As the first poem composed in Polish, Bogurodzica has a firm place in Polish cultural history. The hymn is an instance of the most archaic form of the Polish language and an example of medieval religious ‘high art’ music.
The name of the hymn, Bogurodzica (‘she who gave birth to God’) was actually a translation from the Greek ‘Theotokos’. It dates, most likely, from the thirteenth century. Several versions of it, together with musical notation, have been preserved, and, as a matter of fact, the song became, for few centuries, a kind of national anthem. The hymn has been a puzzle for scholars because Polish religious songs were usually translated from Latin; and for Bogurodzica, no Latin source has been discovered. Owing to the absence of a Latin equivalent, some scholars have advanced the thesis that the song came from a Slavic church original via a Czech translation.
Bogurodzica is a religious hymn, a simple prayer for personal happiness on Earth and for a blessed life in heaven. The first two stanzas, which are the oldest, address, respectively, the Mother of God, begging her intercession with her Son, and then Christ, asking him to grant, for the sake of John the Baptist, a good life on earth and a sojourn in paradise after death. The curious rhythmical pattern of the hymn continues to fascinate literary historians.
It is assumed that Bogurodzica was widely known in the 14th century since the Polish knights sang it as an anthem before the Battle of Grunwald (July 15, 1410) and during the battle with the Turkish army at Varna in 1444. The hymn accompanied the coronation ceremonies of the first Jagiellonian kings and was printed in Jan Łaski's Statures of the Polish Kingdom. Its importance considerably diminished in the 16th century.
Maja Trochimczyk in her essay Sacred versus Secular: The Convoluted History of Polish Anthems points out that ‘in more recent times, Bogurodzica has usually been printed in patriotic religious hymnals and popular church songbooks as the first, most ancient and most revered song.’ It is still being sung in Polish churches, especially in the monastic orders, but the language is too obscure and the music too difficult for the hymn's widespread use in congregational singing. Bogurodzica's shift to the role of a historical monument may be credited both to the archaic language and to the complexity of the music – with a monophonic, modal melody that is not easily harmonized and adjusted to the major/minor tonal system. Nonetheless, throughout its history the chant has served two main roles: it has been used as a symbol of national identity (as the earliest example of written Polish language and as the traditional national anthem) and as a sign of devotion to the Mother Mary, a symbol of Poland's all-pervading Catholicism.
The second half of the 20th century saw a revival of Bogurodzica as a source of inspiration for the most acclaimed Polish composers. Andrzej Panufnik’s finale (Anthem) of Sinfonia Sacra (1963) written for the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Poland was based on the hymn’s melody. In 1975, Wojciech Kilar wrote Bogurodzica for chorus and orchestra. And in 1982 Krzysztof Meyer used it as a main theme in one of the parts of his ‘Polish’ Symphony written as his reaction to the imposition of the martial law in Poland in 1981.
Source: After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music, ed. Maja Trochimczyk, vol. 6 of Polish Music History Series (Los Angeles: Friends of Polish Music at USC, 2000); Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, University of California Press, 1983, ed. GS, February 2016