, followed by a Magnifciat.

I began the process of 'recreating' the trombone parts by looking at the existing trombone parts that are found in only the 5th movement in the 1688 Gdańsk manuscript. I wrote them out and analysed their musical function. I deduced that the trombones:

  • double the choir when the cappellae voices double the concertans voices
  • trombone terzo e maggiore’ occasionally reinforces the basso continuo line
  • the first and second trombones accompany the tenor and alto voices in what could be described as an obbligato part
I then considered whether the reconstructed cornett and sackbutt parts should be:

  • used symbolically in relation to the meaning of the Latin psalm texts
  • required in all of the tutti sections
  • used independently, and if so to what extent. 
I also consciously tried to keep the reconstructed sackbutt parts within a similar range and difficulty level (within tolerance) to the parts from the Magnificat in the 1688 Gdansk manuscript. Though this would mostly be discerned from the cappellae voice parts, as the trombones would play many of these sections colla voce. In the instrumental sections I wanted the instruments to be capable of handling what would be written for them without going to the extremes of the instruments and without deviating too far from Mielczewski's style.

There was an instance where I had decided to omit the voice doubling for a few bars in-between two tutti sections in the first movement, Dixit Dominus. I felt that the addition of cornetts and sackbutts might have somewhat inhibited a suspension-filled, harmonically undulating and intimate moment before the next large tutti section, only a few bars later. After writing something that I was initially quite proud of, I decided to delete it from the score. I thought that it might have undermined the sense of intimacy between the two tutti sections. I also felt that it was probably not essential and that the tacet in the cornetts and sackbutts in these bars would add to the dramatic effect of the tutti a few bars later. After the first rehearsal, the director asked me to write something in these bars for the trombones. I knew I should have kept what I had originally! Anyway, I re-wrote these bars, including the exact voice doubling in an ossia staff above - providing a different, more elaborate option below (an ornamented version of the voice doubling). This would allow the players or the director to decide which would be more in keeping with the style. With these rising scales, I was initially afraid that this section might sound a little too much like Monteverdi. Eventually, I decided that these bars were worthy of ornamented indulgence on account of the meaning of the words from Pslam 111 - Magna opera Domini, exquisita in omnes voluntates eius (Ever his deeds are high and glorious, faithful he abides to all eternity).


I listened to the music being played by MIDI sounds. This gave me an idea of the expression of the harmony without the distraction of expressivity coming from human players. I re-listened to the piece following a translation of the latin text and noting the symbolism of the words and where it would be symbolically appropriate to include cornetts and/or sackbutts. I spent over ten hours a day for most of the summer, working on this project and fitting it around my other commitments. 

After the writing element, the performing element began.

I arrived at the first rehearsal on Saturday, 12th of September 2015, finding all of the wind and violin parts on the music stand. I was delighted by how the parts had been printed and with how they looked. We began a rehearsal without the other cornett player and sackbutts, as the others were travelling to Wrocław at that time. I was in Wrocław already as I had been participating in another project, so I went to this rehearsal to understand the director's intentions. I would be relaying these details to the dulcian player, the other cornett player, and the three sackbutt players in a sectional rehearsal at 6pm that evening. After the first rehearsal, the violinists in particular complimented me on how clear and well-written they thought the parts were. I was very happy to recieve such a compliment.

Russell Gilmour - Cornetto
David Staff - Cornetto
Martyn Sanderson - Sackbutt
Daniel Serafini - Sackbutt
Fabio De Cataldo - Bass Sackbutt 
William Lyons - Dulcian

Bartłomiej Pękiel – Missa Pulcherrima [a cappella]
Marcin Mielczewski – Vesperae Dominicales

We had a full day of rehearsals on Sunday 13th of September with the director. He made a few changes of instrumentation between the violins and the cornetti but other than that the parts stayed intact. This was the first time that any of us had heard the realised cornett and sackbutt parts with the whole ensemble. After the first play-through, the director remarked that I had done a great job. I was very relieved that he thought so and I was pleased that it all sounded so good. We rehearsed for the whole day, paying particular attention to the text of the singers and matching these shapes within the instrumental parts.

On Monday 14th September we travelled to Bardo, a small Silesian town on the Nysa Kłodzka river, around 2 hours southwest of Wrocław. We rehearsed in the 'Bazylika Mniejsza Nawiedzenia'. The promoters of the concert invited us to a nearby restaurant for an excellent meal before the concert. We performed Marcin Mielczewski's Vesperae Dominicales in the highly ornate 'Bazylika Mniejsza Nawiedzenia' to a very appreciative audience. We travelled back to Wrocław after the concert.


The next day we rehearsed in the afternoon, before the concert in Wrocław Cathedral. Rostrums had been brought into the Cathedral to raise up the players and singers around the back of the ensemble. The musicians looked magnificent on these platforms and underneath the spotlights. The music sounded wonderful in the large acoustic within Wrocław Cathedral. The concert was very memorable and it attracted a huge audience, rapturous applause and media attention - with photographers, videographers and reviewers present. I was very proud of my role within the project and I was very pleased that it had been a success, though the concerts were done - the project was not over yet.


 Photograph © Bogusław Beszłej - National Forum of Music Archive

Photograph © Bogusław Beszłej - National Forum of Music Archive

Andrzej Kosendiak - Director


Aldona Bartnik & Agnieszka Ryman – Soprano
Piotr Olech & Piotr Łykowski – Countertenor
Maciej Gocman & Karol Kozłowski - Tenor
Tomáš Král & Bogdan Makal - Bass

Photograph © Bogusław Beszłej - National Forum of Music Archive

Photograph © Russell Gilmour

edgePhotograph © Russell Gilmour

edgePhotograph © Russell Gilmour

Before our departure on Thursday morning, we had just one day left to record the entire piece for a CD release. The original schedule for Wednesday showed recording sessions from 10:00 to 19:00. These were planned for the Red Hall. The director consulted the ensemble to ask if it would be possible to change the schedule to facilitate using the main hall. The Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra had to rehearse and give a concert in the main hall for the majority of the day, though it was free for a time in the morning and again in the late evening. It was agreed to change the schedule so that we could record in the main hall. It has special recording box and acoustic control, with the ability to change the acoustic from 1 second to 16 seconds of ambient reverb. [See my earlier post about the opening concert]. It would be the first CD recording to take place in the new hall.

We started with a recording session in the monring, in which we managed to record three out of the five movements. We came back at 10pm after the Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra's concert, and began recording again as soon as the stage assistants could clear the chairs from the stage and as soon as the recording engineers could set up the microphones in the same manner as before. The organ also had to be moved and retuned. Remarkably, this took only around an hour and we started to record just after 11pm. We finally finished recording the Mielczewski's Vesperae Dominicales at around 1:30am, after what had been a very enjoyable recording session. It was so great to hear the fantastic musicians that had come together for this project. The standard of singing was also remarkable. I am really looking forward to hearing the resulting CD.


Cornetts & Sackbutts - (L-R): Russell Gilmour, David Staff, Martyn Sanderson, Daniel Serafini and Fabio De Cataldo.

Martyn Sanderson - Sackbutt

Andrzej Sasin - Recording Producer

William Lyons - Dulcian


Violins: (L-R) Mikołaj Zgółka - Violin II, Zbigniew Pilch - Violin I

Přemysl Vacek - Theorbo


Marta Niedźwiecka - Organ

We departed the Orbis Hotel in Wrocław very early, leaving at 0350, ready for the 0600 flight back to London. 

I was absolutely delighted with the whole project and it was an honour to work with these wonderful musicians and great people. In reality, this project tested every part of my musicianship, combining most of the skills I have learnt in the profession so far. Creating the reconstruction required knowledge of 17th-century style, harmony, voice-leading, figured-bass realisation, ficta, symbolism, word-painting, phrasing, music engraving and proof-reading. Fixing the players required finding the contacts, planning schedules, organising travel arrangements and making sure everyone was well looked-after. I really enjoyed the challenge and I learnt a lot along the way. It was very rewarding to see a project through from the beginning to completion and I would like to thank everybody involved. I would particularly like to thank Oliwia Grela and Olga Kwiatek for their administrative and organisational help, and thanks also go to Andrzej Kosendiak and Marta Niedźwiecka for their musical assistance and linguistic guidance.

[Journal completed 15th February 2016]
[Apple Music added 22/11/2017]

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.