by Michael J. Piduch [1]

Polish music in general is like a kaleidoscope – so varied in color and tenseness that it seems almost impossible to acquire one definite, clear and comprehensive idea of it. Much less is it possible to discuss the subject per longum et latum in a few passing paragraphs. Therefore out of moral and physical necessity I shall limit myself to the sold consideration of – why Polish music is what it is.

Psychology teaches us that music, as such, is a finer sense of the human soul. Music belongs to the most subtle and most sensitive organs of the soul, and as such, it is necessarily controlled by the most subtle and tender activity of the human intellect. We see herein, the strong and evident possibility of certain given nations or races acquiring a certain taste in music under the influence of environment.[2] Thus southern music (Mexican, Hawaiian or Spanish) differs essentially from the music we would expect to hear from the inhabitants of Norway, Sweden or Germany. Thus also, those of us who have a rather comprehensive knowledge of music at least in theory, can very easily distinguish between a French court ballad and a maxixe, between our own Sousa and Richard Wagner, between Drumheller’s Love and Devotion and Schubert’s Serenade.[3]

Sweet Melancholy

Furthermore, generally speaking, music expresses, more than does literature, the soul of a nation. A typical case of this truth is the music of Poland. Polish music expresses the soul of Poland more than the deep, mystical and inspiring words of Adam Mickiewicz, the famous Polish author.[4] In Polish music each little folksong, each musical theme from the single old fashioned country dance to the exquisite Valse Brilliante of Chopin, seems to breathe a different spirit. They all seem to suggest a different mood for the soulful listener. In Polish music, to speak in plain terminology, when we hear one melody, we love it, when we hear another, we love that too, when we hear another, we love it also, and so on, until – until our brains seem to be awhirl with that certain, unexplainable feeling of – pleasurable pain. Pleasurable pain indeed! whence it came we know not; we do not even dare to analyze our feeling of sweet melancholy, lest it should leave us for a moment or so.

But a realistic world of pleasure do we find in this – pleasurable pain! On hearing a typical Polish melody, I recall that I smiled even through oncoming tears. Could I say more about this unexplainable feeling? Could I say more about the effects of hearing Polish music? Oh, yes, I feel as though I could write and write, – but what? There is much, very much to write, but the human intellect seems to call my thoughts back and say: so far and no farther. The task of delving deeply and successfully into the quintessence of Polish music is a hopeless as an endeavor to translate literally the Italian term “dolce far niente”, the German “Gemütlichkeit”, or the Polish word “żal.”

The Countess d’Agoult asked Chopin, “by what substantive he called that which he enclosed in his compositions like unknown ashes in superb urns of most exquisitely chiselled alabaster?” “Conquered”, writes the flowery Liszt, “by the appealing tears which moistened the beautiful eyes with a candor rare indeed in the artist, so susceptible upon all that related to the secrets of the sacred relics buried in the gorgeous shrines of his music, he replied: there her heart had not defied her in the gloom which she felt stealing upon her, for whatever might have been the transitory pleasures, he had never been free from a feeling which might also be said to form the very soil of his heart, and for which he could find no appropriate expression except in his own language, no other possessing a term equivalent to the Polish word ZAL, As if his ears thirsted for the sound of this word which expressed the whole range of emotions produced by intense regrets through all the shades of feeling from hatred to repentance, he repeated it again and again.”[5] ŻAL, then, was the principal motif of Chopin’s charming music. And, it has been the principal motif of all Polish music from its very birth, especially from Nicholas Gomółka (1539) down to the last echo of Ignace Jan Paderewski.[6]


Polish music! “Strange substantive, embracing a strange diversity and a strange philosophy! Susceptible of different regiments, it includes all the tenderness, all the humility of regret borne with resignation and without a murmur, while bowing before the fiat of necessity and the inscrutable decrees of Providence . . .”

Strange music of Poland!
What has caused this strangeness?
What strange hands have molded this wonderful spirit of “a strange philosophy?”
History and nature have been the strange hands that molded this wonderful spirit of “a strange philosophy”. History and nature have been the parents of the Slav temperament, of his deep though simple tense soul.

If we were to ask History, we would readily and undoubtedly discover that music, the finest and most exquisite of the arts, is very often the “bitter” sweetness distilled from suffering and privation. The most subtle development has always come from peoples that have suffered – from peoples that have been ruthlessly oppressed until they have lost their independence and national existence. We also know that happiness and content of life are desirable, but they seldom if ever breed artists or keen and exquisite temperaments of any kind. What Poland suffered, the world knows only too well. “Probably no country in all history has been more torn and crushed in the political grinding together of powerful and warring neighbors than Poland,” says Leopold Stokowski in The Etude of February 1915.[7] Poland has been for centuries the bulwark, the outer fortress of Christianity, and as a celebrated American once remarked, “The vanguard of Democracy!” For years, nay even centuries, numerous enemy hordes of Tartars, millions of wild and maddened beasts came with a great fury and fiery onslaught than would seem possible to exist in human breasts . . . They came, they pitched their white tents before the grim walls of Kamienietz;[8] they attacked, but the wild tide of barbarians broke in twain on the Christian breast of fair, brave Poland. Kamienietz, Varna, Zbaraz, Somosierra . . . Vienna![9] What brave and inspiring memories cluster around the crumbling walls of ungrateful Vienna!

Henryk Sienkiewicz, the modern interpreter of the soul of Poland, tells us that the Poles never felt safe and secure before the Tartar and the Turk. “In the spring the hordes will come”, was a well known word among them. The Tartar and the Turk did come, like a hungry and revengeful tide and overran poor Poland, but they could not hold what they gained. And Poland fought not for herself. She fought and even died to save the prospering West with its Christianity. Grunwald, Tannenberg will remain, forever in the minds of the civilized world like eternal monuments of life and effort sacrificed for Democracy.[10] The autocratic and militaristic order of Teutonic Knights met the poorly equipped forces of Poland and Lithuania and suffered a defeat that robbed them of their powerful and usurping influence forever.

Time-Old Enemies of Tatar and Turk

How impressionistic is the Polish soul is seen in their architecture and dress. The Tartar and Turk came, and brought with them all the mysticism and utter fatalism of the Orient. Soon the Turkish tide ebbed away, but the marks of the Orient remained seemingly forever! Even the most casual observation will note the Oriental effects on the European Poles. We see the Turkish impress on their architecture and dress. Passing through some of the down-town streets, we find many a beautiful minaret, arabesque tracery and Byzantine effect in church decoration. Moreover, very many of Poland’s deepest thinkers fell victims to the mysticism and symbolism of the Orient. Two of the greatest Polish poets, Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz, very often sing like mystic bards of Teheran.[11]

Thus, centuries of almost continuous fighting passed, and finally, Poland, bleeding form a fatal wound, fell. “The partition of Poland,” says Alison in his History of the French Revolution, “combines at once all that we hate and despise. It had all the meanness of political swindling, the fury of national rapine and all the atrocity of military massacre.”[12] Persecution followed upon persecution until the face of downtrodden Poland was covered with blood. Twice the indomitable Poles arose in revolt, and twice their noble attempts failed! to the readers of history Poland presents a bitter spectacle, a sorrowful and pitiable tragedy of base injustice that cried to God for vengeance. The last scenes of the history of Poland are an epic of shattered hopes, but of pure and bold ideals. Art, and particularly music, nurtured in the breasts suffering all this, could not possibly have been different.

Nature, as it is visible in the Slavonic lands, and hence in Poland, also is generally monotonous. Rigor, gradually melting into the spirit of Oriental ease mixed with an air of melancholy, is the atmosphere it suggest. The vast undulating plains, like endless rocking seas of green fields, divided here and there by clumps of solitary elms, involuntarily make one sad. The eye seems to glide over the land in one second, drowning itself unexpectedly in the mists of the horizon. Very few landmarks arrest the eye. There are few, very few hills, but these are beautiful. Beauty – sleeping beauty, seems to be the indelible impression we acquire of the surroundings as they stretch out before us. Over all this resting pulchritude there seems to hover a spirit of mystery, unrest, a spirit of unexplainable sadness, loneliness and sweetest melancholy. The shepherds have led their flocks to the stables. Their flutes are silent for the night. All is silence – the deep, dreamy silence of a summer evening. Surely no music is heard; still one’s soul seems to be overflowing with soft and tender barcaroles whose voices, echoing deep in its darkened chambers, seem to lift us to the heights of happiness. Alas, when we are about to dream of this new happiness . . . Dost though forget that happiness is not the sole goal of thy frail life? . . . ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ We despair! Though we are cheerful, still one thought assumes control over our thoughts. It is the longing, the fond longing for something that would be real in perpetual unchanging value. The beauty of Poland is monotonous, but beautifully monotonous. It breathes sweetness, delight, cheer, content, all crowned with this mysterious and unintelligible spirit of melancholy, this untranslatable – ŻAL! “Beauty in its highest forms,” says Edgar Allan Poe, “invariably moves the sensitive soul to tears.”[13] The indomitable and sensitive Pole responds to this framing of all his art, but particularly his music, to the heights and depths of divine despair.

The Baptism of Fire

Thus Poland, baptized in fire and surrounded with the sweet melancholy of Nature, gave birth to a music of “a strange philosophy.” She gave birth to a music that is simple and grand. Polish music is famous for its world wide dances like the Polonaise, Oberek, Kuiaviak, Polka, Krakoviak, Mazurka and others.[14] Polish music soars high when we consider its originality and exclusiveness. There were, and there are many musical geniuses of other nations that exerted their otherwise pregnant and inventive minds to compose a Polonaise, a Kuiaviak or a Polka, but their honest and good hearted endeavors were not blessed with the real, distinctive Polka, but merely a composition which they themselves designated as Tempo di Polacca. In the valuable Etude of February, 1915, we read the following in the editorial: “Those who feel and know that the tragedy of Poland is in its last scene, and that the new Poland is to spring from the ashes of what the daring author, Michael Monaghan, has called ‘the last war of the kings’, must realize that Poland has gained its greatest renown during the latter part of the nineteenth century through its wonderfully capable and inventive musicians. While there have been great Poles in large numbers of the other branches of Polish accomplishments – among them the giant, Henryk Sienkiewicz – the world at large has not failed to note that music is the art in which the genius of Poland has received its greatest recognition. Who can estimate music’s debt to the land of Chopin and Paderewski?”

The tragedy of Poland, the Old Poland is ending. Poland, the New Poland is free and will be powerful once more. Nature will remain in its original suggestiveness and beauty and sweet melancholy, but the historical conditions will eventually be changed. What music may we then expect from resurrected Poland?


[1]. This and all subsequent notes by Maja Trochimczyk. Article reprinted from the March 1921 issue of The Etude Magazine 39, no. 3. It is also published online as part of the site Public Domain Music, at There are no bibliographical references about Michael J. Piduch currently available. [Back]

[2]. This statement echoes the principles of widely disseminated pilosophy of art by Hyppolyte Taine (1828-1893), La Philosophie de l’Art (first published in 1865 in Paris and repeatedly reprinted with the addition of essays on art in the Netherlands and Greece (1880)). Taine connected the genesis and characteristics of art of a given nation to the characteristics of environment (milieu, climate), the social context with its background of history and the genetical inheritance of the “race.” History, race and milieu were the three most important factors weighing heavily on individual creativity. Taine was a social Darwinist and the ideas of material and historical impact on creativity reflect his views in this area. [Back]

[3]. The maxixe was a Brazilian dance that originated in Rio de Janeiro in 1870s. John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was an American composer and band leader, the author of a large number of popular military marches. Drumheller’s Love and Devotion was a popular American song, published n [Back]

[4]. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was Poland’s most significant and influential romantic poet; after emigrating from the country following the fall of the November Uprising, he settled in Paris and taught at the Sorbonne. Mickiewicz wrote influential plays, poetry, and essays; at the end of his life he was associated with a movement of mystical nationalism led by Towianski. [Back]

[5]. Countess Marie d’Agoult was a hostess of a famous Parisian salon in the 1830s and the lover of Liszt for 12 years (she bore three of his children). Chopin and Mickiewicz were among guests at her salon. Franz Liszt published his monograph on Chopin in 1852 in Paris, 1852 (new edition appeared in 1879). The text was originally written in 1851 and published by instalments in La France musicale (5 Feb-17 Aug 1851). The text appeared in English translation as Life of Chopin in 1863, 1877 and 1899. [Back]

[6]. Mikołaj Gomółka (c. 1535 – c. 1609) was a Polish renaissance composer of protestant orientation; the author of a polyphonic Psalter setting Jan Kochanowski’s Polish translations of the Psalms. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) was a pianist, composer, and later prime minister of Poland). [Back]

[7]. The 1915 issue of The Etude dedicated in its entirety to Poland is discussed by Joseph A. Herter in “‘The Etude’s’ 1915 Musical Salute to Poland” Polish Music Newsletter 7, no. 11 (November 2001), ../news/nov01.html. The February 1915 issue contained the following articles: “Tragic Poland and its Musical Glory,” an editorial, p. 87; “Breadth in Musical Art Work,” an article based on an interview with Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1869-1941), p. 89; “The Music of Proud and Chivalrous Poland” by Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935) and Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), p. 91; “‘Zal’ – the Word That Expresses the Soul of Poland,” p. 92; “How Poland’s Inspiring Dances Have Enriched Musical Literature” by Antoinette Szumowska-Adamowski (1868-1938), pp. 93-94; “The Development of Music in Poland” by Jaroslaw (Jaroslaw) de Zielinski (1847-1922), pp. 95-97; “A Concise Biographical Dictionary of Noted Musicians in Poland,” with over 80 entries, p. 99; “The Etude Master Study Page Features Paderewski,” pp. 101-102; “A Master Lesson on Chopin’s ‘First Impromptu’ by Sigismond Stojowski, pp. 105-106; and reprints of a number of compositions, including: Chopin’s First Impromptu edited by Stojowski, pp. 107-109; Paderewski’s Minuet in G, Op. 14 no. 1, pp. 110-112; Polish Dance, Op. 3 no. 1 by Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924), pp. 114-115; Nocturne, Op. 50 no. 1 by Ignacy Krzyzanowski, p. 122; Two Polish Themes arr. by Albert Franz, p. 126; Polish Chivalry by A. Pieczonka, p. 128; and Kujawiak by Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880), p. 129 (for violin and piano). [Back]

[8]. Kamieniec Podolski was a stronghold in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Poland (now in the Ukraine) where the Polish army defeated advancing forces of the Ottoman Empire. Stanislaw Koniecpolski (1591-1646, Royal Field Hetman from 1618 and Grand Royal Hetman from 1632) led the Polish army in the battles against the Turkish forces in 1634 and 1635. Repeatedly attacked, Kamieniec was the site of another great battle won in 1675 by Polish forces under Jan Sobieski who later became Polish king. [Back]

[9]. Kamieniec, see note 8; Varna marks the site of defeat of European armies and the death of Prince Wladyslaw in 1444. Zbaraż is a stronghold in the eastern part of Poland, defended by Poles from attacks by the Ottoman army in 1640s. Somosierra does not really belong here since it was a site of a battle between invading Napoleonic forces (including Poles) and the Spanish army who defended their country and were defeated in 1808. The victory over the invading Turkish army at Vienna by the Polish army led by Jan Sobieski in 1683 remains one of Poland’s greatest military triumphs. [Back]

[10]. The villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg mark the site of the famous 1410 battle of the joint armies of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania, under king Władysław Jagieło against the invading army of the Teutonic Knights who used religious conversion as a justification for territorial conquest. The battle was portrayed by Nobel-prize-wining writer Henryk Sienkiewicz (1946-1916) in The Teutonic Knights, first published in 1900.[Back]

[11]. Adam Mickiewicz’s fascination with the Orient was expressed in the early Sonnets from the Crimea, a work that brought him international recognition. This cycle of sonnets, penned after Mickiewicz’s travels to the pennisula due to his exile from Poland by the Tsarist government, consists of eighteen poems capturing the beauty of the landscape and the complex, changing emotions of the lyrical subject: The Ackerman Steppe, Becalmed, Mountains from the Keslov Steppe, Baktschi Serai, Baktschi Serai by Night, The Grave of Countess Potocka, The Graves of the Harem, Baydary, Alushta by Day, Alushta by Night, Tchatir Dagh (Mirza), Tchatir Dagh (The Pilgrim), The Pass across the Abyss in the Tschufut-Kale (I and II), The Ruins of Balaclava, On Juda’s Cliff. Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) did not find the same level of recognition as Mickiewicz; he traveled to the Near East in 1836-39. Oriental themes appear in his poems celebrating the Greek resistance against Turkey (Lambro, 1822), and various works resulting from his travels (Podróż do ziemi świętej z Neapolu, 1839, including Greek-themed The Tomb of Agammemnon) and melancholy reflections about the fate of Poland conquered by Russia (Anhelli). [Back]

[12]. The author incorrectly identifies the book by Sir Archibald Alison (1792-1867), History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (Edinburgh, W. Blackwood, 1860). The most popular 19th-century book on the subject was The History of the French Revolution by Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), trans. by Frederick Shoberl (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1846; New York: G. Appleton, 1856, 1858, etc.). [Back]

[13]. Edgar Alan Poe (1809-1849), American romantic poet and novelist. The source of this quotation remains unknown. [Back]

[14]. For entries on Polonaise, Oberek, Kuiaviak, Polka, Krakoviak, and Mazurka see The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. L. Macy, . Polka is Czech in origin and is popular throughout central Europe, also in Germany and Poland. In the U.S. this dance became associated with the folklore of Polish Americans. Kujawiak, Mazur, and Oberek belong in one group of dances with triple meters, and ranging from slow to fast tempi. These dances originated in the Mazowsze area of central Poland. Krakowiak (cracovienne) comes from the Małopolska area surrounding the ancient capital of the country, Kraków. Similarly to polka it is in a duple meter. [Back]