Culture & Society Poland Politics & International

The story behind Poland’s national anthem

Warsaw, Poland – From the Italian battle fields of Napoleonic wars to modern-day Poland, do you know the real story behind the Polish national anthem?

Since February 26, 1927, Poland’s national anthem has been Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, or Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, also known as ‘Poland Is Not Yet Lost’ and ‘The Song of The Polish Legions in Italy’.

The origins story: a military tune for Polish Legions in Italy

The man behind the now famous lyrics is Józef Wybicki (1747-1822), a jurist by profession, but also a renowned Polish intellectual, poet, diplomat and political activist. After the 1795 partition of Poland, which erased the country from the map, between its Russian, Austrian and Prussian neighbors, Wybicki headed to Italy to help form the Polish Legions, to fight alongside France’s Napoleon Bonaparte’s army – who was seen, at the time, as the most promising bet to help Poland regain its independence.

As history has it, Wybicki wrote the original lines of the song in Reggio Emilia, near Bologna, in 1797 to celebrate the retirement of some of the Polish legion’s soldiers. But its uplifting melody and hopeful lyrics (March, March, Dąbrowski, from the Italian land to Poland, under your command, we shall rejoin the nation) quickly conquered the hearts of the soldiers and lifted the spirits of the troops. The founder and general of the Polish Legions Jan Henryk Dąbrowski – to whom the song is dedicated – wrote to Wybicki a few weeks later: “The soldiers seem to like your song more every day. We are humming it often too, with all the due respect to the author”.

But while the origin of the lyrics is well-known, mystery looms over the identity of the author of the music. As legend goes, Wybicki might have composed the melody himself, supposedly based on the sound of his grandfather’s clock. But whoever the composer is, the music was most probably based on the mazur, a lively and upbeat national tune particularly popular among the Polish aristocracy.

The struggle for Polish independence

Initially created as a marching song for the Polish Legions in Italy, who numbered between 25.000 and 35.000 and were tragically decimated during the Napoleonic wars, the tune quickly spread and became increasingly popular, not only among the army ranks, but also among Poles back home who were yearning for independence.

Throughout the entire 19th century, Dąbrowski’s Mazurka remained highly popular and became a symbol of the Polish people’s struggle for freedom. It was for instance heard at most of the key events in Polish 19th century history, including during the 1830 November Uprising and the 1905 revolution.

It was also used and reinterpreted in other famous compositions, including German composer Richard Wagner’s Polonia overture, created after the 1830 November Uprising.

The official recognition

It’s therefore quite natural that it was suggested for the national anthem of the country after Poland regained its independence in 1918, in the aftermath of World War I. But the saga didn’t end here, and for many years, no definite song was chosen to become Poland’s national anthem. The 1921 Constitution also failed to define it, and several anthems were alternately played throughout those years.

As the story goes, it’s the Polish Ministry of Education which “single-handedly decided to put an end to this story and added in 1926 the song to primary school curricula with a note ‘to be taught as the national anthem’.” The following year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs legally recognized the Mazurka as Poland’s national anthem. More than one century after its conception, the mazurka finally achieved official national recognition.

The posterity: A piano recital and a museum

One of the most famous performances of the Polish national anthem came a few decades later: in 1945, the Polish pianist and virtuoso Artur Rubinstein, angry that Poland wasn’t officially recognized nor represented among the world’s nations, played the mazurka at the inauguration of the United Nations in the United States: “This hall, where the great nations have gathered to make this world a better place, I don’t see the flag of Poland, on behalf of which this cruel war [World War II] was waged. And so now, I will play the Polish national anthem”, he famously declared in front of representatives from all around the world gathered at the San Francisco Opera House.

A National Anthem Museum even opened in 1978 in the northern city of Będomin, Wybicki’s birth place about 50 km south of Gdansk. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you should definitely make a stop at the museum, where you’ll also be able to listen to the numerous parodies of the mazurka created throughout the centuries.

There, you’ll also learn how the Polish mazurka inspired other national anthems in Central and Eastern Europe, including the Ukrainian national anthem and the Pan-Slavic song “Hey, Slavs”, used as the official anthem of war-time Slovakia and Yugoslavia.

The competition: the forgotten anthems

But the competition to become Poland’s national anthem was fierce, as Culture.pl points out, and a mention should be made, in all fairness, of the songs and tunes that almost made the cut:

  • Bogurodzica, a religious poem allegedly composed in the 14th century. “Even though Bogurodzica’s popularity as the quasi-anthem declined in the 17th century, it remains a very important relic of Polish culture and was reassessed by some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century”, including Andrzej Panufnik for his Sinfonia Sacra.
  • Boże coś Polskę (God Save Poland) was a song written in the 1820’s whose popularity peaked during the 1863 January Uprising against the Russian Empire.
  • Another curious contender was the Warszawianka (La Varsovienne), a spin-off of France’s Marseillaise written by French poet Casimir Delavigne after the outbreak of the 1830 November Uprising. Smuggled into Poland, it was translated into Polish and transformed into a song by the director of the Warsaw Opera House, Karol Kurpinski.
  • And The Oath (Rota), a poem written by Maria Konopnicka and put into music by composer Feliks Nowowiejski in the early 20th century as a homage to the famous 1901 Września strike – an emblematic episode of Polish history during which Polish children from the town of Września, then under German occupation, refused to answer in German to their teachers. This incident had enormous repercussions and became a symbol of the protest against the Germanization of the Polish nation.

Now you known everything. But while we’re on the topic, do you know where the Polish flag comes from?

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