Countdown to Krakow: The Polish Spirit is the Spirit of Song

Maria Wodzińska, “Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin” (1836)
Maria Wodzińska, “Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin” (1836) (photo: Public Domain)

There is something about music and Krakow – it is hard to imagine one without the other. In the summer months the air is filled with music from buskers and other entertainers in the Rynek – the market square.

One secret to music’s success in Krakow is the extensive cellars throughout the city. Some of these cellars were the old entry point to a building when the street level was lower; others are more recent. Designed with brick arches, these cellars provide phenomenal acoustics, particularly when it is dark and bitterly cold outside and all merrymaking is forced indoors.

Music for Poland, however, is more than rosy sentimentality or simple entertainment. It is part of the country’s collective memory of the past. Historian Eric Kelly said, “The Polish spirit is the spirit of song, the song of sorrow and courage. Poland could not live without her music.” 

Poland, because of its unusual political structure and geographic position, has suffered centuries of invasions. In the 18th century, the country called Poland was erased from every map for 123 years, while its neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria, divided the spoils (known as the Partition, generally). For the people who called themselves Poles, however, it was imperative that they remembered their heritage. They needed to keep alive their past, their courage in the face of persecution, and their tight connection to their Catholic faith for the day when Poland would emerge again, free from oppressive regimes.

The conquerors of Poland used various tactics to assimilate the Poles into their own cultures and erase anything Polish, some going to far as to make it illegal for songs about faith, hope and heritage to be sung in Polish. Outlawed were the well-known Polish hymns such as “From the Smoke of Dead Fires,” or “God Preserve Poland.” To get around the unjust laws, Poles merely switched languages and sang the words in Latin, even under the threat of soldiers who singled out song leaders and sent them to foreign prisons.

Melancholy music

The works of Poland’s most famous composer, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), reflects the melancholic mood of the country that has suffered so much. Chopin, a child prodigy and piano virtuoso, wrote music in the Romantic style. Born in Warsaw under the partitioned Poland, he left the country when he was 20 for France until his death, all the while remaining a great Polish patriot. 

The melancholy spirit remains a force in Polish music. The more contemporary post-World War II composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) gained international fame for his haunting but beautiful music, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Sung by American soprano Dawn Upshaw, it was written to honor the millions who died in the Holocaust.

Folk and Dance Music

Poland has a deep heritage of folk and dance music, much of it specific to different regions of the country. It too became expressions of patriotism under oppressive regimes. The polonaise, a musical style adopted by Western Europe, was immortalized by Chopin’s 16 versions of the musical form that evokes themes of courage, knighthood, and military victories. 

The Podhale region just south of Krakow in the Tatra Mountains is renown for its Goral folk music that features the distinctive sounds of violins and accordions. The stories the songs told recounted the lives of courageous heroes. 

The polka, often thought to have its roots in Poland, actually originated in the Czech Republic. The word “polka” has two possible meanings, either referring to “a Polish woman” or the Czech word “půlka," meaning “half,” which could refer to the short steps in the dance. Regardless of the origins or name of the word, Poles have been dancing the Polka for centuries.

Folk music was also used historically as a catechetical tool in medieval Poland. In a song similar to in structure to the “The 12 Days of Christmas,” school children were taught the basics of the faith through the song “A Ty, Zaczku", or “Oh, Thou Scholar”. Translated, the words are: 

Oh, thou educated scholar 
tell me what is one?  

One Son of Mary, Who Reigns in Heaven and Earth
Two Tablets of Moses
Three Patriachs  
Four Gospels of the Evangelists  
Five Wounds of Our Lord
Six Beautiful Girls Give Lilies to the Blessed Virgin  
Seven Sacraments  
Eight Divine Loves  
Nine Choirs of Angels  
Ten Commandments of God
Eleven Prophets  
Twelve Apostles  
Thirteen Lord Jesus

Like the stain-glassed windows in churches were for the illiterate, music was another way to pass along the faith to those who couldn’t read or who didn’t own books.

Klezmer Music

The Jewish quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz, was known for Klezmer music that originated in Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Played particularly for weddings and other celebrations, it usually features violins, the accordion, trumpets, pianos and the signature sound of the clarinet. The sound was captured by the music of The Fiddler on the Roof. You can still hear it played in the Jewish quarter today particularly at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.