“Polonia”, Op. 76 by Edward Elgar
by Joseph Herter
Originally published on the PMC website on 8 August 2000
The Great War (1914-18) did not inspire many Polish composers to write music “for the cause.” If one recalls the political situation and borders of a non-existent Poland of that time, the explanation for this is simple. At the outbreak of the First World War, Poland had not existed as a sovereign nation for over a century. It had been partitioned by three of its neighbors and placed under their jurisdiction; these were the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian Empires. A public performance of a Polish patriotic composition in the partitioned lands would have been illegal and, for all practical purposes, impossible to organize. Turning the divided Polish nation into a battlefield also created a moral dilemma for the Poles who were forced to fight in the armies of their imperial rulers: that of having to go into battle and kill fellow Poles. At the war’s outset, 725,000 Poles in the Russian, 571,000 in the Austrian, and 250,000 in the Prussian partitions were drafted into those countries’ armies. Even though each of the powers promised the Poles some form of autonomy after the “victory” if they would fight for their side during the war, writing music for their cause would have been promoting Polish fratricide as well. Moral support for the Polish cause through music would have to come from abroad.
Polonia by Malczewski
A Pole who responded to the tragic situation into which Poland had been forced was the pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946). A student of Leo Delibes – and for shorter periods of time with Dubois, Massenet and Paderewski – Stojowski spent the last 40 years of his life teaching and composing in New York. There in 1915, free from the retaliation of Poland’s occupying powers, Stojowski took a political stance and wrote a cantata for solo voices, mixed chorus and orchestra,
“Prayer for Poland” (Modlitwa za Polskę ), op. 40.
Stojowski’s cantata, although long unperformed and forgotten, is one of the few works from the “war to end all wars” which was written on a spiritual base rather than on a totally patriotic one. The poem by Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-59) on which the cantata is based is addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Using the appellation “Queen of Poland” – a title which for centuries the Vatican has allowed Poles to use in the recitation of the Litany of Loreto – the poet calls upon Mary to “End thou for bleeding Poland her deep anguish.”
[Image on the left, above: “Polonia” 1918 by the Polish artist Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929). From a cycle of paintings entitled “Polonia” which were painted during WW I. This one depicts Poland with her crown restored and robed with a legionnaire’s coat. Behind “Polonia” are the unshackled feet of a Pole climbing a set of stairs. Not seen – resting by the Queen’s feet – is her scepter whose head bears a striking resemblance to Józef Piłsudski, the man who became Poland’s leading statesman between the two world wars. From the collection of the Świętokrzyskie Museum, Kielce.]
In writing about music as a voice of war in his book on 20th century music, the noted American musicologist Glenn Watkins states:
At various junctures throughout the twentieth century, man’s search for spiritual values has surfaced in opera, symphony, and Mass; mystery play, ballet and cantata. Yet the period before the beginning of World War I to the conclusion of hostilities was not noticeable for a musical corpus with a pronounced spiritual base, and while the anxiety of a society on the eve of global conflict has frequently been seen as the root of the Expressionist movement, the number of musical statements that speak directly of the war of 1914-18 are few.
Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941) responded to the cause of Polish independence by writing his only choral work, “Hej, Orle biały” (Hey, White Eagle), for male chorus and piano or military band in 1917. This was the official hymn of the Polish Army in America, for whose creation Paderewski was largely responsible.
The Polish Army in America consisted of over 20,000 enlisted Polish immigrants living in the United States, but who were not American citizens. This army trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and later joined the Polish Army in France, which brought their number to over 35,000.
[Image on the left: The cover of Paderewski’s hymn which was dedicated to the Polish Army in America and published in New York. Depicted on the cover is a Polish uhlan riding into battle. From the collection of the National Library (Biblioteka Narodowa), Warsaw, used by permisson; you may also see a larger image].
As the war came to an end, Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946) wrote an organ prelude entitled Friede, schönstes Glück der Erde, op. 31 nr. 5, which was based on the Schubert lied of the same title. A former student of Bruch and Dvořak, and a well-known organist and composer throughout Europe, Nowowiejski was named an honorary member of The Organ Society of London in 1931.
It was with Edward Elgar’s fantasia on Polish national airs, though, that the most outstanding, dramatic and nobly patriotic musical gesture for the Polish cause came into being during the First World War. Elgar, however, was not the first composer to have written a work entitled “Polonia”. The young Richard Wagner (1813-83), at one time sympathetic to Poland’s fate, wrote an overture bearing the same title in 1836. In 1883, Franz Liszt (1811-86) also wrote a work entitled “Salve, Polonia”, an orchestral interlude from his uncompleted oratorio “The Legend of St. Stanislaus”. All three compositions by Elgar, Wagner and Liszt make use of The Dąbrowski Mazurka, the hymn which was to become Poland’s national anthem after it regained its independence. The title of Elgar’s work, though, may not have come from the earlier works of Wagner and Liszt, but rather from compositions of the two Polish musicians most closely associated with the creation of Elgar’s piece: Paderewski and Emil Młynarski.
Paderewski, to whom Elgar’s Polish fantasia is dedicated, wrote his Symphony in B minor, op. 24 and gave it the name “Polonia” as well. The symphony – Paderewski’s only work in this genre – was inspired by the 40th anniversary of the 1863-64 Polish Uprising and completed in 1909. The symphony was premiered in Boston on January 12, 1909, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Fiedler. Paderewski uses the Polish National Anthem as well in this work. Unlike Elgar, however, who uses the hymn in its entirety, or Wagner and Liszt who write variations on the melody, Paderewski uses a motif from the hymn in the symphony’s last movement Vivace. The motif is discretely employed, one might even say – cleverly hidden – as a “hope leitmotif” for the rebirth of Poland. Even listeners who are familiar with the opening phrase of the Polish hymn and its text “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęla, kiedy my żyjemy” (Poland has not yet been lost so long as we still shall live) might easily let Paderewski’s use of the motif pass without recognizing it.
Emil Młynarski (1870-1935), who was responsible for asking Elgar to make his noble statement in support of the Polish cause in April 1915, completed his Symphony in F major, op. 14 in 1910. The composer did not give the title “Polonia” to his only symphony; rather it was a nickname given to the piece by other Polish musicians. The nickname is still often listed as part of the official title in catalogues of the composer’s works. According to Tadeusz Sygietyński (1896-1955), a composer and the founder of the internationally renowned Polish Song and Dance Ensemble Mazowsze, Młynarski’s symphony should bear this name because of its relationship in tragedy to Polish history as depicted in the cycle of paintings entitled “Polonia” by the 19th century Polish artist Artur Grottger. Młynarski, unlike any of the other composers whose works bear the same title, does not use “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła” in his composition.
[Image on the left: Emil Młynarski, the Polish conductor and composer, who asked Elgar to compose “Polonia” in aid of the Polish Victims Relief Fund. From the archives of the National Opera (Teatr Wielki), Warsaw, used by permission.]
Instead, he uses Polish dances – a mazurka in the third and a krakowiak in the fourth movements – and also employs the 13th century hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary “Bogurodzica” (Mother of God) which is still well known and sung by Poles today. This hymn, which has the distinction of being the oldest recorded Polish melody and poetry in existence, was sung by Polish warriors as they went into battle against the Teutonic Knights. The first seven notes of the medieval Bogurodzica are the exact same seven pitches of the opening theme of the “Kyrie in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor” of 1922 (see example 1 below). The premiere of Młynarski’s “Polonia” took place on February 6, 1911, in Glasgow with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra performing and the composer at the orchestra’s helm.
In addition to being a composer, Młynarski was also a famous conductor and it is for his role in this profession that he is best remembered today. He was the first conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (1901-05). In the first decade of the 20th century he guest conducted in Russia and in the British cities of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. From 1910-15 he was the music director of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow. His association with Elgar also included collaborating with him and Thomas Beecham in presenting a three-day festival of British music in 1915. It would also be Młynarski who would conduct the first Polish performance of “Polonia” at the Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw during the final days of the war on October 4, 1918. Following the war, Młynarski’s responsibilities included the directorship of both the Opera House (Teatr Wielki) and the Music Conservatory in Warsaw. After the war his guest conducting took him to the capitals of Europe and to major cities in America, where he joined the faculty of the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia in 1929.
Elgar would not be the last famous composer to write a work entitled “Polonia”. In fact, it was Elgar’s composition which became a source of consolation and inspiration for one of Poland’s greatest composers and conductors of the second half of the 20th century – Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1990). In search of political and artistic freedom, Panufnik escaped to the West and settled in England in 1954. As a conductor and Musical Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,he was responsible for a revival of Elgar’s work during the 1957-58 season. Also showing Panufnik’s affinity for “Polonia” is a 1997 BBC Radio Classics recording with Sir Andrzej conducting it in a 1978 performance with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. As a composer,though, Panufnik gave credit to Elgar for his own 1959 orchestral work of the same title. In his autobiography Panufnik writes:
It was not easy to start those spirited dances at a time of great loneliness… For a while I couldIcould not start. But then I started to think about Elgar’s sombre and noble “Polonia”, a work most evocatively echoing the heroic and tragic elements of Polish history. I decided to use the same title but to adopt a completely different approach, so that the two works together might provide a full spectrum of the Polish spirit and colour. Elgar made use of Polish patriotic songs but also took some of Chopin’s melodies, ending powerfully with the Polish National Anthem. In contrast I based my new-born “Polonia” on folk melodies and the vigorous, full-blooded rhythms of peasant dances.
Elgar’s compassion for the Poles’ tragic suffering during the war served as an example for other English composers to make their own Polish musical statements in kind. Arnold Bax (1883-1953) saw a similar need to help the Poles during World War Two (1939-45). Bax’s response was “Five Fantasies on Polish Christmas Carols” which were dedicated “To the Children of Poland” and scored for unison chorus and string orchestra. As Jan Sliwiński writes in the preface of the piano-vocal score of the Bax carols, the composer’s arrangements were “…meant to turn the blood of war into the balm of love. British children were to have sung them in aid of their starving Polish brothers and sisters.” Another British composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), also moved by the plight which Polish children experienced during WW II, took up the same theme in his choral work “The Children’s Crusade, op. 82”. Scored for children’s voices, percussion, two pianos and electronic organ, this ballad is a setting in English of Bertolt Brecht’s Kinderkreuzzug. It begins, “In Poland, in 1939, there was the bloodiest fight.” The world premiere of Britten’s work took place in 1969 on the 50th anniversary of Save the Children Fund, a British charity which was founded by Eglantyne Jebb to save starving Austrian children who were victims of a blockade imposed after the First World War.
“Polonia” was expressly written for the purpose of being performed at benefit concerts in aid of the Polish Victims Relief Fund, the raising of money for which was the primary activity of the Polish Victims Relief Committee. The Committee, which eventually established chapters in France, Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States, was founded in Vevey, Switzerland, in January 1915 by a group of eminent Poles who had planned the Committee’s formation with Paderewski at his Swiss villa in Riond-Bosson. Jointly heading the Committee were Paderewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), the author of “Quo vadis?” and, in 1905, the first Polish laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature. While calling upon others to assist hundreds of thousands of Poles, who were in desperate need of food, clothing and shelter, Paderewski, himself, donated more than $2 million from his own personal fortune to help his fellow countrymen.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
[Ignacy Jan Paderewski, photo taken from an American postcard printed c. 1910. From the archives of the Paderewski Museum, Warsaw; used by permission.]
Paderewski sought the most influential people in each country to either organize, lead or join the four national chapters of the Committee. In the United States, it was former President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) who headed the American Committee. In France, Paderewski succeeded in obtaining the help of former French President Emile Loubet (1838-1929) to organize the Committee there. Great Britain was no exception. The British Committee consisted of a star-studded list of artists and high ranking members of British society and government circles. Included with Elgar and his wife Alice were the famous English writers Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. (Unfortunately, the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad refused to join Paderewski’s efforts because of a disagreement about the way the French Committee had been organized). Other notable persons included the following: Arthur James Balfour, the Marquess of Crewe, the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, the Duchess of Bedford, the Marquis and Marchioness of Ripon, the Earl of Roseberry, former Prime Minister Lord Burnham, Prime Minister Asquith, future Prime Minister Lloyd George, Reginald McKenna, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain, Lord Northcliffe, Lord Charles Beresford and Viscount Edward Grey. In the first several months of its existence, the British Committee’s Polish Victims Relief Fund raised more than 50 thousand pounds sterling.
The world premiere of Elgar’s “Polonia” took place on July 6, 1915, with Sir Edward conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at Queen’s Hall in London in a benefit concert for the Polish Victims Relief Fund. Other works on the concert included one movement from Młynarski’s “Polonia” Symphony and Paderewski’s “Polish Fantasy on Original Themes for Piano and Orchestra, op. 19.14”
The thematic material for Elgar’s composition is drawn from both traditional Polish tunes and from compositions by Frederic Chopin and Paderewski. The former include “Śmiało podnieśmy sztandar nasz w górę” (Bravely Let Us Lift up Our Flag) also known as the “1905 Warszawianka” by Józef Pławiński, “Z dymem pożarów” (With the Smoke of Fires) also known as Chorale by Józef Nikorowicz (1827-1890) and “The Dąbrowski Mazurka” which has been the Poles’ national hymn since the regaining of Polish independence. The latter group includes the opening theme from Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, op. 19 and a quotation from Chopin’s Nocturne no. 11 in G minor, op. 37 no.1.
In the introduction to the full score of “Polonia” Jerrold Northrop Moore states that it was Młynarski who proposed the Polish national melodies to be used, but that it was Elgar who selected the quotations from Chopin and Paderewski. These national melodies will surely be unfamiliar to the non-Polish listener. The “1905 Warszawianka” is the first song used in the introduction of the fantasia. It is the two-measure dotted-rhythm melody which is first heard in measure no. 4 as played by the bassoons and bass clarinet. Later, it is not only used as a transitional motif between sections of the fantasia, but the motif is also developed in two separate sections of the composition which give a unifying force to the work. Although the text of the song itself dates from the 19th century and was written by WacŁaw Święcicki (1848-1900), it became popular when sung to a melody by Józef Pławiński and was used as an uprising song against the Russians in Warsaw in 1905. This song became popular with workers’ movements throughout Europe. It was translated into over a dozen languages and accompanied the revolutionary communist movement in many European countries. The following hymn and the other Polish national hymns given below in English have been translated by the author.
Bravely let us lift up our flag,
Even though the storm of the unrestrained enemy rages,
Even though their unbearable force treads us down,
Even if it is uncertain to whom tomorrow belongs.
Onward to the bloody fight, which is holy and just!
March on, Warsaw, march on!
“The 1905 Warszawianka” (used by permission of Grupa Wydawnicza “Słowo”.)
The second national tune “With the Smoke of Fire” or “Chorale” came into being following the Austrian Army’s bloody suppression of the Cracow Uprising of 1846. As a national song, it best conveys the patriotic agony which the Polish nation experienced during the 123-year-long period of partitions by the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Sung at both patriotic manifestations and at church services, the occupying powers soon forbade the public singing of this hymn. Punishment for performing the hymn was severest in the Prussian territories.
Elgar uses this melody twice in its entirety in his symphonic prelude. The first time is after Elgar’s “nobilmente” original thematic material, which immediately follows the introduction, and the second time is just prior to the finale containing what is now known as the Polish National Anthem – “The Dąbrowski Mazurka”. Almost 30 years later, this hymn would be used once again to give the Poles courage when Radio London signaled the partisans in the nation’s capital to begin the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. The Chorale written by Nikorowicz was sung to the tragic text of Kornel Ujejski (1823-1897).
Our voices ring out to You, O Lord,
With the smoke of fires and the dust of fraternal blood.
The complaint is frightful; it is our last moan.
From these prayers our hair turns gray.
By now the complaints have stopped
And the songs we know are none.
Forever a crown of thorns has grown into our forehead
As a monument to your anger.
To You we outstretch our imploring hands.
[“Chorale,” used by permission of Grupa Wydawnicza “Słowo”.)
The last national tune used by Elgar is the Polish National Anthem which forms the basis of the fantasia’s triumphant finale. The anthem’s alternative title, “The Dąbrowski Mazurka”, refers to General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, the leader of the Polish Legions who fought for Napoleon Bonaparte. The hymn dates from 1797 and was written in Reggio Emilia, Italy, by Józef Wybicki (1747-1822). The tune given to the hymn was a popular Polish folk melody. As it was sung by the legionnaires in their battles and journeys, the melody stayed with the Slavs in what is known as Yugoslavia and became the tune of their national hymn as well. The Serbs, however, sing it at a much slower tempo than the Poles do. For those familiar with the Polish national hymn today, it might sound as though Elgar ornamented the melody. Actually, this is the way the melody existed prior to 1918. Immediately following the establishment of the Republic of Poland, the Ministry of Education was given the task of making the melody easier for school children to sing. The passing notes heard in the last phrase of Elgar’s setting of the hymn are noticeably missing in the post-war version. Although competitions were held after the war to search for a new national hymn, “The Dąbrowski Mazurka” became the official hymn on February 26, 1927. A translation of the hymn follows:
Poland has not yet been lost
So long as we still shall live.
That which foreign force has seized
We shall regain by the sword.
March, march Dąbrowski!
From Italy to Poland!
Under your command
Let us rejoin the nation.
The last phrase of the Polish National Anthem “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła”.
The first example shows how it was sung prior to 1927, while the second example illustrates how it is sung today.
A listening guide for “Polonia” follows. The form of the piece is a free design. The work is scored for full symphonic orchestra and includes the following instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (6 players), 2 harps, organ and strings.
|“Allegro molto”: Original martial-like music by Elgar coupled
with a two-measure motif based on m. 1 and 6 of “The 1905 Warszawianka”.
Motif first appears at measure 4 when played by the bassoons and bass clarinet.
|A||21-37||A minor||“Nobilmente”: A broad, heroic-sounding original melody by
Elgar played by the full orchestra. The melody is chromatically altered
during the second playing.
|Transition||38-44||modulates||The rhythm of the “Warszawianka” is played by the percussion
and violas while winds and remaining strings play a motif from Elgar’s
|B||45-92||E major||“Poco meno mosso”: The melody “Z dymem pożarów” (“Chorale”) is
intoned by the English horn, which is later joined by the winds and strings,
and finally with full orchestra joining on the last phrase. At a fortissimo
dynamic level the lower brass play the penultimate four-measure phrase
of the “Chorale” to a descending scale accompaniment by the rest of the orchestra.
The music becomes softer and slower until piu lento at m. 85 where the
violoncello is given the melody – slightly varied – as a solo.
|Transition||93-100||E minor||“Piu mosso, poco a poco”: “The Warszawianka” motif is now extended
into a four-measure phrase.
|C||101-140||E minor||“Allegro molto”: The motif from “Warszawianka” is developed
into an entire section using additional melodic material from other measures
of the song as well.
|A1||141-150||E minor||Elgar’s “nobilmente” theme returns.|
|Transition||151-162||Modulates to G minor||“Poco piu tranquillo”: Change in mood, dynamics and color.
Tremolo strings lead to the modulation, after which the strings are muted.
|D||163-210||G minor|| In this section Elgar pays homage to Paderewski and Chopin.
It begins with a quotation of the opening theme from Paderewski’s “Fantasia”
which in “Polonia” has been transposed a half-step lower from its original
key. Played first by the violins, the phrase is echoed by the clarinet.
This echo technique is then repeated between the clarinet and flute. At
m. 186 the Chopin “Nocturne” is quoted by the solo violin. Expressive flexibility
of tempo with markings of “allargando”, “accelerando” and a tempo are heard
during Elgar’s use of the Chopin.
|Transition||211-229||Modulates||The “Warszawianka” motif and fragmented versions
of the Chopin and Paderewski themes are heard simultaneously until the
martial music of the “Warszawianka” completely dominates at m. 221, “Piu mosso,
poco a poco”.
|C1||230-295||E minor||Once more the music of the “Warszawianka” is developed
into a section of its own. Prominent is a motif based on m. 17 and 18 of
the song where the text “Naprzód, Warszawo!” (Onward, Warsaw!), appears.
Dazzling chromatic runs accompany and, following the dramatic luftpause
between m. 261 and 262, ascending chromatic scales are played “con fuoco”.
|B1||296-311||A major||The Chorale returns accompanied by rising arpeggios in the harps and
violins which add a sense of urgency in the pleading nature of this tragic
|Transition||312-329||Modulates||The “Warszawianka” motif, the first four measures of the Polish
national anthem and the first two measures of the penultimate phrase of
“Chorale” are heard dovetailing each other, while at other times they are
played simultaneously. The entire transition is played “pianissimo”.
|Finale||330-379||F major||“Moderato maestoso”: A change from quadruple to triple meter.
The Polish national hymn dominates this section. The anthem is heard twice
in its entirety. These complete settings are separated by short development
of the mazurka at m. 349 “animando”. The final playing of the anthem at m.
360 “Grandioso” uses all the resources of the orchestra, including full organ,
creating a glorious climax to the fantasia on Polish airs.
|Coda||380-end||F major||“Allargando al fine”: Based on the dotted rhythm of the first
measure of the mazurka.
Inasmuch as anniversaries present an opportunity to remember and learn from the past, let this 80th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice not only make us recall the horror and tragedy of that Great War, but let it also make us cherish Elgar’s musical response to the plight of a people whose once and future nation was often forgotten and who suffered so horribly in the shadows of the principal players of that terrible world conflict. In October 1999, as the musical world celebrates another anniversary – the sesquicentennial of Frederic Chopin’s death – it will again have the opportunity to reassess another Elgar composition recalling how this English musical giant saluted Poland’s most famous composer by orchestrating the “Funeral March” from his “Sonata in B-flat minor”.
 Drozdowski, Marian Marek:Ignacy Jan Paderewski – a Political Biography, 1981, p. 68. This article originally appeared in The Elgar Society Journal 11 no. 2 (July 1999): 97-109. Reprinted by permission of the Journal and the author. The Journal’s address is:107 Monkhams Avenue, Woodford Green, Essex IG8 0ER, Great Britain. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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