Musical Culture of Polish Benedictine Nuns in the 17th and 18th Centuries

by Magdalena Walter-Mazur (Author)
©2018 Monographs 332 Pages
Open Access


The study is the first monograph devoted to the musical culture of a female order in Poland. It is a result of in-depth research into musical, narrative, economic, and prosopographic sources surviving in libraries and archives. Focused on the musical practice of nuns, the book also points to the context of spirituality, morality, and culture of the post-Trident era. The author indicates the transformation of the musical activity of the nuns during the 17th and 18th century and discusses its various kinds: plainsong, Latin and Polish polyphonic song, polichoral, keyboard, vocal-instrumental and chamber music. She reflects on the role of music in liturgy and monastic events and in everyday life of cloistered women, describes the recruitment of musically gifted candidates, and the scriptorial activity of nuns.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Series page
  • Introduction
  • 1 Contexts. Female monasticism in the early modern era. The culture-creating role of the convent
  • 1.1 Post-Tridentine reform of convent life for women
  • 1.2 The nuns’ practice of music
  • 1.3 The regeneration and development of female convents in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during Counter-Reformation
  • 1.4 Reform of Chełmno and the founding campaign of Polish Benedictine Sisters. The culture-creating activities
  • 2 The musical culture of Benedictine nuns of the Chełmno congregation in the seventeenth century
  • 2.1 Abbess Magdalena Mortęska and her views on the role of music in the life of a monastic community. Music in the Polish editions of the Benedictine rule
  • 2.2 Recruitment of musically talented candidates and musical education at the convent
  • 2.3 Polyphony, alternatim practice and vocal-instrumental music in the convents in Chełmno, Toruń, Poznań and Radom in light of chronicle records
  • 3 Seventeenth-century musical sources from the convents of Benedictine nuns in Toruń and Jarosław
  • 3.1 Partbooks TorA and TorB held at the Diocesan Library in Pelplin
  • 3.2 Toruń manuscript Ms. Akc. Nr 127 held at the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences
  • 3.3 The Jarosław collection of two-choir compositions for female voices L1643 held at the Diocesan Library in Sandomierz
  • 4 The musical culture of Benedictine nuns of the Chełmno congregation in the eighteenth century
  • 4.1 The musical practice of nuns at the convents in Sandomierz, Lvov, Nieśwież, Jarosław and Przemyśl
  • 4.1.1 Sandomierz
  • 4.1.2 Lvov
  • 4.1.3 Nieśwież
  • 4.1.4 Jarosław
  • 4.1.5 Przemyśl
  • 4.2 Music as an element of convent celebrations
  • 4.3 Cantoresses, singers and instrumentalists. Examples of the professionalisation of nun-musicians
  • 5 Eighteenth-century musical sources from the convents of Benedictine nuns in Sandomierz, Przemyśl, Jarosław and Lvov
  • 5.1 Cantionals
  • 5.2 Organ books
  • 5.3 The didactic remarks Zrozumienie Consonancyi dobrych i złych [The Understanding of Good and Bad Consonances] in the organ book from Przemyśl
  • 5.4 Vocal-instrumental and instrumental compositions
  • 6 The musical life in the convents of Benedictine nuns of the Chełmno reform, Benedictine nuns from Staniątki and Poor Clares from Stary Sącz. A comparative perspective
  • 6.1 The musical culture of Benedictine nuns from Staniątki in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
  • 6.2 The musical culture of Clarist nuns from Stary Sącz during the eighteenth century
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I  Convents belonging to the Chełmno reform in chronological order
  • Appendix II  List of compositions from ms. L 1668 with concordances in the RISM database and Fabiańska’s collection from Stary Sącz
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • References
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Places

Eastern European Studies in Musicology

Edited by Maciej Gołąb

Editorial board

Mikuláš Bek (Brno)

Gražina Daunoravičienė (Vilnius)

Luba Kyjanovska (Lviv)

Mikhail Saponov (Moscow)

Adrian Thomas (Cardiff)

László Vikárius (Budapest)

Volume 12


In 2007, while looking through the microfilms held at the National Library, among plainchant manuscripts from Pelplin I quite accidentally came across a partbook with mensural notation. The title, which claimed that the book was notated by a nun of the Rule of Saint Benedict in Toruń in 1632, provided the starting point of my adventure of discovering the musical culture of Polish Benedictine Sisters. The reading of numerous works by Małgorzata Borkowska OSB, a historian of female monasticism, made me aware of the exceptional status of that order in the history of the Church in Poland, and the special character of the period from the end of the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries in its history. The extant chronicles, registers, ceremonials and other convent documents gradually allowed me to become better acquainted with the fascinating world of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nuns, where music, as an ornament of the liturgy and an expression of religious feeling, played an important part. A search of the materials revealed the fact that the surviving music collection left by the Benedictine nuns was, alongside the Pauline, Cistercian and Jesuit collections, one of the richest within the legacy of Poland’s monastic orders. In my research, I was able to consider 858 compositions preserved in versions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, among them 465 in complete form, with only 92 given attribution or identified. I was greatly encouraged to proceed with my research by the fact that many of the sources I used had not previously been present in the musicological discourse on the subject of the music of past centuries, or the information they contained had not been fully utilised.

Scholars researching Western monasticism are in agreement that the period from the end of the Council of Trent until the final decades of the eighteenth century, when under the influence of the social climate of the Enlightenment convents began to be dissolved, was the last phase of its vigorous development. In the title of this book, the time period of the discussed material is described as encompassing the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is an approximation since a few of the sources and some information also come from the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The use of the adjective “Polish” in the title of this volume was a deliberate decision based on the fact that, during the relevant period, recruitment to Benedictine nunneries involved almost exclusively persons of Polish extraction whose native tongue was Polish; Polish was also the language in which the Rule was published, and in which most of the information in the chronicles and documents was conveyed. ←11 | 12→Moreover, the post-Tridentine reform of the Chełmno branch of Benedictine Sisters and the school of spirituality, created at that time on the basis of various contemporary models, was the work of a Polish woman, Magdalena Mortęska, and had its own distinctive character. Although the attempt to create a uniform organisation of reformed Benedictine nunneries was unsuccessful, Borkowska introduced into the literature the term “Benedictine Sisters of the Chełmno congregation”, referring to the foundations with roots in Chełmno and Toruń. The nunnery at Staniątki, which had continuously existed since the Middle Ages, did not belong to this congregation and had few contacts with the other Benedictine convents. For this reason, the musical culture of that nunnery, which has its own literature,1 was not the subject of my research and appears in the final chapter only for purposes of comparison. When investigating the extant musical sources, I concentrated on music created during the defined period, ignoring the repertory in the surviving liturgical books. Plainchant and plainchant books are discussed only as part of the musical and scribal practice of Benedictine nuns.

Sources document the fact that the nuns of the Chełmno reform cultivated various musical genres and styles, which for the purposes of the discussion undertaken here I have described as professional practice. The reason is that to pursue such practice the nuns not only had to be talented and have good voices, but they also had to have musical training in the skills of reading and transcribing music, performing polyphonic works, playing instruments, solo singing and realising basso continuo, the partially improvised organ accompaniment. In this kind of practice, the nuns used music repertory, probably obtained in various ways, which was created for professional music ensembles and as a rule required significant performance competence. During the seventeenth century, we can include vocal polyphony and organ play in the professional practice of the Benedictine nuns. The alternatim practice, involving the alternating use of vocal polyphony, chant and organ fragments, also played a part in giving the liturgy a musical setting. During the eighteenth century, the range of musical genres being practised was significantly extended and changed its character; the nuns cultivated vocal-instrumental religious music intended for the kinds of typical scoring at that time: from solo voice accompanied by the so-called ←12 | 13→Kirchentrio, to more extended scores for a number of vocal parts and differentiated instrumental parts2. Moreover, they would perform instrumental chamber compositions, as well as solo works for keyboard instruments.

Among Benedictine nunneries of the Chełmno reform to date, it has been mainly the convent in Sandomierz which has been known in the musicological literature for its musical activity3. However, even that excellent music collection has not as yet been subjected to a thorough study. Three M. A. students at the Lublin Catholic University undertook a study of an organ manuscript belonging to the legacy of Benedictine Sisters from Przemyśl4, while an initial study of the music collection as a whole was undertaken by Tadeusz Maciejewski5. Three partbooks of Toruń provenance were merely mentioned in publications by Edward Hinz6, Paweł Podejko7 and ←13 | 14→Barbara Przybyszewska-Jarmińska8. Manuscript 127 from the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences was known and catalogued9 for the RISM database together with the whole of that library’s collection, but it was only while I was researching this source that its Toruń provenance was established. Works from the organ book of a Sandomierz Benedictine nun, Jadwiga Dygulska, drew the attention of Jerzy Gołos10, while Roman Pelczar included in an article a few sentences about the musical life of Benedictine nuns from Jarosław11. Relying on the achievements of the researchers listed here, as well as my own research into all accessible sources, I attempt in this volume to create a narrative picture of a bygone musical culture of Polish Benedictine nuns. That culture grew out of their need to adorn their worship, but also perhaps the need to achieve self-realisation through musical practice. The numerous works of Małgorzata Borkowska, as well as the earlier works by Karol Górski, were of fundamental importance in providing the context for the musical culture of Benedictine nuns of the Chełmno congregation. Extremely helpful were also the publications of Jolanta Gwioździk devoted to the library collection and the intellectual culture of the nuns, as well as the research of Anna Szylar, which concentrated on the history of the convent in Sandomierz. A wider European context was provided for this study by many interesting monographs devoted to the musical culture of nuns, mainly Italian12, but also ←14 | 15→German13, Austrian14 and Spanish15, published mainly in English. Religious, social and cultural contexts relating to the functioning of the musical culture of Polish Benedictine nuns, as well as their European parallels, are discussed in the chapter 1.

The research presented here relied primarily on sources. Alongside sources containing musical compositions, I also tried to make use of all accessible texts of different kinds, such as convent chronicles, directoria, ceremonials, registers, menologia, correspondence, account books and even household documents. Not many of them have been published in our time, the majority of them are accessible in archives, also in the form of microfilms. Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 present a picture of the musical culture of Polish Benedictine nuns of the Chełmno congregation, based on information taken from all these sources. In view of the significant differences in the musical style and the functioning of music in nunneries between the two consecutive centuries, as well as the period of decline of musical practice caused by wars in the second half of the seventeenth century, I discuss the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries separately. In the final, sixth, chapter I present, for purposes of comparison, the musical culture of the convent at Staniątki and the convent of Poor Clare Sisters in Stary Sącz. That chapter is based mainly on the literature of the subject.

While conducting my research into the musical culture of Polish Benedictine nuns I encountered much friendly interest, help and support from many people. Particularly inspiring were contacts with Professor Barbara Przybyszewska-Jarmińska, Rev. Sister Dr Małgorzata Borkowska, Professor Marek Derwich and Professor Ryszard Wieczorek. I owe a great deal to my Colleagues: Irena Bieńkowska, Jolanta Gwioździk, Tomasz Jeż, Alina Mądry, Agnieszka Leszczyńska, Aleksandra Patalas, Danuta Popinigis, Danuta Szlagowska and Anna Szylar. Conversations with them, their knowledge and experience have left their mark on this volume. I very much appreciate the help given freely by ←15 | 16→Professor Noel O’Reagan, Dr Coleen Baade, Irena Rybicka M. A., Dr Marcin Konik and Dr Maciej Jochymczyk. I remember with great gratitude my recently deceased colleague Elżbieta Wojnowska, who worked for many years at the RISM centre at the National Library in Warsaw and who patiently helped me find my way among the secrets of source and repertory research, willingly sharing her knowledge. I have grateful memories of the consecutive Directors of the Diocesan Library in Sandomierz, Rev. Dr Andrzej Barzycki and Rev. Dr Andrzej Jakóbczak, as well as of the Director of the Diocesan Archive in Pelplin, Rev. Professor Anastazy Nadolny. My thanks also go to the Benedictine Sisters at Krzeszów, Przemyśl and Żarnowiec for their hospitality.

None of my plans for the intended research could have been realised without the financial support of the grant which I received from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education/National Science Centre (NN 105 022038), and also without the support of my home institution, the Institute of Musicology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

1See primarily S. Dąbek, Wielogłosowy repertuar kancjonałów staniąteckich (XVI-XVIII) (Polyphonic Repertory of the Staniątki Cantionals (16th-18th ct.)), Lublin 1997, and the most recent volume Monografia zespołu muzycznego oraz katalog muzykaliów klasztoru ss. Benedyktynek w Staniątkach (Monograph of the Musical Ensemble and Catalogue of the Musical Collection of the Convent of the Benedictine Sisters in Staniątki), ed. M. Konik, Kraków 2016.

2On the subject of scoring for eighteenth-century church ensembles, see A. Mądry, Barok, część druga 1697–1795. Muzyka religijna i jej barokowy modus operandi (Baroque, part two 1697–1795. Religious music and its baroque modus operandi), Warszawa 2013, pp. 374–378.

3W Świerczek, Katalog rękopiśmiennych zabytków muzycznych Biblioteki Seminarium Duchownego w Sandomierzu (Catalogue of musical manuscripts heritage at the Library of the Clerical Seminary in Sandomierz), Archiwa, Biblioteki i Muzea Kościelne 1965/10, pp. 223–278; W Łyjak, Przyczynki do dziejów muzyki u Panien Benedyktynek w Sandomierzu (Contributions to the history of music at the Benedictine nunnery in Sandomierz), RM 1983/16, p. 26.

4T. Bratkowski, Repertuar polskich śpiewów religijnych w rękopisach Panien benedyktynek w Przemyślu (Repertory of Polish religious chants in the manuscripts of Benedictine Sisters in Przemyśl), M. A. thesis, Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski, 1991; J. Hertling, Kompozycje organowe z XVIII-wiecznego rękopisu klasztoru Panien benedyktynek w Przemyślu (Eighteenth-century organ compositions from a Benedictine Sisters’ manuscript in Przemyśl), M. A. thesis, Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski 1992; M. Kawczyńska, Fugi organowe z rękopisu ms.10 z klasztoru benedyktynek przemyskich. Problem faktury, formy i funkcji (Organ fugues from manuscript ms. 10 from the convent of Benedictine Sisters in Przemyśl. Texture, form and function), M. A. thesis, Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski 1989.

5T. Maciejewski, Notatki z przeszłości muzycznej benedyktynek przemyskich (Notes on the musical past of Benedictine Sisters from Przemyśl), Musica Galiciana 1999/III, pp. 87–104.

6E. Hinz, Z dziejów muzyki kościelnej w diecezji chełmińskiej (From the History of Church Music in the Chełmno Diocese), Pelplin 1994.

7P. Podejko, Dawna muzyka polska na terenie dzisiejszego województwa bydgoskiego i Pomorza Gdańskiego (Early Polish music in the area of today’s Bydgoszcz voivodship and Gdańsk Pomerania), in: Życie muzyczne dawnego Gdańska, Pomorza i Kujaw (Musical Life of Old Gdańsk, Pomerania and Kujawy), Gdańsk 1980.

8B. Przybyszewska-Jarmińska, Barok. Część pierwsza 1595-1696 (Baroque. Part one 1595-1696), Warszawa 2006.

9D. Szlagowska, Repertuar muzyczny z siedemnastowiecznych rękopisów gdańskich (Music Repertory from Seventeenth-century Manuscripts from Gdańsk), Gdańsk 2005.

10J. Dygulska, Książka do chóru do grania (ukończona przed 1796) (A Book for the Choir to Play (completed prior to 1796)), ed. J. Gołos, Warszawa 2012. This is an edition of solo compositions for a keyboard instrument from manuscript BDS and L 1668. This publication is difficult to obtain and lacks a critical apparatus. Prior to this edition, a number of pieces from the manuscript in question appeared in: Barokowe organy ze Swornigaci na Pomorzu. Wybór utworów na małe organy lub inne instrumenty klawiszowe (Baroque organ from Swornigacie in Pomerania. A selection of compositions for small organ or other keyboard instruments), from Polish sources from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, prepared for publication by J. Gołos, issue 2, Bydgoszcz 1982.

11R. Pelczar, Życie muzyczne w kościołach i klasztorach Jarosławia (Musical life in the churches and convents of Jarosław), Nasza Przeszłość 107/2007, pp. 5–38.

12C. Monson, Disembodied Voices. Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent, Berkeley 1995, R. Kendrick, Celestial Sirens. Nuns and their Music in Early Modern Milan, Oxford 1996. C. Reardon, Holy Concord within Sacred Walls. Nuns and Music in Siena1575–1700, Oxford 2002.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (December)
Female monasticism Musical manuscripts Music in the Catholic church Music in liturgy Music in monastic events Polish female cloisters
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 329 pp., 27 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Magdalena Walter-Mazur (Author)

Magdalena Walter-Mazur is Professor at the Institute of Musicology of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Her current interests include the musical culture of female convents in the 17th and 18th century. She combines her interest in the relations between music, spirituality, and social life with archival study.


Title: Musical Culture of Polish Benedictine Nuns in the 17th and 18th Centuries
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
333 pages