Oskar Kolberg (1814–1890) the Founder of Musical Ethnography in Poland

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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 work.

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.

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