A Musical Journey through Polish History
Since time immemorial, music has accompanied people, often used to commemorate important events. So, put on your headphones, turn the volume up, and experience some defining moments in Polish history through the sounds of some famous names from Polish music.
Long before the Baptism of Poland, these lands were inhabited by followers of the Slavic faith, a period that Percival tries to capture in their music. The project actually consists of two bands, the folk metal-oriented Percival Schuttenbach, and more historically-accurate Percival. By combining modern instruments with traditional ones, such as reconstructed wind instruments made from horns or bone, they add a sense of authenticity to their lyrics. Every song throws the listener into a different setting – be it a Christian settlement raided by Slavic pagans, or the middle of a celebration honouring Jarilo, the god of spring and vegetation.
The project explores times scarcely recorded in history books, and does a great job of working on your imagination to invoke long-forgotten imagery. If you played The Witcher 3, you might find their sound strangely familiar – they were one of the artists responsible for the game’s much-celebrated soundtrack.
The figure of Stańczyk is a well-known one in Polish tradition. An intelligent and patriotic jester in the court of numerous 16th-century rulers, he was a witness to many important historical events, some of which were to have dire consequences for Poland in the centuries to come. The song, performed by a trio of Polish bards – Jacek Kaczmarski, Przemysław Gintrowski and Zbigniew Łapiński – is an audio retelling of a well-known painting by Jan Matejko.
It shows Stańczyk worried and hopeless, just after he has received news about the outcome of the Muscovy-Lithuanian war of 1512 – the loss of Smoleńsk. The event itself is a foreshadowing of future Russian expansion, and the scene feels extremely paradoxical. The whole court, along with the Queen, are concentrated on feasting, while the only person who seems to care about the country (or at least understand the gravity of the situation) is the least likely one – the court jester.
The Last Map of Poland
Kaczmarski once again, this time on his own, here takes on a vast part of Polish history in his music. The Last Map of Poland (Ostatnia Mapa Polski) is a short piece that tells the story of the titular last map, and in the broader context – of the year 1795 and the last of the three partitions of Poland that officially caused it to cease existing for 123 years.
The song tells the tale of one of the last remaining soldiers faithful to the Polish cause and how he brings this map to the King. As he approaches the throne room, he sees courtiers defecting and surrendering to the invading foreign empires. At last he reaches the monarch and hands him the map, in the hope that something can still be done to save the country. However, the ruler is completely powerless and disappoints the soldier’s hopes by putting away the map, symbolically passing the final sentence – condemning his country to years of non-existence and foreign rule.
As the First World War approached, tensions all around Europe were high. The same was true for Poland, especially the part under German occupation, as the German government was trying its hardest to root out Polish culture and germanise people there. As the 500th anniversary of the Polish victory at the Battle of Grunwald was approaching, a renowned poetess, Maria Konopnicka, wrote Rota. The poem was written in 1908, but its first public performance took place on 15th July 1910, during the unveiling of a Grunwald memorial in Kraków.
The song is a kind of manifestation of the prevailing Polishness that cannot be squandered by the German oppressor. It reminds people of their past victories over the Teutonic Order, and shows that the present efforts to make people forget the Polish language and culture are in vain. It is also a song of comfort that comes with a prediction – a vision of Poland rising up again.
We Are the First Brigade
We Are the First Brigade (My, Pierwsza Brygada) is probably the best-known First World War song in Poland. A song written in 1917, it tells the story of the titular First Brigade of Polish Legions, which were formed at the beginning of WWI by Marshal Józef Piłsudski. It’s a march that not only expresses pride in being a part of what was to become a Polish army, but also shows how dangerous a fight that was, since legions were usually fighting outnumbered and underequipped.
The lyrics also show a bitterness about the beginning of this military formation. Just after they were formed, the soldiers entered Polish lands, hoping to incite a national uprising, but they met with no enthusiasm, and were subsequently forced to leave and ally with the Central Powers. But, as the song mentions, it all led to the best outcome possible – thanks in part to the legions and their leader Piłsudski, after the First World War, Poland could once again be found on maps as an independent country.
Peace, however, was not as long-lasting as people had wanted and in 1939, the Second World War broke out. The Nazi Germans quickly defeated the Polish military and occupied Poland. Fortunately, as was often the case, Poles were not ones to be easily occupied. Quite quickly many protest songs spread like wildfire, giving humorous twists on what was happening, or making fun of the German aggressors. One of them was Axe, Hoe (Siekiera, Motyka), a song that took the nightmares of war and life in an occupied Warsaw and made it light-hearted and easy, helping people see hope in these difficult times. Making fun of Hitler’s failed painting career, and even the nightmares of things like night-time shelling and random roundups, the song was a vital part of Warsaw’s streets after its creation in 1942. It was even featured in the first Polish movie after the war: Zakazane Piosenki (Forbidden Songs).
As the previous song shows, sometimes a humorous approach is necessary, even if the subject matter is serious and important. Elektryczne Gitary had that in mind while creating their song about Polish Fighter Squadron No. 303 and the London Victory Celebrations of 1946, when said squadron – and the whole Polish military – were ignored and not represented.
The song presents the perspective of Poles watching the parade and waiting for the famous pilots to appear among the marching troops. In the end, the wait is not rewarded – the soldiers do not come. We learn, in an ironic jab, that ‘the English are true gentlemen, they did not want to irritate Stalin’. Squadron 303 stayed loyal to the Polish Government in Exile, so the English government, so as to avoid diplomatic crisis with the USSR and USSR-backed Polish Provisional government, couldn’t allow them to march in the Victory Parade.
In 1945, the Second World War finally ended. Poland, especially its capital, was in ruins, almost flattened by Nazi retaliation after the Warsaw Uprising. And even though the country was to become a satellite of the USSR, the end of the war was finally bringing about hope for at least some sort of better tomorrow. The tight grip of Stalinism still hadn’t appeared, and the whole country had one unifying goal in mind: rebuilding. This is why, in 1946, To Work (Do Roboty) was created. It’s a jolly tune for every proletarian that urged each and every able-bodied man and woman to work for their country, to help it become habitable again. It’s filled with the joy of victory and images of a brighter future. This, and the fact that it was performed by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and was often aired on the national radio, made it an unofficial anthem for every rebuilder in those first post-war years.
The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski
Unfortunately, the optimism that came after the end of war was to be cut short quite quickly. Poland became a satellite state of the USSR and the kowtowed Polish ruling party quickly embraced the authoritarian methods of its ‘bigger brother’. In December 1970, after years of anger brewing under the surface, massive protests erupted throughout Poland, and the military were dispatched to put them down.
After one of one particular protest on 17th December, an 18-year-old shipwright working in Gdynia, Zbyszek Godlewski, was shot and killed. His body was later carried by a crowd, holding him up on a door, to the local seat of National Council. This event, known as Black Thursday, and the uproar that it spawned was the reason The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski was written. The name in the song happens to be different because at the time of it’s writing, Godlewski’s name was still unknown. It tells the tale of that day and expresses the outrage and feeling of helplessness that workers shared when the government of the People’s Republic of Poland, which was supposed to be for them, turned against them.
The fall of the authoritarian communist regime in 1989 was not the end of political turmoil for Poland. One partiulcar episode happened on 4th June 1992, a day that went down in history as ‘The Night of Folders’. Some high-rank government officials were revealed to have been secretly working for the fallen regime. The outcome of that scandal is portrayed in Kult’s song Left June (Lewy Czerwcowy, a play on words that alludes to the Polish for a ‘left hook’). The song tells the story through the eyes of Mr Waldek – the future prime minister Waldemar Pawlak. He is shown as a very indecisive and passive man, who does not have much say in what is going on – he just agrees to what is being decided, and accepts everything that’s happening without any deeper thought. Ultimately, it is a foreshadowing of what was going to happen with Pawlak’s government, or rather lack thereof – he couldn’t form a government and finally had to step down.
Other than our selection here, many other historical themes have been explored in Polish music throughout the years – surely the trend won’t die out soon, as the subjects can be very varied and interesting. Maybe you know of or have some part of Polish history you’d like to see incorporated into a song? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Adrian Sobolewski, Dec 2017