He was a son of Juliusz, a Polish surveyor and French-born Karolina Mercoeur. After spending a few years in Przysucha, the Kolberg family moved to Warsaw when Juliusz was offered a post as a professor at Warsaw University. In this way, the family joined the intellectual and artistic community of 19th century Warsaw. They lived in the annex of Kazimierzowski Palace, a meeting place for representatives of science and culture
Between 1823 and 1830, Oskar Kolberg was a student at the prestigious Warsaw Lyceum and simultaneously attended piano classes. After the outbreak of the November Uprising in 1830 the Lyceum was forced to close its doors. Kolberg, aged 16 at the time, having no opportunity to continue his formal education, started work as an accountant at a bureau de change but carried on his musical studies under Józef Elsner, Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński, and later Karl Friedrich Girschner i Karl Friedrich Rungenhagen in Berlin.
Kolberg’s dream was to become a composer, but his début in 1836 went unnoticed. By the end of the 1830s, he had started showing interest in folklore and travelled across Poland with his fellow writers painters and musicians. He began writing down (registering) folk songs and melodies and soon gathered more than 600 of them., In 1842, he started publishing them successively as Pieśni ludu polskiego (Polish Folk Songs) as transcriptions for piano and voice. Even though his work met with criticism for excessive interference with melodies’ simplicity, inaccurate harmonisation and introduction of interludes, Kolberg moved on and developed further publications: O pieśniach litewskich (Lithuanian Songs) and Pieśni czeskie i słowackie (Czech and Slovak songs, Pieśni ludu weselne (Wedding Folk Songs), Pieśni ludu obrzędowe. Kogutek, gaik, okrężne (Ritual Folk Songs. Kogutek, gaik, okreżne).
For the 12 years starting 1845, Kolberg worked as a clerk in the management of the Warsaw-Vienna Railway Authority and concurrently continued his fieldwork, starting in Masovia (the central region of Poland) and then expanding it to the rest of country’s territory. 1853 was the year of his first major musical success. His compositions entitled Król pasterzy (King of Shepherds) and Sceny z Karczmy (Scenes from an Inn) had their first showing. Król Pasterzy was later staged at Wielki Theatre several times in 1859.
Meanwhile, he cooperated with Warsaw’s magazines, such as: Biblioteka Warszawska (The Warsaw Library), Tygodnik Ilustrowany (The Weekly Illustrated), Kłosy (The Ears). From 185 to 1968, he was a co-editor of the Common Encyclopaedia, for which he produced more than 150 records.
Between 1856 and 1857, Polish Folk Songs were published in an authentic form, with no transcribing or additional harmonisation. They received a very enthusiastic welcome but the series was not continued for unknown reasons. In 1865, he released the first volume of Lud. Jego zwyczaje, sposób życia, mowa, podania, przysłowia, obrzędy, gusła, zabawy, piesni, muzyka i tańce. Seria I. Sandomierskie. (Peoples. Their habits, way of life, speech, stories, proverbs, rituals, witchcraft, fun, songs, music and dances. Series I. Sandomierski region). He then continued his work by publishing series II, III and IV concerning other regions of Poland but soon encountered financial difficulties related to lack of long-expected subventions from Kraków’s Scientific Society and the unstable political situation in Congress Poland . These adverse circumstances made him leave Warsaw once and for all and move to Mogilany and Modlnica, little villages near Kraków, where he stayed for 13 years at mansions of the Konopka brothers – his old friends from the 1830s, with whom he travelled across Poland. Kraków’s proximity, frequent contacts with its scientific community and political conditions in Galicia offered him a much better working environment.
In 1873, Kolberg became a member of the Academy of Learning and one year later was invited to become a leader of the ethnological committee of the Academy of Anthropology. In 1878, he was awarded a bronze medal at the World’s Fair in Paris for his works, presented as a part of Austrian ethnographic pavilion.
In 1884, he left Modlnica and moved to Kraków, where he lived and worked in difficult financial conditions. In 1885, he started a new series, Obrazy Etnograficzne (Ethnographic Images), on which he worked simultaneously with Peoples… In 1889, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his scientific work and was appointed as an honorary member of the Imperial Society of Friends of Nature, Anthropology and Ethnography in Moscow and the Warsaw Music Society, as well as Warsaw Choral Society ‘Lute’. In the same year, he settled down in Izydor Kopernicki’s house, another of his old friends, who later executed his testament and published Chełmskie and Przemyskie after Kolberg’s death in 1890.
Soon after World War II, the Polish Folklore Society initiated the process of publishing Kolberg’s legacy, which was indisputably considered as essential for Polish music ethnography. Preparatory works took place in 1958 – 1960 and were completed by the Resolution of the Council of State, which accepted publishing of The Complete Works of Oskar Kolberg. In 1961, a reprint of Peoples… was launched.
In 1974, the Oskar Kolberg Prize for folklore artists, folklore movement activists, and scientists was established.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Polish Parliament designated 2014 as Oskar Kolberg’s year.
Author: Małgorzata Kosińska, Polish Music Information Centre, December 2006. Translated by W.O. 17.01.2014