Fascinating Oskar Kolberg

“I don’t know” is a typical answer to the question “Who was Oskar Kolberg?” Sometimes people also say “Oh, I remember something from my music lessons at school”. Meanwhile, the very title of the Polish ethnographer’s major work, The Folk: customs, life, speech, tales, proverbs, ceremonies, rituals, games, songs, music and dance, as well as its magnitude (over 80 volumes, about 40 thousand printed pages), seem to attest to his passion and outstanding contribution to culture. The 200th anniversary of Kolberg’s birth, which we are celebrating this year, is a perfect opportunity to reminisce about this remarkable figure.

            Henryk Oskar was born two hundred years and two months ago, on February 22, 1814 in Przysucha, but five years later his family moved to Warsaw. His mother, Karolina Mercoeur, was of French ancestry, and the father, Juliusz Kolberg, had his roots in Mecklenburg.

However, they would speak Polish in the home and host eminent members of Warsaw’s artistic and academic circles, to mention their neighbors Samuel Bogumił Linde or the Chopin family.

Oskar had been interested in music since childhood. He studied composition and learned to play grand piano – first in Warsaw under Elsner and Dobrzyński (he also worked as a bank accountant at the time), and later in Berlin. In 1836, he passed his examination under Elsner as “pianist, accompanist and composer” with excellent results.

He would try different jobs to make a living: he was a home tutor, accountant of the Warsaw-Vienna Rail and the Directorate of Roads and Bridges; he co-edited music-related entries in Orgelbrand’s “Encyclopedia”; gave piano lessons and published his own pieces in Berlin, Leipzig and Warsaw.

            Nevertheless, his passion, which gradually became his main occupation, was folk culture.  Although “songs, music and dance” are the last component of his major work’s lengthy title, they were actually the beginning of it all. Throughout numerous journeys Kolberg would write down the local tunes, initially working them out in a manner familiar to himself – by adding piano accompaniment.

Thus, the first collection of traditional music, Songs of the Polish Folk, came to being in early 1840s. It was  published in Poznań because the censorship in Warsaw would not permit it. Several years later, Kolberg began to publish more volumes under the same title, yet his scope and method had changed by then. Field trips to a few dozen villages had brought about rich comparative material which enabled to capture the same tunes as performed in different regions of pre-partition Poland.

            Songs were the beginning, but they certainly were not the end. Travels, talks, correspondence and unabated ethnographer’s passion gave rise to yet another project – a series of regional monographs, including, apart from music, other elements of culture: customs, life, speech, tales, proverbs, ceremonies, rituals, games…

The task was not easy: research took much time and effort, to the point of forsaking the regular job. Kolberg sought assistance of the aristocracy, landowners, scholarly societies, authorities – often his attempts remained futile. As soon as the first edition of Songs… appeared, he noted on a copy of the agreement:

I  am the one who got a raw deal on this.

His work had not been appreciated by academic circles until the 1870s.

            Kolberg died in Kraków on June 3, 1890. During his lifetime, 33 volumes of The Folk… were published, but still plenty of material was left as manuscripts. A critical edition of his works already amounts to 80 volumes and has not yet been completed.

Kolberg’s documentation of culture and tradition was unparalleled in erstwhile Europe. Today, it still remains a source of knowledge and inspiration not only for ethnographers or musicologists, but also for musicians and all those who are – just like its author – passionate discoverers of folk culture.

Katarzyna Spurgjasz

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