Who Was Oskar Kolberg?
small, Who Was Oskar Kolberg?, Oskar Kolberg's portrait in 'Przemyskie', photo: Polona / www.polona.pl, oskar_kolberg_przemyskie_polona.jpg
Oskar Kolberg, born on 22nd February 1814 in Przysucha, was the greatest chronicler of Polish folk life. Thanks to his research into rural culture, future generations have been able to explore the traditions and customs of the past. His legacy was also closely examined by the founders of the State Folk Group of Song and Dance 'Mazowsze'. Culture.pl presents this outstanding ethnographer who changed the perception of Polish folklore.
The inhabitants of Przysucha claim that Kolberg was weaned on folk music thanks to his peasant wet nurse, Zuźka Wawrzek. In his 1871 autobiography, Kolberg wrote:
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I was born in the small town of Przysucha [...] in its Polish marketplace. There are three markets there: Polish, Jewish and German. [...] I remember that I had a wet nurse, a peasant called Zuska. She always sang when I lay in my cradle (she was still working for my family in Warsaw in 1822).
Katarzyna Markiewicz, the director of the Oskar Kolberg Museum in Przysucha, claims Kolberg's parents had an equally crucial impact on him and his four brothers. Their father, who came from Mecklenburg, was a cartographer, surveyor and metrologist. Their mother was born into a Polonised family of French emigrés.
In 1817, Kolberg's father was employed as a professor of metrology and geodesy at the University of Warsaw. The Kolberg household became a meeting spot for the city’s cultural milieu – including the philologist and lexicographer Samuel Bogumił Linde; Fryderyk Chopin's father, Mikołaj Chopin; and the poet Kazimierz Brodziński.
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'Sanockie-Krośnieńskie: Cz. 1' by Oskar Kolberg, Bogusław Linette, 1926, photo: Biblioteka Narodowa Polona
Markiewicz also claims that Oskar Kolberg's acquaintance with Fryderyk Chopin was a large influence on his interest in music. Wilhelm, Oskar's older brother, who later became a well-known engineer and designer of bridges and water pipes, was a close friend of the composer.
In fact, the Kolberg and Chopin families lived in the same building on the University of Warsaw’s campus. Oskar followed Fryderyk's career from the very beginning and was deeply fascinated by the composer's works. According to Markiewicz, it is thanks to the Kolberg brothers – Oskar, Wilhelm and Antoni – that we know a lot about Fryderyk Chopin's childhood. They described the games that they played together and their English lessons.
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Kolberg & music
Józef Elsner and Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński were Oskar Kolberg's first teachers. Later, he studied composing at the Music Academy in Berlin. But he didn't stop at studying fine arts – he also enrolled at the Trade Academy. For a long time, he moonlighted as a piano teacher and accountant. Elsner, who was also Chopin's teacher, described Oskar as one of the 'most superb artists from the city of Warsaw'. Chopin himself wasn't as kind, as he described Kolberg's talent as 'too short'.
Kolberg viewed music from the perspective of folklore and ethnography. He was also a composer himself. His works include pieces inspired by folklore, songs, piano compositions and stage compositions. He mostly wrote pieces for dancing – the polonaise, the mazur, the mazurka, the waltz, the polka, the oberek, the kujawiak or the contradanse.
One of his most famous pieces is an opera called The King of Shepherds (the libretto was written by Teofil Lenartowicz). It was first staged in 1853 in Faustyn Żyliński's music salon, and six years later, it was staged at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw.
Gatherer of folk traditions
Aside from these other interests, Kolberg devoted most of his life to researching folk culture. In 1839, he went on his first expedition around Masovia. He began documenting folk music, creating the graphic notation of many folk songs. Kolberg was the first ethnographer to divide Polish folklore into regions, which he described in his monumental work called The People: Their Customs, Way of Life, Language, Folktales, Proverbs, Rites, Witchcraft, Games, Songs, Music and Dances. Between 1857 and 1890, he published 33 volumes of this work. His entire legacy includes 85 volumes, i.e. 39,780 pages (the Oskar Kolberg Institute continues to publish more).
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Kolberg attached great importance to faithful graphic notation. In his publications, which were for people to read and play at home, he also included notes for piano accompaniment. He relied on his own hearing; he didn't have a phonograph that might have helped him in his efforts to create accurate representations of folk melodies.
In 1871, Kolberg settled in Mogilany, and then Modlnica near Kraków, where he lived in the house owned by his friend, Józef Konopka – a land owner as well as a gatherer and publisher of folk songs:
He was completely engrossed in his work, and he limited his personal needs to a minimum; he was modest and silent; he did not want to cause trouble, he only cared for his scientific work. He travelled all across the country ‘for a gather’, as he put it, but at the same time, he also stayed in touch with broad parts of the research community.
Dr Katarzyna Janczewska-Sołomko, musicologist, trans. AJ
It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Oskar Kolberg worked all the time, exploring every part of Poland.
After 1857, he travelled around Kujawy, Łomża, Augustów, Suwałki, Lublin, Chełm and Zamość. In 1862, he explored Wołyń [Volhynia]; he went to Wielkopolska, Kraków, the Tatra Mountains, Szczawnica, Bardejov, Przemyśl and Lwów [Lviv]. Wanting to examine the music of southern Slavs in his free time, he even went to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Trieste and Venice.
Professor Wojciech J. Burszta, trans. AJ
Sources & helpers
In his works, Kolberg usually referred to his own findings, but he also reached for other sources: newspapers, calendars, old Polish manuscripts, folk literature, fiction and travel memoirs. His research was also supported by volunteers, poets, writers, scientists and land owners, who also wanted to contribute to describing the traditions of common Poles.
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Men were forbidden to know the details of many village customs and rituals. Kolberg's work would be shorter by thousands of pages were it not for the help of women who helped the ethnographer unveil their secrets. Many of these women were from land-owning families. One was Antonina Konopczanka, the daughter of Józef Konopka, on whose land Kolberg spent many years.
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Illustration by Oskar Kolberg from Białoruś-Polesie, Polish Music Society, Warsaw, Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1968, photo: Biblioteka Narodowa Polona
Success & acclaim
In 1878, Kolberg went to Paris to take part in the third edition of the Paris World’s Fair. There, in the Austrian pavilion, he presented his publications and an iconographic collection of Polish traditional folk costumes, which won him a gold medal. In 1880, he became the scientific patron of an ethnographic exhibition in Kolomyia, the aim of which was to popularise the Carpathian Mountains throughout Europe. In 1884, he moved to Kraków to focus on editing works. He also became a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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In 1889, a year before Kolberg passed away, his friends from the Kraków intelligentsia organised a jubilee to celebrate 50 years of his work.
He is neither a politician nor belongs to any kind of faction. He is an unprecedented example of modesty and silence. This diligent researcher is our national pride and even today, foreigners are envious of this excellent Polish ethnographer. The monumental memorial that Kolberg built for himself will be admired by posterity.
Kraków Society for People's Education, 1889, trans. AJ
The authorities, the people of science and culture and a delegation of peasants all took part in the celebration. It was even said that 'when Kolberg shook hands with the peasants, they kissed his tired hands, and this part of the jubilee will be always remembered by the attendees'.
He spent his last months in the house owned by his friend, Izydor Kopernicki, who was a doctor, anthropologist and researcher of folk culture – he also became the executor of Kolberg's will and the guardian of his scientific legacy. According to Janczewska-Sołomko, several days before his death, Kolberg said:
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Thank God that I'm dying with the comfort that during my life I did all I could, that no one considers me a slacker, nor ever will, and that what I leave behind will serve people for a long time.
Oskar Kolberg died on 3rd June 1890 in Kraków, the same year US ethnographers first used the phonograph for research purposes (they recorded Native American music). Imagine what we would know about Polish folklore if Oskar Kolberg had gotten the opportunity to use a phonograph…
Originally written in Polish, Dec 2014; translated by AJ, 18 Mar 2019
Sources: PAP, Tygodnik Powszechny, Polona