William Helmcke


Nation/Culture.  Poland is a homogenous Central European country of 38 million people, 90% of whom are Catholic. Catholicism strongly influences Polish culture and history, which began in 966 when Duke Mieszko I was baptized Roman Catholic. At its peak in the 1600s Poland was four times larger than today. In 1655 the Black Madonna of Częstochowa protected the monastery Jasna Góra from a Swedish invasion, thus leading to her being crowned Queen of Poland. In 1683 Jan Sobieski defeated invading Islamic Turks at the Battle of Vienna, thus keeping Europe Christian. The world's second Constitution was adopted in Poland on May 3, 1791. Later, Poland was partitioned by Austria, Germany, and Russia, eliminating it from the map from 1795 to 1918. Following WWI Russians attacked Poland’s fledgling democracy, which was established and defended by Józef Piłsudski. In 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising Varsovians valiantly defended the capital, which was 85% destroyed. Despite working with Allies during WWII, Poland fell behind the Iron Curtain. Between 1948-1981 Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński led Poland spiritually as “Primate of the Millennium.” In 1978 Karol Wojtyła’s election as Pope John Paul II in inspired the Poles; his 1979 Pentacost homily at Victory Square changed history. In the turbulent 1980s Lech Wałęsa co-founded Solidarność (Solidarity) and Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko was kidnapped and murdered by communists. In 1989 Poland ended Soviet-imposed communism. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. The US and Poland remain strong allies.


Music. Folk music was and is an important source of expression, as reflected in the five national dances: mazurka, polonaise, krakowiak, kujawiak, and oberek. Polish folk music inspired Fryderyk Chopin, who blended common-practice techniques with dance genres and rhythms. Famous Polish singers include Mieczysław Fogg (1901-1990), Czesław Niemen (1939-2004) and Jacek Kaczmarski (1957-2004).


During the 1960s-80s Niemen and Kaczmarski wrote and sang powerful protest songs like “Dziwny jest ten Świat” (Strange is this World) and “Mury” (Walls) respectively. Disco polo, blending folk and rock styles, developed in the 1990's. Known rock bands include Czerwony Gitary (Red Guitars), Skaldowie (Troubadours), and Dżem (Jam).


A variety of music festivals are held throughout Poland. One of which, the Fryderyk Awards (Grammies) takes place each April.


Significant Polish pieces include:

Bogurodzica (Mother of God) [oldest Polish composition]

Gaude Mater Polonia (Rejoice Mother Poland)

Mazurek Dąbrowskiego (Dabrowski’s Mazurka) [National Anthem]

Boże, coś Polskę (God, Protect Poland)

Żeby Polska była Polską (Let Poland be Poland)

Sto Lat (100 Years) [Polish Happy Birthday]

Kolędy (Christmas carols) [beautiful and very popular]


Notable Musicians.

Wacław z Szamotuł (c. 1524-1560): Renaissance composer

Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (c.1665-1734): Baroque composer

Bartłomiej Pękiel (?-c.1670): Baroque composer

Józef Elsner (1769-1854): Classical composer, theorist, teacher of Chopin

Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857): Nationalist composer, national opera director

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Early romantic composer, pianist

Karol Lipiński (1790-1861): Violinist, composer, rival of Paganini

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Romantic composer, pianist, heart in Warsaw

Oskar Kolberg (1814-1890): Ethnomusicologist, collector of 12,000 folksongs

Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872): Nationalist composer, father of Polish opera

Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880): Violinist, composer

Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941): Pianist, Prime Minister of Poland

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909): Late romantic composer

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937): Early 20th-century composer

Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982): Pianist

Roman Maciejewski (1910-1998): Sacred composer

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994): Secular composer

Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991): 20th-century composer

Wojciech Kilar (1932-): Film and sacred composer

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-): Sacred and secular composer

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010): Sacred and secular composer

Zygmunt Krause (1938-): Contemporary composer

Zbigniew Preisner (1955-): Film composer

Krystian Zimerman (1956-): Pianist

Paweł Łukaszewski (1968-): Sacred composer

Paweł Mykietyn (1971-): Contemporary composer


Music in Higher Education. Musicians can study at the following eight institutions, which are members of the European Association of Conservatories.

Academy of Music (F. Nowowiejski) in Bydgoszcz, http://www.amuz.bydgoszcz.pl/en.html

Academy of Music (S. Moniuszko) in Gdańsk, http://www.amuz.gda.pl/pds_pl_v2.php?site=ects_en&a=1&b=4&c=1

Academy of Music (Karol Szymanowski) in Katowice, http://www.am.katowice.pl/?a=am-katowice-en

Academy of Music in Kraków, http://www.amuz.krakow.pl/en/29/2/7/History

Academy of Music (Grażyna i Kiejstut Bacewicz) in Łódź, http://www.amuz.lodz.pl/en/

Academy of Music (I.J. Paderewski) in Poznań, http://www.amuz.edu.pl/page.php/2/0/show/121

Academy of Music (Karol Lipiński) in Wrocław, http://www.amuz.wroc.pl/language/en/

Fryderyk Chopin University of Music (Warsaw), http://www.chopin.edu.pl/en/


Additionally, students can earn academically-focused BA and MA degrees at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, and Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin; and BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees at University of Warsaw, University of Wrocław, and Jagiellonian University in Krakow.


Music in Schools. Polish students attend elementary (grades 1-6), middle (7-9), and high school (10-12). Wind ensemble or orchestra are rarely offered in the schools' curriculums. But in musical elementary and middle schools, students receive weekly individual lessons, while non-music schools students receive weekly general music. High school students take one year of music history or art and may take a music history test on their matura (exit exam). Traditionally, one hundred days before matura, seniors attend studniówka (prom), which always begins with a polonaise. Kilar’s polonaise from Pan Tadeusz or Michał Ogiński’s Farewell to the Fatherland are often employed for this opening dance.



William Helmcke, University of Warsaw


Paweł Łukaszewski, Fryderyk Chopin University of Music (Warsaw)


Katarzyna Naliwajek, University of Warsaw


Maciej Gołąb, University of Wrocław


Bożena Muszkalska, University of Wrocław



Recommendations for Listening.


Ballades (especially Op. 38)

Fantasy on Polish Airs Op. 13 and Fantasy Op. 49

Mazurkas (esp. Op. 7 no. 1, Op. 68 no. 3)

Polonaises (esp. Op. 40 no. 1, Op. 44, Op. 53)

Rondo-Mazur Op. 5 and Rondo-Krakowiak Op. 14

Scherzos (esp. Op. 20)

Songs (esp. “Leci Liście z drzewa” and “Melodia”)


Symphony No. 3

Totus Tuus


Via Crucis


Symphonies 1-3

Cruce Tuam

Nunc Dimittis

Ave Maria



Straszny Dwór

300 songs (any are excellent examples)


St. Luke Passion

Polish Requiem


Ubu Rex



Już się zmierzcha (Already It Is Dusk)


Christmas Carols:

Bóg się rodzi (God is Born)

Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Baby Jesus) [ Chopin’s Op. 20]

Oj, maluśki, maluśki (Oh Little One);

Wśród nocnej ciszy (In the Silence of the Night);

Gdy się Chrystus rodzi (When Christ is Born)


Recommendations for Viewing.

Warszawa 1935 (Warsaw 1935), 2013; Tomasz Gomoła, director.

Bitwa warszawska 1920 (Battle of Warsaw 1920), 2011; Jerzy Hoffman, director.

Mazowsze: The Music and Dance of Poland, 2007; Roy A. Hammond, director.

Pan Tadeusz [Polish National Epic], 2000; Andrzej Wajda, director.

Trzy Kolory: Czerwony, Biały, Niebieski (Three Colors: Red, White, Blue), 1994; Krzysztof Kieślowski, director.

Miś (Teddy Bear), 1980; Stanisław Bareja, director.

Sami Swoi (Our Folks), 1967; Sylwester Chęciński, director.

Popiół i Diament (Ash and Diamond), 1958; Andrzej Wajda, director.



Recommendations for Reading (in English).

Bellman, Jonathan, 2009. Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davies, Norman, 2004. Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. New York: Penguin.

Davies, Norman, 2005. God’s Playground: a History of Poland. New York Columbia University Press.

Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques, 1989. Chopin: Pianist and Teachers as Seen by his Students. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldberg, Halina. 2008. Music in Chopin’s Warsaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michener, James, 1984. Poland. New York: Fawcett Books.

Moran, Michael, 2009. A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland. London: Granta Publications.

Samson, Jim, 1995. Cambridge Companion to Chopin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Samson, Jim, 2001. Chopin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, Adrian, 2008. Polish Music since Szymanowski: Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.