A 19th-Century Soundtrack to Polish Life Under the Partitions
How did Poland sound during the Partition era, the 123 years when it wasn't on the map? From folk music to Chopin, and from Wagner to Elgar, here’s 19th-century Poland set to music in 12 tracks full of significance.
When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was cut up by the three empires of Austria, Prussia and Russia, the culture and identity of Poles continued to strive on in many forms, and music was a particularly important one. But how did composers imagine 'Polishness' in music – both in Poland and abroad? How did Polish music succeed in carrying the spirit of a national struggle across generations? What songs did Poles sing and play in the long, dark 19th century? Also, what songs embodied Polishness for foreign composers who witnessed the Polish struggle? And what evidence do we have for how Polish folk music really sounded back then?
1. Poland Is Not Yet Lost (1797)
The political death of Poland went down reportedly in a mournful silence which fell after the last partition (1795) with poets and writers refraining from literature and public activity. And yet only two years later that dismal silence was broken by the brisk rhythms of Dąbrowski’s Mazurka.
Composed in Italy in 1797 by Józef Wybicki, the song accompanied the soldiers of the Polish legions fighting under Napoleon’s banner. The lyrics Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła gave hope and assured that ‘Poland is not yet lost as long as we live’, but also made the connection between the potential future independence of the country and the military effort of its soldiers.
Eventually this simple military song would become the national anthem of the resurrected Polish state, but it was a long way to go from here. Here’s the mazurka sung by the marching Polish legions, as imagined by Andrzej Wajda in his movie The Ashes:
You can find the earliest known recording of Dabrowski’s Mazurka here.
2. Kurpiński & The Battle of Borodino (1812)
A gifted composer and a successful conductor, Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857) was the author of many patriotic songs and orchestral pieces, among them the military march known as La Varsovienne, whose original French lyrics were written by French poet Casimir Delavigne after the fall of the November Uprising (1830-1831).
However, one of the most interesting works in Kurpiński’s output is the symphony The Battle of Mozhaysk. Composed in a style reminiscent of Beethoven’s epic symphonies, it was conceived as a musical depiction of the battle of Borodino of 1812. For Poles who fought in the French army, Napoleon’s Russian campaign was a chance to break free from the imposed Russian rule. His grand victory at Borodino seemed like a step in this direction – however, it turned out to be a false hope. The fragment below illustrates the night before the battle:
3. Wagner & Poland (1836)
The November Uprising and the wave of emigration from the country that followed created new interest amongst non-Poles in the Polish national cause. One of the fruits of this interest was Polonia by Richard Wagner. Composed in 1836, the emotional overture includes musical quotes from popular patriotic songs, like the 3rd May Mazurka at 01:05 in, or Kurpiński’s Litwinka (The Song of the Lithuanian Legionaries) at 4:27. In his German hometown Leipzig, Wagner had surely heard some of them in 1832 sung by the Polish emigrants. And if you listen hard, you’ll hear Dabrowski’s Mazurka too.
4. Chopin & the spirit of Polishness hidden in a mazurka
Fryderyk Chopin’s music is often considered an auditory embodiment of the Polish national spirit. It brims with musical references to Polish history (the most famous example being the so-called ‘Revolutionary Étude’ written after the fall of the November Uprising) and culture. Polonaise in A-flat Major is just one good example.
And yet, rather than creating pieces inspired by Poland, Chopin created a whole musical idiom of his own, one that fused motives taken from Polish folk music with the greatest artistic sophistication. This was the style in which Robert Schumann saw a ‘powerful and distinctive nationalism’, and whose works he called ‘the cannons concealed amongst flowers’.
The most Polish of these ‘cannons’ may have been the unseeming mazurkas. Chopin’s mazurkas, as musicologists claim, have little to do with the traditional Mazovian folk dance with that name. Rather they are a synthesis of different Polish folk dances, most importantly the mazur, kujawiak and oberek. The latter inspired Chopin’s Mazurka in D-major, Op. 33, No. 3.
5. But how did Polish folk music really sound?
Well, seeing as we don’t have original audio from the 19th century, we can hardly know for absolute certain. But considering folk music is quite conservative, some later original recordings can actually be pretty accurate in carrying the original sound and spirit of the music. Here’s a recording of an oberek, as performed by a Polish emigrant folk band in America in the 1920s, some 100 years after Chopin. These are probably some of the oldest known recordings of Polish folk music:
Find more Polish music played by Polish folk bands in America here.
6. Moniuszko & the Polish musical catechism (1843)
But if there was one single composer responsible for the original soundtrack to Polish life in the 19th century, then it has to be Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872). His Songbook for Home Use (Śpiewnik Domowy), published from 1843 until after his death, contained 12 volumes and some 267 songs – all of them songs for voice and piano, set to poems by Polish poets. The songbook became a sort of musical catechism, sung in Polish houses and manors. Here’s one of these songs:
Moniuszko is also considered the originator of Polish national opera, being the author of widely popular works such as Verbum Nobile and Halka. Set in the local national context, these operas were a powerful vehicle for carrying the Polish national sentiment across the partitions. Here’s the so-called Aria z Kurantem from the opera The Haunted Manor (Straszny Dwór, 1864):
7. Warszawianka (1905), or The Whirlwinds of Danger (1879)
Probably the most famous Polish socialist song, Warszawianka has an interesting backstory. It was written by Wacław Święcicki in 1879, during his imprisonment at the Warsaw Citadel. Legend has it that Święcicki smuggled the lyrics out of prison by marking the appropriate letters in a copy of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. The music was composed by another inmate, Józef Pławiński, based on a melody from a song dating back to the January Uprising.
Outside socialist circles, it was first sung in the streets of Warsaw in 1885 but gained its current reputation in 1905 when it became the anthem of workers demonstrating during the 1905 revolution. Warszawianka, or The Whirlwinds of Danger, as it is known in English, became popular outside of the country: a variant of the song became an anthem of the socialist organisation Second International (1889), while its Russian version was popular in the Soviet Union and the Spanish one, called A Las Barricadas, was sung during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
8. Władysław Żeleński & grand Romantic literature (1884)
While Moniuszko refrained from using great Polish literature as a potential source of his libretti, other composers, like Władysław Żeleński, had fewer objections. Żeleński composed operas to works by Słowacki, Kraszewski and Mickiewicz. His Konrad Wallenrod based on the epic poem by Mickiewicz, premiered in 1885 in Lviv. Interestingly the same poem also inspired the Italian opera I Lituani by Amilcare Ponchielli. Here’s an aria from Żeleński’s Konrad Wallenrod:
9. Pan Paderewski plays for Poland (1908)
Probably no single person did more for the Polish national cause than Ignacy Jan Paderewski. From the late 1880s, the piano virtuoso was touring Europe and the Americas, raising money for charities and the Polish patriotic cause. As a great admirer of Chopin, his concerts would regularly feature the compositions of his great compatriot. Here’s Paderewski’s performance of Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53:
But Paderewski was also a talented composer. His arguably greatest piece, Symphony in B Minor, has Poland’s heroic past as its main subject. Its three movements are said to depict, respectively, the glorious days of the Poland of the past, Poland’s plight in the present day (1907), and the approach of a happier future.
10. Rota, or the most patriotic song ever (1910)
This is probably Poland’s most patriotic song ever, and is still popular today. Composed by Feliks Nowowiejski to a poem by Maria Konopnicka, Rota was first performed during celebrations connected with the unveiling of the Grunwald monument in Kraków in 1910.
The poem is a violent protest against the politics of Germanisation, especially the expulsions of ethnic Poles from the territories of the Prussian partition.
11. Elgar & Poland (1915)
Much like with Wagner in the 1830s, Poland’s plight continued to inspire non-Polish composers into the 20th century to write pieces with Poland in focus. One of the most fascinating from this period is Edward Elgar’s Polonia. Elgar’s piece contains a selection of Polish themes: from songs like Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, Warszawianka and Z Dymem Pożarów (With the Smoke of Fires) to works by Chopin (Nocturne in G Minor) and Paderewski (Polish Fantasy), to whom the work was also dedicated. The piece premiered in London’s Queen’s Hall in July 1915, while the Great War, which eventually gave Poland independence, was already raging.
12. The songs of Polish soldiers
For Poland, World War I became a chance for the final liberation of the country. Due to Poles being under different partitions, they ended up having to fight on all sides of the conflict. But the most important military contribution came from Józef Piłsudski and his legions, which he formed in Kraków in 1914. The war songs, like My Pierwsza Brygada or O Mój Rozmarynie, are associated with the tradition Piłsudski’s legions, but ultimately became part of the national musical tradition. Here’s one of these songs, Hej, Hej Ułani:
In November 1918, Poland finally returned to the map, thus ending the period of 123 years of partitions. In 1927, a decade into Polish independence, and some 130 years after its composition, Dąbrowski’s Mazurka was made the official national anthem of Poland. (Listen here for what is probably the first recording of the national anthem). Thus the full circle in the lyrics – ‘From the Italian land to Poland’ – was made, and our patriotic soundtrack draws to an end.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, Feb 2018