Mazowsze is a Polish artistic ensemble, founded in 1948, that popularises folk performing arts traditions with its vivacious dance and musical performances.
You might know Mazowsze from Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2018 film Cold War – which not only traced the story of the company, but featured performances by its present-day members. Perhaps you’ve heard about or even seen one of the group's famous concerts around the world. Culture.pl presents an in-depth look at Mazowsze, from its founding to its place as one of Poland’s top musical exports today.
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It’s Monday, 6th November 1950.
The evening begins with a stretching session and a ballet warm-up, followed by 30 minutes of various other exercises. Thanks to these, the dancers can relax for a while and the nervous atmosphere fades away. The preparations are now underway.
In the dressing room, Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, the co-founder of the group, applies make-up on one of the dancers. Tadeusz Sygietyński, the head of the ensemble and its composer, strolls down the corridor, smoking one cigarette after another. The choreographer, Eugeniusz Papliński, wonders if his dance arrangements will capture the public’s hearts tonight. Representatives of the government arrive at the Polski Theatre in Warsaw, ready to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the October Revolution.
After the evening’s formalities have concluded, the young women and men take their places in ‘three rows bent into an arc – of colours, joy, and smiles’. The sound of their pounding hearts is drowned out by the audience’s encouraging applause. When the music starts, their stage fright transforms into precision, freedom and temperament. The audience is delighted. The theatre itself trembles.
Mazowsze in Warsaw on the TVP1 program 'Śpiewać – jak to łatwo powiedzieć' ('Sing – How Easy it is to Say It'), January 2008, photo: Robert Jaworski / Forum
All of this is known thanks to the accounts of Zimińska-Sygietyńska, Maria Malaszek (a performer in the ensemble) and press reviews. In order to fully understand the phenomenon of Mazowsze, however, we’ll have to travel back to the 19th century.
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Several factors influenced the formation of folk groups in Poland. Folk theatre, incorporating traditional dances and rural music, had been thriving since the 1840s, when Poland was still at the mercy of the three occupying powers. At the beginning of the 20th century, Polish choirs gained enormous popularity in Europe. Their strength lay in the peasant community, with its growing self-awareness and sense of regional distinctness.
Oskar Kolberg, who collected and documented ethnographic materials (especially folk songs), contributed to the enrichment of folklore studies by organising his findings according their place of origin. Beginning his research in 1839 in the Masovian region, he continued it for half a century throughout the entire territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Folklore initiatives were eagerly undertaken in the inter-war period, mainly in the Wielkopolska and Carpathian regions. Rural traditions were viewed as a potential opportunity for cultural dialogue and the integration of a diverse society. Theatrical performances of dance and music groups were organised in schools and local halls. Festivals and national harvest celebrations continued well after the war, as an effective means of propaganda.
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Folklore soon began to be perceived as an ‘expression of regressive social forms of art’, with a ‘vulgar and emotional character’. The communist authorities attempted to control this grassroots, amateur movement. They wanted to create a new group that would unify all folk and artistic movements, modelled on the Pyatnitsky Choir or the Aleksandrov Ensemble in Russia.
The Song and Dance Ensemble ‘Mazowsze’ was established by a decree issued by the Ministry of Culture and Art on 8th November 1948. Tadeusz Sygietyński was appointed the head, charged with launching and managing the ensemble. He had slightly different ideas for the functioning of the choir, however, than the communist authorities did.
A composer, teacher and guardian of rural spiritual and material culture, Sygietyński was undeniably destined for a life as an artist. His grandfather wrote opera librettos; his father wrote novels and theatre and music reviews. Henryk Sienkiewicz, Maksymilian and Aleksander Gierymski, Józef Chełmoński and Stanisław Witkiewicz were frequent visitors to his family home.
Before the war, Sygietyński prepared folklore programs for the Polish Radio. He wandered around the Masovian countryside (the Mazowsze group owes its name to the region) and recorded the songs he heard there – just like Kolberg, whose work he valued. Sygietyński wanted to create a group that would convey folk traditions in an authentic and original way. Together with his wife, Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, they pledged to fulfil this dream together, should they survive the war.
Sygietyński receives the green light from the authorities. He composes, while his wife manages the organisational aspects. They complement one another. Sygietyński searches for gifted young people in villages and towns and invites them to auditions in Karolin, near Warsaw.
Sygietyński has excellent hearing; he gets nervous easily. He usually works on his songs at night and in the mornings, sometimes in unusual situations. Dumka o Ptaszku (A Little Bird Flew By), later performed by Irena Santor (then Wiśniewska), is written on a crowded train. The song Kukułeczka (Cuckoo) is proposed by Lidia Włodarska, whose grandmother sung it at home.
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While Sygietyński writes down the music for the piece and arranges it for the choir and orchestra, Zimińska-Sygietyńska perfects the text. She is also in charge of the costumes, buying original pieces or ordering fabrics from rural women. She consults specialists, but she is the one to make the final decisions. A professional actress herself, Zimińska-Sygietyńska successfully translates folk tradition into the language of the stage. She tailors the costumes to suit the movement and the stage lights – refreshing some pieces, adding various details to them and intensifying their colours.
Behind the scenes
It was also Zimińska-Sygietyńska who came up with the idea of a school and the Mazowsze house in Karolin, which she organised in a former facility for the mentally ill. Boys lived on the ground floor; girls lived upstairs. They were all between 12 and 20 years old, and from their first rehearsal to their stage debuts, they grew in height by an average of 12 centimetres.
They treated Sygietyński with love and respect, as if he were their grandfather. He also called them his ‘children’. On the notice board in the house, there always hung a piece of paper with attire guidelines for the following day. This was also Zimińska-Sygietyńska’s idea. She was mindful of discipline, but she was also eager to help the children with their personal problems.
A Mazowsze performance at the Arena Hall in Poznań, 12th June 2016, photo: Irek Dorozanski / Forum
The children were provided with adequate schooling, on both the general and vocational level. Apart from the standard matura, or high-school graduation exam, they also had to pass music assessments. In the mornings, they practised singing and playing instruments; by four o’clock, all of the pianos were usually reserved. The students learned music history, harmony, arrangement, 19th century dances, and the basics of ballet. Sygientyński and Zimińska-Sygietyńska hired a staff of experienced educators. In the evening, there were rehearsals, readings and even concerts by outstanding artists from time to time.
In the words of one of the members of Mazowsze, Krystyna Greniuk:
It was a different world. We learned much later that the 1950s were a terrible time for many people. Then, we didn’t know anything about it. We lived in a bubble. We only saw music, colours, nature.
Mazowsze’s annual auditions weren’t just another contest aimed at recruiting rural youth to music schools. Mazowsze was all about quality. In spite of its official references to Soviet groups, it often followed the patterns of Polish interwar ensembles, such as the one led by Feliks Parnell, or the Polish Ballet, led by Bronisława Niżyńska.
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Of course, the communist authorities sought to interfere with the repertoire of the group. Zimińska-Sygietyńska could vividly remember that A Little Bird Flew By was removed from the first artistic programme, as it was considered ‘un-Polish’. It was replaced with three social realist songs. But the true success of Mazowsze was, from the start, measured by something else entirely.
‘We’re opening the Iron Curtain’
After their first performance, the amateur group members suddenly became professionals. They were not as technically perfect as they are today, but they definitely stood out. Aleksander Jackowski, a cultural anthropologist and the author of many works devoted to folk art, wrote:
Sygietyński had his own concept of folklore. [...] above all, he extracted the pure, crystalline lyricism of feminine songs and the energy, the orgiastic vitality, characteristic of the Krakowiak dance or the whirl of couples dancing the Oberek. Of course, he wasn’t the first artist to deal with folklore. Chopin also did that, and in his ‘Mazurkas’ or ‘Scherzos’, he incorporated lyrical parts and juxtaposed them with turbulent, violent and dramatic moments.
The success of Mazowsze lay in its purity, diversity and freshness. Once the group had won over Polish hearts, it was time to entertain foreign audiences. First, they found an enthusiastic reception in the USSR and the GDR (1951) and several other countries in the East; later, they conquered France (1954) and finally, the rest of the world. After the Paris performance, Zimińska-Sygietyńska wrote:
We were the first ones to open the so-called ‘iron curtain’. [...] Before the show, we went to a café. When we were leaving, we saw a queue in front of Palais de Chaillot. These people had lined up to buy tickets for the Mazowsze performance.
The State Folk Group of Song and Dance ‘Mazowsze’, concert at the Mazurkas Hotel in Ożarów Mazowiecki, 9th September 2018, photo: Krzysztof Jarosz / Forum
The audience was cordial, but demanding. Poles were more critical, because they compared Mazowsze with other Polish folk bands. They complained about the excess of ballet elements in the dances. They wanted to hear songs they knew from their childhood or had heard on the radio. They wanted to hear songs from other parts of the country: Podhale, Silesia, Kaszuby and Warmia. These regions were gradually included in the repertoire (more than 40 regions have been incorporated to this day).
Mazowsze’s performances were often the first contact foreign audiences had with Polish culture. They were usually most interested in the dances and colourful costumes. An excerpt from the review of Les Lettres Françaises in 1954 reads:
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They are dressed in folk costumes whose richness creates a perfectly harmonious whole. [...] They received a grand applause. They had to do encores of most of the dances. [...] The dancers are characterised by lightness and strength. Grouped in circles, they expand and intertwine with utmost fluidity. There is no doubt that we were able to see the peak of folk art.
The Swiss Gazette de Lausanne (1958): ‘The boys do not dance – they float and whirl in the air. The girls are flying.’ (Let us add that their clothes are heavy; the Łowicz traditional attire can weigh up to 14 kilograms).
It was not always all about the dances, however. Slower, lyrical songs were enjoyed by audiences in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The Japanese public also enjoyed the singing. Jackowski remembers that when Mazowsze was leaving the Toshiba electrical plant in Yokohama, a 1,400-person choir performed Szła Dzieweczka do Laseczka (A Young Girl Went to the Forest) in Polish. In order to achieve both artistic and commercial (and propaganda) success, the repertoire had to be adapted to the audience’s expectations: more dance, more energy, more twists and turns.
Sygietyński died in 1955 and was duly replaced by his wife (until 1997). It was Zimińska-Sygietyńska who shaped the contemporary Mazowsze group – she transformed the dance and musical performance into a breathtaking spectacle. The authentic folk traditions underwent a subtle tuning in staging. Zimińska-Sygietyńska also aimed at establishing a dialogue with foreign viewers. During each concert, she always included a song in the original language of the country where the performance took place.
Millions of viewers, tons of luggage
Given all these facts, it is not surprising that Mazowsze is still considered an ambassador of Polish culture today. It is one of the largest artistic groups in the world. The members of the ensemble have already travelled over 2,300,000 kilometres, playing almost 7,000 concerts in 50 countries, on 6 continents, for 23 million viewers. And they don’t slow down one bit. During each performance, they present around 20 dances from different regions of Poland, changing their costumes 7-10 times – in total, they use about a thousand costumes for one concert.
Mazowsze has won more than 50 Polish and foreign awards. On the occasion of Radio Tokyo’s anniversary, the group travelled through the streets of the capital of Japan in a colourful motorcade. In the US, it has received honorary freedom of the city in several cities. After one of the concerts, a Swiss daily announced: ‘If [Mazowsze] is the true face of Poland, then long live Poland!’
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Expressiveness, elegance, authenticity, uniqueness – all this has captured the imagination and the applause of Mazowsze’s audiences. Poles residing both in the country and abroad have discovered a unifying spirit – a pride in Polish folk traditions and the past. The group has become a role model for newly emerging artistic initiatives, both professional and amateur. Mazowsze has also played a huge role in saving endangered cultural heritage and overcoming the inferiority complex of the countryside.
Mazowsze has been so popular that many Polish people now sing songs passed down from generation to generation in versions popularised by the group itself. Promoting folklore was never intended to separate Poland from the outside – it was meant to introduce a distinct Polish element to European culture.
Sources: T. Kruk, A.Sroga ‘Mazowsze’ tańczy i śpiewa, Warszawa 1960; A. Mizikowska ‘Tadeusz Sygietyński i jego Mazowsze’, Warszawa 2004; J. Wilkoń, A. Jackowski ‘Mazowsze. Państwowy Zespół Ludowy Pieśni i Tańca’, Warszawa 1974; M. Zimińska-Sygietyńska ‘Nie żyłam samotnie’, Warszawa 1985; M. Zimińska-Sygietyńska ‘Druga miłość mego życia’, Warszawa 1990; ‘Raport o stanie tradycyjnej kultury muzycznej’, edited by W. Grozdew-Kołacińska, Warszawa 2014; T. Nowak ‘Miejsce i rola muzyki tradycyjnej w kulturze PRL w świetle publikacji z lat 1947-1956’ [w:] ‘Polski Rocznik Muzykologiczny’ XV/2017; mazowsze.waw.pl.
folk music group
polish folk dances
Polish folk music
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2019, translated by AJ, Feb 2019; edited by LD, Feb 2019.