The article presents the greatest Polish ethnographer, who was
also a professionally educated musician. He concentrated his
activities on the oral musical culture, still vital in the 19th century
but liable to changes. Culture studies by Kolberg concerned
mainly rural communities, statistically dominating in those times.
He planned to edit 60 volumes geographically covering the first
Polish State from before 1772; he managed to print 33 of them in his
lifetime and prepare many further anthologies for editing. Up till now,
the editorial work is still in progress. The already edited 80 volumes
show us an old social culture, folk ceremonies, musical repertoire
including ritual singing, songs and instrumental pieces. Kolberg’s
printed monument is a source of reflection on the past and can
inspire social studies, ethnomusicological research as well as musical
ensembles performing traditional ethnic music of peasant origin.
The size of Kolberg’s documentation means that a special Institute
of Oskar Kolberg had to be established to continue editorial and research
In spite of his positivistic and empirical attitude, Kolberg
still kept a romantic faith in the significance of folk songs and
singing for the preservation of national components in cultural
consciousness. Simultaneously, he developed a model for structural
analysis of popular/folk culture and intended to build a cultural atlas
of the country, building on the work of his father, professor of the
University of Warsaw, an outstanding cartographer. But the core
of Kolberg’s programme, its “planetary centre”, was always music.
It was music that gave him the stimulus to interpret the culture of
Central-Eastern Europe. To preserve regional diversity, he wrote down
more than 20 thousand vocal melodies, song texts and instrumental
pieces, paying special attention to variants and ornamentation.
For the contemporary composer, Kolberg’s volumes are a useful
musical reader. These huge anthologies of elementary but highly
integrated musical concepts demonstrate the collective creativity and
a fascinating prefiguration of mass culture, still open to symbols
and to poetry. Kolberg’s music transcriptions, catching music in the
process of performance, should not be treated as unchangeable patterns
for copying, but rather as a source that helps understand creativity
in traditional oral culture.