Nationalism in Poland in the 19th Century (Part 1)

Fryderyk Chopin

Mazurka in B major op. 56 no 1

Mazurka in C major op. 56 no 2

Mazurka in C minor op. 56 no 3

Polonaise in F sharp minor op. 44

Scherzo in B minor op. 20

Ballade in G minor op. 23 no. 1

After the fall of Napoleon, the history stopped in one place. Poles lost hope for regaining independence. A small part of Poland created by Bonaparte, The Duchy of Warsaw, survived only a few years. After the abdication of Napoleon, the eastern part of Poland including Warsaw was fully controlled by Russia. Tired of national disasters and disappointed people adopted a sober attitude to resignation and anticipation. Chopin's father strongly condemned Napoleon and trusted in the caring mission of Russia. People felt that it was necessary to develop an already-awakened sense of national identity. It was shown by the development of  national styles in romantic poetry and music and the cult of folk art. In this atmosphere Chopin was brought up.

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Praising folk and anonymous poems and songs of different nations became a trend, passion and mania. Beethoven was asked by English publisher Thompson to write an accompaniment to the songs of many nations, including two Polish songs Poszła baba po popiół and Oj, upiłem się w karczmie. Polish songs and dances attracted foreigners’ attention. Mazurkas and Polonaises became very popular in Europe, but they were far from the Polish original. Polish composers in the era of pre-romanticism competed in quoting and imitating Krakowiaks, Obertases, Kujawiaks, Mazurkas and Polonaises. They tried to smooth the songs so that they become more salon elegant. This so-called 'national style', with stereotypical accompaniment and full of improved and smooth folklore resembled a factory production of artificial flowers.

Chopin was the first person that opposed this practice. He was a strong individualist that couldn’t submit to it passively and uncritically. He was influenced by the university lectures of Brodziński 'The songs of the people' and the poets who instilled his love for the native folklore. Stefan Witwicki kept telling Chopin: ‘I hope you always remember: nationality, nationality and nationality again[1]’. Chopin was influenced by this way of thinking, but he was the first person that dared to maintain and even emphasize features that seemed harsh, archaic and against the rules of classical and romantical compositional techniques. Moreover, Chopin didn’t consider the national style as an artistic responsibility. The quintessence of his national style are Mazurkas, but despite the common practice, he didn’t quote folk tunes. He composed phrases referring to the Polish folklore, accents and chords so similar to authentic, so imbued with the spirit of the songs from Mazovia or Kujaw, as if they were a part of its landscape and culture.

[1] Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Chopin’s letters, Translation of a letter from Stefan Witwicki to Chopin (June 7, 1831)

Edyta Lajdorf BMus (Hons), MMus, LRSM, SMISM, concert pianist and piano teacher running piano lessons in London

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