Program Notes for Christmas In Poland & The Baltics


Today we present music of the season from Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. All of these countries have powerful national identities, which have been reinforced by their history of foreign occupation and Soviet domination. Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have strong traditions of music for the Christmas/winter solstice season. Estonia does not have as strong a tradition of Christmas music. However, choral singing in general is beloved, and Estonia experienced an almost explosive growth in Christmas choral music in the twentieth century.

Languages and Traditions

The Polish language is a member of the West Slavic branch of Slavic languages, along with the Czech and Slovak languages.

In Poland, the traditional Christmas feast occurs on Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, a day that holds equal importance with Christmas Day. Before the table is set, straw or hay is placed under a white tablecloth. An extra place is set for an unexpected visitor, as a reminder that the Holy Family was turned away from inns in Bethlehem and that those seeking shelter are welcome on this special night. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal consists of twelve dishes, one for each of the twelve apostles. Midnight Mass is another of Poland's Christmas traditions.

The Latvian and Lithuanian languages belong to the Indo-European language family, as does Polish. Estonian, on the other hand, is a Finnic language, together with neighboring Finland.

Estonians really experience their pre-Christian heritage during the season, with the winter solstice festivals a reminder of why December was chosen to celebrate Christ's birth. The winter solstice, December 21, is the shortest day of the year. It is called Jõulud in Estonia, which is also the Estonian word for Christmas. The first day of the festival, known as St. Thomas's Day, traditionally marked a period of rest after long preparations that included brewing beer, butchering animals, and preparing food.

Lithuanian Christmas traditions are a combination of old and new—Christian and pre-Christian. There are similarities with traditions from the other two Baltic nations, as well as with the traditions of Poland, whose past is linked with Lithuania's. In pre-Christian Lithuania, the Christmas celebration as we know it today was the celebration of the winter solstice. Christianity gave new meaning to old customs or introduced new ways to celebrate the religious holiday. As in Poland, the Christmas Eve feast traditionally consists of twelve meatless dishes.

Latvia’s most important traditions are much the same as those in the United States. Latvian Christmas customs, like elsewhere in Europe, are a combination of Christian tradition and pre- Christian celebration of the winter solstice. It is believed by some that Latvia first introduced the concept of the Christmas tree.


Mikołaj Zieleński (1560–1620) was a Polish composer, organist, and Kapellmeister to the primate Baranowski, Archbishop of Gniezno. We present offertory and communion music, and the Magnificat from his 1611 liturgical cycle, Offertoria/Communes totius anni, which contains his only surviving compositions. These consist of large-scale double- and triple-choir antiphons set either in the Venetian Baroque style or more simply in the style of early Monteverdi.

Sylvester Szarzynski (fl. 1692–1713) was a Polish composer and a Cistercian monk; virtually nothing else is known of his life. The level of technical competence displayed in his works indicates that he must have had significant formal training.

Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (c. 1665–1734) was a Polish Baroque composer. During his lifetime he was called the Polish Handel. Unfortunately none of his compositions were published during his lifetime, and most of them have been lost; thirty-nine works can, however, be attributed to him with certainty. Gorczycki used typical compositional devices of the Baroque, a mixture of the more austere stile antico as well as stile moderno featuring rich, concertato technique.

Lætentur cæli (Let the heavens rejoice), by Zieleński, is written for two equal choirs. The text (from Psalm 95) is used for the offertory for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. The homophonic call and response style is typical of Venetian composers of the era, such as Gabrieli.

Deus firmavit orbem terræ (God has established the world), by Zieleński is a double choir piece with imitative writing. From Psalm 93, this is the offertory for the Christmas Day Mass. Te lucis ante terminum (To you before the end of day), by Szarzyński, is not particularly meant for Christmas, but is used throughout the church year for Compline, the final service of the canonical hours, marking the completion of the day. As a contemplative service, Compline emphasizes spiritual peace.

Viderunt omnes fines terræ (All the ends of the earth have seen), by Zieleński, is a partial setting of Psalm 98 for Communion on Christmas Day. It features vigorous imitative writing and strong rhythmic alternation between duple and triple meter.

Tui sunt cæli (The heavens are yours), by Zieleński, is a double choir setting of Psalm 88, with a high choir/low choir configuration. In the Venetian style, this is another offertory for Christmas day.

Omni die dic Mariæ (Every day sing to Mary), by Gorczycki, is a setting of St. Casimir’s Hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is attributed to Bernard of Morlaix, monk of Cluny Abbey. It dates back to around 1150. This simple homophonic setting alternates triple and duple meters in stile antico.

Magnificat, by Zieleński, is an elaborate triple choir (high/regular/low) Venetian-style setting of the justly famous text, a song of praise from Mary’s lips in response to the Annunciation, the news that she has been chosen to give birth to the Savior.

W żłobie leży (In the manger he lies), arranged by David Willcocks (1919–2015), is one of the best-known Polish Christmas carols, and the tune can be found in hymnals throughout the world. Willcocks’s arrangement uses an English text; we have restored the original Polish.

Lulajże, Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus), arranged by Maciej Małecki (b. 1940), is the most popular Polish carol. A young and homesick Frederic Chopin incorporated this melody into the middle section of his B minor Scherzo. We thank Maciej Małecki for this special arrangement that he graciously made for the California Bach Society!


Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is an Estonian composer of classical and religious music. Pärt is one of the most performed living composers in the world. He frequently utilizes sacred texts, mostly in Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy instead of his native Estonian language.

Veljo Tormis (1930–2017) was an Estonian composer, regarded as one of the greatest living choral composers and one of the most important composers of the 20th century in Estonia. Internationally, his fame arises chiefly from his extensive body of choral music, which exceeds 500 choral songs, mostly a cappella. The great majority of these pieces are based on traditional ancient Estonian folksongs (regilaulud), either textually, melodically, or stylistically.

Bogoroditse Devo (Virgin Mother of God), by Pärt, is a vibrant tribute to the Virgin Mary, which is sung in the traditional Orthodox Church Slavonic language and alludes to traditional Orthodox compositional practices. Those listeners who are accustomed to Pärt’s usual “tintinnabuli” (his own word) compositional style will be surprised by the writing of this short and sprightly setting.

Virmalised (Northern lights), by Tormis, written for women’s voices, is a musical rendering of the shimmering mystery of the aurora, visible in the night skies of this northern country.

Jõulud Tulevad (Christmas is coming), by Tormis, is a rhythmic and vigorous song sung by the men that looks forward to the pleasures of Christmas and New Year’s Eve.


Juozas Gruodis (1884-1948) composed ballet music, symphonic poems, orchestral suites, works for choir and orchestra, solo and choral songs, and settings of Lithuanian folk songs. He is considered a major contributor to Lithuanian musical culture and nurtured many younger Lithuanian composers.

Jonas Govedas (1950 – 2015) was born in Lithuania, but moved with his parents first to England in 1952, then to Canada. He studied at the Toronto University of Music where he received a bachelor's degree. A pianist and organist, he was also associated with choirs and soloists and was very active in music education in the Toronto city schools. He was also very involved with Canadian and Lithuanian music festivals and wrote many compositions for these events.

Kūčios (Christmas Eve), by J. Zabulio, is a song of longing and waiting for the Christ Child, set for women’s voices.

Žiema (Winter), by Gruodis, describes a snowy landscape

Žemėn taiką nešu (I bring you peace on earth), by Govedas, for voices and piano, is a dialogue between the waiting souls and the Christ Child.


Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) was born in Priekule, Latvia. He studied at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary (1995–1997) before obtaining his master's degree in composition (2004) from the Latvian Academy of Music. From 2002–2011 he was a member of the State Choir Latvija. From 2011–2013 he was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, University of
Cambridge. Ešenvalds is a three-time winner of the Latvian Grand Music Award (2005, 2007, and 2015). Ešenvalds teaches at the Department of Composition of the Latvian Academy of Music.

Andrejs Jansons, (1937–2006) A Juilliard graduate, he was an accomplished composer, conductor, and oboist. But he was most proud of his forty-year tenure as the music director of the New York Latvian Choir. Jansons participated in American and Canadian festivals starting in the 1960s. His involvement with festivals in Latvia began in 1990; he said that no role represented him better than that of teacher and mentor to young people.

Magnificat (Ešenvalds) Each phrase of this setting starts out in unison or near unison, then adds layers of notes to form dense chords that resolve tonally, creating an effect of tension and release. The rhythm is chant-like and flexible. The “Gloria Patri” and the added “Nunc Dimittis” at the end feature a solo voice over sustained chords.

Three Latvian Carols (arr. Jansons):
Ziemassvētku nakts (Chrismas night) is a peaceful, hymn-like carol that describes a lovely Christmas evening of woods, snow, stars, and sounds.
Meklētāja ceļš (The seeker’s road) presents a tender image of winter, and the dawn that reminds the poet of the “rose” of Christ’s love.
Ai, nama māmiņa (O, mistress of the house). Mischevious mummers (masked revelers, dating back to a Roman tradition of the winter Saturnalia festival) go door to door, singing, dancing, and acting silly—similar to old “trick or treat” and wassailing traditions in other countries.

~ Patricia Jennerjohn