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Stanisław Moniuszko – the May Composer of the Month


On May 5th, the bicentenary of Stanisław Moniuszko’s birth will be celebrated throughout Poland. PWM Edition has already begun its celebrations earlier, and announced Stanisław Moniuszko our May COMPOSER OF THE MONTH.


Our publishing house has been preparing for this anniversary for many months, engaging in a number of attractive projects, from obvious ones (sheet music editions and reissues, books and digital publications) to a cycle of extremely interesting tutorials and presentations dedicated to that composer’s oeuvre, held in collaboration with Poland’s best singers. Our regular feature known as COMPOSER OF THE MONTH involves a 50% discount for all our available Moniuszko publications, valid until the end of May. We inaugurate the month, as usual, with our selected composer’s personal alphabet. What can the successive letters of the alphabet tell us about Stanisław Moniuszko? Read and check with us.


A is for Aleksandra

Moniuszko’s great love; his wife, mother of his ten children. He called her by the pet names Olesia, Omka and Omtaszek. She was born into the Vilnius-based Müller family, with which the teenage composer stayed in that city in 1836, giving the young lady several lessons of the aeolomelodicon. It was most likely at that time that affection developed between the two. However, before Moniuszko could marry his chosen one (in 1840 at the Church of Christ the Redeemer in Antokol, now Antakalnis, in Vilnius), the composer had to fulfil the expectations of his future parents-in-law by obtaining an adequate education, for which purpose he travelled to Berlin. The strength of the love between him and Alexandra is evident from the surviving letters that he wrote to her: “Love me with my love, and you’ll be sure that you are loved by Your own heart” (Letters, p. 150).


B is for Berlin

Moniuszko wrote about the Prussian metropolis: “I am now living in the Berlin capital of music and I have music galore here, from morning till late in the night” (Letters, p. 47). He came to Berlin in 1837 to study under Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen, professor of that city’s Singakademie. His three-year stay in Berlin bore fruit not only in the form of new works and knowledge of composition techniques but, importantly, the publication of several of his songs by prestigious Berlin-based publishers such as Bote & Bock and A. M. Schlesinger – a fact that was commented upon in the opinion-forming Leipzig newspaper “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung”.


C is for Chęciński

Moniuszko’s close friend Jan Chęciński (1826–1874) gained fame first and foremost as his leading librettist (Verbum nobile, The Haunted Manor, Paria, Beata). He wrote poetry, theatrical plays (such as A Noble Soul), and texts for children. He was also an actor and theatre director, as well as a highly regarded translator from the French and Italian languages (he translated, among others, numerous libretti, including those of operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Jacques François Halévy). As a playwright he followed the comic models worked out by Aleksander Fredro. His libretti for Verbum nobile and The Haunted Manor present an idealised vision of the Polish medium-ranking nobility (szlachta kontuszowa), thus contributing to the development of the so-called Polish style in stage art.


D stands for directing orchestras

Moniuszko gained his first experiences as a conductor already during his Berlin studies. On 2nd November 1840 he conducted Mozart’s Requiem at St John’s Church in Vilnius, and less than a month later, on November 30th, he led an orchestra in excerpts from works by Mendelssohn, Spontini, Beethoven and Haydn. Moniuszko was most active as a conductor when he directed the opera of the Warsaw Government Theatres, where, apart from other Polish operas, he also conducted his own works.


E is for Elonek

This is the diminutive name the composer used for his daughter Elżbieta (Elisabeth), the addressee of many of his letters. A gifted graphic artist, she obtained a patent from the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw, which allowed her to teach drawing and painting. In 1866, together with the painter Kazimierz Krzyżanowski, she began to give drawing and woodcut lessons to young girls from well-to-do families. Elżbieta Moniuszko’s graphic works were printed by such major Polish periodicals as “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, “Kłosy”, and others.


F is for Fołtyn

Maria Fołtyn (1924–2012) was likely the best known enthusiast and indefatigable promoter of Moniuszko’s works. This dramatic soprano became the most famous Halka in modern history; she also sang Moniuszko’s songs. Her genuine admiration for Moniuszko’s music, combined with her earlier theatre directing studies at Warsaw’s PWST (National Academy of Dramatic Art) – bore fruit in the form of original productions of Moniuszko’s complete operas. It was Fołtyn – the singer who claimed that Moniuszko “made and organised her life” – who had Halka staged in such remote places as Cuba, Mexico, Japan and Turkey. She was also the founder and long-time President of the Society of Admirers of Stanisław Moniuszko’s Music.


G is for Gebethner i Wolff

Warsaw’s most important publishing house, whose owners were Gustaw Gebethner and Robert Wolff. It specialised in sheet music publications. The two partners, perfectly aware of the unique value of Moniuszko’s works, bought from him the publishing rights for Halka for the then exorbitant price of a thousand roubles. Published by Gebethner and Wolff, the score of that famous opera was for many decades unique in Polish music printing history as the only Polish opera available in print.


H is for Halka and Hrabina (The Countess)

Moniuszko’s two operas to libretti by Włodzimierz Wolski. Halka (in its two versions: two-act from Vilnius and four-act, staged in Warsaw) remains, along with The Haunted Manor, the most famous Polish Romantic opera. It recounts the tragic fate of a poor highland girl seduced by Janusz, a young nobleman, who later – though not without some regret – jilts her for the noblewoman Zofia.

In The Countess, the plot revolves around preparations for a great ball. Moniuszko’s contemporaries spitefully called this opera “a torn skirt tragedy”, since its central point comes when Kazimierz, in love with the countess, accidentally damages her dress. This perfectly constructed comic opera exploits the theme – popular in the 18th and 19th centuries – of the conflict between enthusiasts of traditional culture of the nobility and modern Western influences (symbolised respectively by the noble robe called kontusz and the tailcoat). Naturally, in a Polish opera the tradition must sure win in the end.


I stands for Warsaw Music Institute

Moniuszko began his collaboration with this most important of Warsaw’s educational institutions for musicians in 1864, taking over the choral class. After a brief interval in his teaching, caused by a conflict with the violinist Apolinary Kątski, Director of the Institute, he soon returned to this school as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation and composition. It was with for his Warsaw students in mind that he wrote and published his Diary for the Teaching of Harmony. Work at the Institute was a source of many problems for the composer, because he frequently found this job hard to reconcile with his other plans and professional obligations.


J is for Jawnuta

This two-act musical idyll by Moniuszko – originally entitled The Gypsies – was written in 1850 to a libretto by Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin. The same text had been used in the 18th century for an opera with music by Michał Kazimierz Ogiński or Wincenty Lessel, presented to Princess Izabela Czartoryska. Moniuszko’s work was premiered on 20th May 1852 in Vilnius. Its second, revised version, entitled Jawnuta, was staged on 5th June 1860 in Warsaw. Gypsy culture was considered an exotic subject in the 19th century; the idyll tells the story of peasant children kidnapped in the past by Gypsies travelling in a train of wagons.


K is (Polish) for cantata

Moniuszko considered the cantata (Pol. kantata) “immeasurably superior to the opera in every respect” (Letters, p. 198) and valued it, most of all, because its non-stage form allowed for the presentation of even the most fantastic contents. Moniuszko’s cantatas are predominantly secular pieces, such as Milda and Niyola (based on Józef Ignacy Kraszewski ‘s epic poem Witolorauda), as well as The Spectres (after Mickiewicz’s The Ancestors, Part Two), and The Crimean Sonnets.


L is for the Litanies of Ostra Brama

These four religious pieces composed in 1843–1855 in Vilnius are an expression of Moniuszko’s particular veneration for the Virgin Mary in her miraculous image whose shrine is in the Vilnius Gate of Dawn. It is reported that before he “left home to conduct his own opera, he locked himself in his study and kneeled in front of the image of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, commending himself to her care – and this was a habit that he would never neglect” (Walicki, p. 48). Moniuszko set the text of the Litany of Loreto with minor modifications. The litanies take the form of choral cantatas with solo parts and ensemble sections, and are scored for varied orchestral line-ups. Only Litany of Ostra Brama No. 4 in C Major has been preserved to our time in a version for choir and piano. Litany No. 3 in E Minor was dedicated by the composer to Gioacchino Rossini.


M is for masses

Moniuszko wrote seven masses. Three of these are settings of Latin texts (Mass in E Flat major, 1865; Mass in D Flat Major, 1870; Requiem Mass in G Minor, 1871), while the other four, referred to as the ‘Polish masses’, use Polish-language paraphrases of the Latin liturgical texts created by Alojzy Feliński (Funeral Mass in D Minor, 1850), Antoni Edward Odyniec (Mass in E Minor, 1855; Mass in A Minor, 1870), and Justyn Wojewódzki (St. Peter's Mass in B Flat Major, 1872). Moniuszko’s masses, distinguished by their refined means of artistic expression and great attention paid to the links between music and the words – count among the most important achievements of Polish sacred music in the age of Romanticism.


N is for educational nourishment

Brought up in the cult of science, Moniuszko did not neglect his education. He was considered as a diligent student and a lover of literature. He learned at Warsaw’s Piarist school, and later at a secondary school in Minsk, but had to interrupt regular studies in 1834 due to poor health. He was reported to have been “very calm and never doing mischief with other schoolmates, which earned him the name of ‘young master’. Having a certain sum of money set aside for his needs, he was very economical with these funds and usually spent them all on books” (Walicki, p. 111). In Warsaw Moniuszko studied the fundamentals of music with the organist-composer August Freyer, while in Minsk he took lessons from Dominik Stefanowicz, who influenced his decision of dedicating himself to music. Moniuszko developed his skills as a composer with Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen (1778–1851), a composer and professor of Berlin’s Singakademie, who was favourably disposed toward Poles. However, researchers criticised Moniuszko’s Berlin studies, claiming that the father of the Polish national opera was “ill-starred when he was enticed to learn with Rungenhagen” since the latter was “a mediocre musician in every respect, who did not offend the ear in any way, but also attracted no strong passions. He was a man without energy, a rotten conservative, unable positively to influence his students, show them the right directions or encourage them to work systematically. He was kind to his students, so they liked him” (Poliński, pp. 13–14).


O stands for organist

The need to earn a living for his family led Moniuszko to take up a post as organist at St John’s Church in Vilnius. In his view, the aim of sacred music was to support the faithful skilfully in their prayers. He conceived of this job as an opportunity significantly to improve the standards of church music. Standing out among his organ works are, first and foremost, his numerous settings of religious songs (such as Under Thy Protection and True God Is Coming).


P for the Polish songs

Along with the operas, songs are the most important and most valuable part of Moniuszko’s output. He wrote them throughout his life, and left behind more than 300 of them, primarily settings of texts by Polish Romantic poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Jan Czeczot, Władysław Syrokomla, and others). They represent nearly all the song genres known from that time. A large proportion of Moniuszko’s vocal works were incorporated into his Songbooks for Domestic Use – a grand, spectacular project with no parallels in earlier Polish song tradition. The Songbooks, published despite numerous difficulties, were to provide Polish music lovers with high-class song repertoire setting poetry of unquestionable artistic value. Six of the Songbooks were printed in the composer’s lifetime, and six more after his death.


R is for Rudziński

Witold Rudziński (1913–2004) – composer and teacher at Warsaw’s State Higher School of Music (now the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music), holding, among others, the post of deputy vice-chancellor of that institution. The most eminent Moniuszko scholar, studying the Polish opera master’s life and work. Despite the passage of time, Rudziński’s texts on Moniuszko remain a priceless source of information for present-day researchers. Rudziński’s opus magnum is his imposing, monumental 1300-page two-volume monograph entitled Stanisław Moniuszko. Studies and Materials (publ. PWM, Cracow, Vol. 1, 1955; Vol. 2, 1961), abounding in data and factual documentation. Of equal importance is Rudziński’s edition of Moniuszko’s surviving correspondence (publ. PWM 1969).


S stands for Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor)

Premiered on 28th September 1865, this four-act comic opera by Moniuszko, to a libretto by Jan Chęciński, perpetuates the myth of Polish patriotism. Its protagonists are two brothers, Stefan and Zbigniew, who, on their return from a war, vow to remain “in the unmarried state” so as always to be ready to fight for their fatherland. However, when they meet Hanna and Jadwiga, two extraordinarily beautiful and resourceful noble girls living in Kalinowo Manor, love comes like a bolt from the blue, makes them change their plans. It turns out that marrying a woman dedicated to the national cause does not stand in contradiction to service for the mother country.


T is for the theatre

Moniuszko’s links to the theatre were not limited to providing repertoire for the opera. In 1858 General Ignacy Abramowicz, Chairman of Warsaw Government Theatres, appointed Moniuszko to the post of director of the Polish opera which was part of this institution. In practice Moniuszko’s duties involved conducting Polish operas and providing music for the ballets and plays staged in Warsaw. Taking up this post earned him many enemies in the Warsaw music circles. One of those who were particularly hostile to Moniuszko at first was the Italian Jan Quattrini. who held the position of the Principal Director of Warsaw Government Theatres (one of his responsibilities was to conduct foreign repertoire). Later, however, the two artists became friends.


U is for Ubiel

Moniuszko’s birthplace, the village Ubiel (now Ubel) in the former Igumen Borough on the Volma River in present-day Belarus. The Moniuszko family had their landed estate there, described as late as 1892 (in the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland, p. 732) as follows: “good soil and meadows, inns on lease, mills and distilleries.” Before Ubiel became the property of Moniuszko’s forefathers, it used to belong to the Sapieha, Zawisza and Ogiński families, and later it was owned by the Dzikowski and Oziębłowski families. Moniuszko’s ancestors erected a Catholic chapel there in the 18th century. Stanisław Moniuszko was born in Ubiel on 5th May 1819. The Moniuszko manor house has not survived to our times. After the October Revolution a state fishing farm (kolkhoz) was located in the former manor. It was the Jewish historian Marian Fuks who in the 1960s revived the memory of Ubiel as the Moniuszko family’s family hearth. With the help of army surveyors, using the data contained in the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and the location of the poplar represented in the only surviving picture of the manor house (drawn by Napoleon Orda) – he identified the likely former site of the manor.


V stands for Verbum nobile

This comic opera to a libretto by Jan Chęciński was first staged on 1st January 1861 at the Grand Theatre (Teatr Wielki) in Warsaw. The plot revolves around two noblemen, Łagoda and Pakuła, who once vowed that their children would marry each other when they grow up. They quarrel, however, which puts not only their vow, but also their gentleman’s honour at risk. Their honour is saved when the young couple eventually get to tie the knot. This opera, based on the model of a comedy of errors, made gentle fun of the nobility’s habit of giving their word all too lightly.


W is for Wolski

“One talent I always put my trust in is that of Wolski,” wrote Moniuszko about Włodzimierz Wolski (1824–1882) – poet, playwright and author of libretti for Halka and The Countess (Letters, p. 301). Wolski was part of the so-called Warsaw Bohemians – a group of artists fascinated with folklore and inspired by patriotic ideals. He took part in the January Uprising of 1863/64. Following its fall, he settled in Brussels. Though he had all the makings for an excellent poet, he did not develop his talent in full owing to a weak character and the riotous life that he led. His collaboration with Moniuszko was by no means always harmonious. The composer frequently complained about the unreliable poet not meeting his deadlines. This proved particularly burdensome during their work on The Countess, when Moniuszko wrote that, unable to keep his promises, Wolski was “hiding [from me] in bars as a fox hides from the hound” (Letters, p. 375).


Z is for the Zawadzki family

In the years 1805–1940 this family of Vilnius booksellers and printers conducted a very lively publishing activity. Moniuszko maintained close contacts with Adam and Feliks Zawadzki, who – following the death of their father – took over the family business, known under the trademark of “J. Zawadzki”. At first this one of the most important printing houses in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not recognise Moniuszko’s potential and suspended the publication of the works that he handed over to them. It was only the interest of other publishers in Moniuszko’s output that persuaded the brothers to prepare printed editions of his works. It was the Zawadzki printing house that published most of Moniuszko’s major works from the Vilnius period.


The Stanisław Moniuszko Alphabet has been compiled by Małgorzata Sułek.


On PWM Edition’s projects related to the Moniuszko Year, read here.


© PWM / illustration by Mateusz Kołek


The following sources have been used to prepare the Alphabet:

Krzysztof Mazur, Pierwodruki Stanisława Moniuszki [Stanisław Moniuszko’s First Editions], Warsaw 1970.


Stanisław Moniuszko, Listy zebrane [Collected Letters], ed. Witold Rudziński in collaboration with Magdalena Stokowska, Cracow 1969.


Aleksander Poliński, Moniuszko, Kiev–Warsaw 1914.


Witold Rudziński, Stanisław Moniuszko. Studia i materiały [Stanisław Moniuszko. Studies and Materials], Vol. 1, Cracow 1955; Vol. 2, Cracow 1961.


Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], Vol. 12, ed. Bronisław Chlebowski et al., Warsaw 1892.


Teatr muzyczny Stanisława Moniuszki [Stanisław Moniuszko’s Musical Theatre], eds. Magdalena Dziadek and Elżbieta Nowicka, Poznań 2014.


Teatr operowy Stanisława Moniuszki. Rekonesanse [Stanisław Moniuszko’s Operatic Theatre. Reconnaissances], eds. Maciej Jabłoński and Elżbieta Nowicka, Poznań 2005.


Aleksander Walicki, Stanisław Moniuszko, Warsaw 1873.

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