1859: A pre-execution tribute to John Brown, and a warning

In 1859, Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote a poem concerning the then-upcoming execution of John Brown, famous American abolitionist. He had spent about eighteen months, from September 1852 to April 1854 in New York.

The “peculiar institution” obviously made a huge impression on him; more than five years after his return to Europe, he felt the need to write about a figure who brought the conflict between American ideals and American reality to the forefront.

Cyprian Norwid was, put simply, the first of the Polish modern poets. I hope to include as many translations of his works as I can, but here is the first.

Do obywatela Johna Brown
(Z listu pisanego do Ameryki w 1859, listopada)
To Citizen John Brown
(From a letter written to America in November, 1859)

Przez Oceanu ruchome płaszczyzny
Pieśń Ci, jak mewę, posyłam, o! Janie…
Like a seagull, I send a song to you, O John,
across the ocean’s floating plane,

Ta lecieć długo będzie do ojczyzny
Wolnych – bo wątpi już: czy ją zastanie?…
– Czy też, jak promień Twej zacnej siwizny,
Biała – na puste zleci rusztowanie:
By kata Twego syn rączką dziecinną
Kamienie ciskał na mewę gościnną!
Long will be this flight, to the home
of the Free – for there are already doubts: will it arrive?…
– Also whether the beam from thy frosty white
nobility will be assigned to the empty scaffold:
So the childish hands of thy executioner’s son
will throw stones at the guest seagull!

Więc, niźli szyję Twoją obnażoną
Spróbują sznury, jak jest nieugiętą;
So they check the ropes and
see that your bare neck is unyielding;

Więc, niźli ziemi szukać poczniesz piętą,
By precz odkopnąć planetę spodloną –
A ziemia spod stóp Twych, jak płaz zlękniony,
Pierzchnie –
więc, niźli rzekną: “Powieszony…” –
Rzekną i pojrzą po sobie, czy kłamią? –
So you’ll search for the ground with your heels,
So as to cast off this debased planet –
But the earth takes flight from under thy feet,
like a frightened reptile –
Then they will utter the word: “He’s hanged…” –
They’ll mutter and glance at each other: “is this a lie?” –

Więc, nim kapelusz na twarz Ci załamią,
By Ameryka, odpoznawszy syna,
Nie zakrzyknęła na gwiazd swych dwanaście:
“Korony mojej sztuczne ognie zgaście,
Noc idzie – czarna noc z twarzą Murzyna!”
Therefore they crumple his hat down upon his face
Before America can recognize her son
and shout at her twelve stars:
“Extinguish the unnatural fires of my crown;
The night is coming – a black night with the face of a Negro!”

Więc, nim Kościuszki cień i Waszyngtona
Zadrży – początek pieśni przyjm, o! Janie…
Bo pieśń nim dojrzy, człowiek nieraz skona,
A niźli skona pieśń, naród pierw wstanie.
So, before the ghosts of Kościuszko and Washington
tremble – accept the origin of this song, O John…
For before his song matures, a man will sometimes die,
But that the song survives, a nation will first arise.

1949: Another go at Pan-Slavism

Let’s consider this a historical footnote…

Pan-Slavism is a movement which sprang out of common themes in arts, folklore and linguistics in the mid-19th Century. Originally a response to France’s actions in the Napoleonic Wars, it gained much interest in subsequent years in response to Pan-Germanism and romantic nationalism in general. As relationships between Slavic groups were rarely far-reaching and often tense, ideals of Pan-Slavism had an uphill battle. Encroachment from the Russian Empire (and that of the Soviet Union later) made the largest group an unlikely ally.

Pan-Slavism was perhaps the weakest in Poland, which for many reasons considered itself different from many other groups… but that didn’t stop the Communist government from promoting it in the following song Rzeki (The Rivers) – with music composed by Piotr Perkowski and lyrics by Kazimierz Jaworski:

Śpiewają rzeki z godnym chórem
młodości naszej bujną pieśń
i echo im odbrzmiewa wtórem
i ginie za morzami gdzieś.
Białoczerwonej Wisły fala
Warszawy honor głosi w świat
I Wołga jej wtóruje z dala
jak siostra siostrze, bratu brat.
The rivers sing in a worthy chorus
our youth send the song aflight,
an echo accompanies them in harmony
and dies off somewhere beyond the sea.
The red and white waves of the Wisła*
proclaim Warsaw’s honor to the world
And the Volga* echoes to it in the distance
like sister to sister – brother to brother.

O, rzeki bratnie, krwią płynące,
przelejcie w żyły nam swą moc!
Jedna jest droga Słowian w słońce
i jeden wróg jest wspólny noc!
Niebu uśmiecha się Wełtawa
i grzywą wstrząsa czeski lew.
Szeroka jest Wardaru sława,
czerwona partyzancka krew.
Oh, brother river, flowing with blood,
pour your power into our veins!
One is the Slavic path in the sun
and one is the common enemy, the darkness!
Heaven smiles upon the Vltava*
and shakes the mane of the Czech lion.
Broad is the Vardar’s* fame,
red as partisan blood.

Szumi Maryca wśród granitów,
Bułgarii w niej zaklęty los.
Od pól, do łąk, od górskich szczytów
ku morzom bije młodych głos.
O, rzeki bratnie, krwią płynące,
Przelejcie w żyły nam swą moc!
Jeden jest wróg nasz wspólny noc
Jedna jest droga Słowian w słońce!
The Maritza* roars amid the granite,
Bulgaria’s magical fate follows it.
From the fields, the meadows, the mountain peaks –
the young voices ring out towards the seas.
Oh, brother river, flowing with blood,
pour your power into our veins!
One is the common enemy, the darkness,
one is the Slavic path in the sun!

* Wisła, Volga, Vltava, Vardar, Maritza: The main rivers of Poland, Russia, The Czech Republic, Macedonia and Bulgaria, respectively.

An amazing memoir from the late Czesław Miłosz

I’m definitely not a scholar of Polish Studies, but I’m learning as time passes. One source besides Wikipedia that’s helped me tremendously is Czesław Miłosz’s 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (“Native Europe”, later translated to English in 1968 as Native Realm). By the way, that’s “Cheh’-swaf Mee’-wosh”. Yeah, that’s right.

Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet most famous for receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. The era of his life witnessed an amazing progression of events. He was raised in a Polish-speaking home, near present-day Siauliai, Lithuania. Although he didn’t know Lithuanian, he identified with Lithuania – a fact which may seem strange until considering the multitudes in Ireland who don’t quite identify ethnically on the basis of their everyday language.

Following are some short excerpts. Some comments might seem harsh, but I think they begin to show how complicated the politics and traditions of Eastern Europe could be. It’s also important to note that he had a fantastic education for his time, and a somewhat aristocratic, if not wealthy, background.

Western Europeans’ view of the East:
“In Western Europe, it is enough to have come from the largely untraveled territories in the East or North to be regarded as a visitor from Septentrion, about which only one thing is known: it is cold… The first germ of this book, then, was the desire to bring Europe closer to the Europeans.”

On a Pole reaching Paris:

“An ambition to reach a heart that seems difficult to get at sometimes turns into love; it is similar with Eastern Europeans. Their snobbery seasons their experience of this storied city. They have a sense of personal achievement: “I, Stash or Jack, have finally made it” they say to themselves, and tap their foot on the sidewalk to make sure they are not dreaming”.

“When I arrived in Paris after the Second World War, it seemed small to me, as if the rush of history had pushed it aside: an Alexandrian town, drawing its reason for existence from the preservation of its treasures, preparing for its new function of a city-monument. A Soviet diplomat, assuming my solidarity as a Slav, said to me then: “We’ll teach them to work!”

On visiting his distant cousin Oscar, a scholar and diplomat in Paris (a signet ring commonly denoted someone who was titled, and held aristocratic meaning):
“I noticed a signet ring on his finger, and said that I did not wear a signet because it would have gone against my democratic convictions. (In Poland, that mania was characteristic of people I despised.) ‘That’s bad. You should remember that you are a seigneur de Labunava.'”

His cousin Oscar again:
‘Vous, les Slaves, vous êtes des fainéants! Fainéants!’ (You Slavs, you are idlers! Idlers!)… Who was right? Does virtue express itself in the patient shaping of the landscape over the centuries, in the carving of Louis XIII and Louis XV wardrobes… or is it expressed by sudden thrusts of will capable or raising a St. Petersburg out of the swamps on the Neva, and of releasing interplanetary rockets from the empty steppes?”

On his cousin Oscar, breaking the landowning tradition of Poland:
“The Polish gentry liked to bring in the idea of treason at every step. Treason meant not only an improper marriage but also the act Oscar committed when he came of age – selling his immense, hereditary forest lands. The code of patriotism in those provinces by the Dnieper was oddly bound up with the code of ownership. Whoever sold his family estate diminished, thereby, the “possessions” of his national group and facilitated Russian penetration. Oscar sold his – to Russian merchants.”

Paris, circa 1935 – The Lithuanian Legation vs. the Polish Embassy:
“The Lithuanian legation – quiet, peaceful, and democratic – was, despite the different language spoken there, somehow more pleasant than the Polish Embassy, where, even as you entered the lobby, your nostrils were assailed by an odor of contempt for anyone deprived of social prestige… it was peopled by magnificent specimens of titled fools, ingratiating to foreigners but impolite, even downright boorish, to their own citizens.”

Just a sampling… but overall, an incredible read.

An appearance on CAN-TV with Frank Avila

It was a pleasure to record a program of Polish songs with producer Frank Avila on Sunday, September 11.  Mr. Avila, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, produces programs dealing with environmental issues, and also a wide variety of cultural programs.  Enjoy!

 [blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYLT7BUC width=”550″ height=”442″]

The Rokosz

I found a six-part choral piece (SSATTB) that brings to light a fascinating piece of Polish history:  Zdzisław Jachimecki’s Pieśń Rokoszan z Roku 1606 (Song from the Rokosz of 1606) from 1936.

The Polish szlachta(nobility) comprised roughly 7% of the population at the time – and had more power than in many regions at the time when compared with the royalty.  A large group of nobles met in 1606 because they were dissatisfied with King Zygmunt III Waza’s efforts to limit their power as a group and to introduce a hereditary monarchy in place of the elective one.  The result was a rokosz (ro-kosh), a rebellion, that in 1607 became known as the Zebrzydowski Rokosz, named after the main leader of the effort.

In brief, the revolt failed after becoming armed in 1607, with around 200 casualties – but Zygmunt was kept from expanding his power in future years. Interestingly, Jesuits at the time compared Zygmunt’s reign with Christ’s Passion, and produced a pamphlet entitled Passio Sigismundi III (The Passion of Sigismund III), concluding with the words Qui tot passus es a Rocossanis, sancte Sigismunde, ora pro nobis! (So many rebels suffered, St. Zygmunt, pray for us!). An alternate version of the Lord’s Prayer was even produced at the time, which, translated from the Latin:

“Our Father, who art in Kraków or Warsaw, ungrateful be thy name, thy kingdom is far from us, thy will will not be as in Sweden and Moscow as it is in Poland; deliver us this day our daily bread and the money to pay our debts, lead us not into the temptation of Moscow, and we beseech Thee that after this, we may be delivered from this evil.”

The text of the choral piece, taken from a manuscript in the Polish Archives, reads:

Kto nam chce skarby wydrzeć!
Trwogi się bać! Nic nie bać!
Moc na moc, kto wykroczy!
Chcą gwałtem, nie ugrożą, chociaż się srożą!
Who wants to plunder our treasures?
Should we stand in awe? There is nothing to fear!
Force for force, to whoever infringes on us!
They want violence – don’t frighten, though they grow fiercer!

Nic nie dbać, nie dbać, bronić a skarbów swoich chronić.
Wygrają? – Nie wygrają!
Brońmy, niechaj nas znają:
Nas nie wiele, ich jest wiele; siec, bronić a nieprzyjaciół gromić!
Don’t give a thought to protect their treasures!
Will they win? – No!
Let us defend, and keep in mind:
We are few, they are many; hit hard, defend, and defeat the enemies!

1945 Warsaw: They laughed to keep from cryin’

The vintage of Polish songs I’ve been researching has been strictly pre-WWII (and mostly pre-WWI), but the story of A tu jest Warszawa! (But Warsaw Is Here!), from 1939, is too unusual and poignant not to discuss –

In 1863, at the same time as the American Civil War, Eastern areas of Poland in the Russian Partition (comprising ethnic Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, many Jews in all regions) rebelled against the Russian Empire in what is now known as the January Uprising.  The guerilla-style rebellion lasted in various regions of Poland until 1865.

Satirist Artur Bartels(1818-1885) wrote the text of the song A tu jest Warszawa! at that time as a response to rumors of the complete destruction of Warsaw after the Uprising. My translation is at the end of this post.  I welcome any suggestions for corrections.

After reading the translation below, fast-forward to 1945:  near total destruction has actually come to pass.  A singer, Mieczysław Fogg (real last name:  Fogiel*) opens up the first cafe in postwar Warsaw, and records his own version of a song using these lyrics which was included in what happened to be the last film released before the Nazi invasion, 1940’s Żołnierz królowej Madagaskaru (The Soldier of the Queen of Madagascar).

Please have a look at this YouTube clip of Mr. Fogg’s hit – appropriately juxtaposed with images of Warsaw at that time:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIfZvAvV9oI&w=420&h=345]

Not my cup of tea stylistically, but when one realizes the subject matter, it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and puzzling.

Mr. Fogg’s song was a big hit, and he went on to a very long and distinguished singing career.  The fact that it was a hit demonstrates an enormous acceptance of irony in place of explanations.  Laughing?  Crying?  Which is more productive with the mountainous task of rebuilding ahead?

Niedowiarki, czcze umysły plotą nam rozprawy,
że na lewym brzegu Wisły nie ma już Warszawy.
Że zdziczała, jak nieswoja, wszędy chwast i trawy,
że “nec locus ubi Troia” z tej dawnej Warszawy.
Unbelievers, their minds idly gossiping their treatises to us,
that Warsaw no longer exists on the left bank of theVistula.
That it’s become savage, not itself, with weeds and grass everywhere,
That “there’s no trace ofTroy” – of the old Warsaw.

Że o los biednego miasta pełni są obawy,
że pleśnią i mchem porasta każdy gmach Warszawy.
Ale byłem, sam widziałem, choć tęskniejsza, łzawa,
choć nie taka, jaką znałem, ale jest Warszawa!
That fears for the fate of the poor city are everywhere,
that every building in Warsaw is overgrown with mold and moss.
But I was there – I saw it myself, though with longing and tears,
although not exactly as you knew it, Warsaw is there!

Czy w powszedni dzień, czy w święta, na ulicach wrzawa,
i choć biedna, choć ściśnięta, zawsze to Warszawa.
Krzepkiej młodzi grono liczne na każdej zabawie,
a kobiety takie śliczne, jak zawsze w Warszawie!
Whether on weekday or holiday, on the streets of turmoil,
and whether poor, oppressed, it’s ever Warsaw.
Numerous vigorous young groups amusing themselves everywhere,
And women are as beautiful as ever in Warsaw!

Nieraz słyszeć się zdarzyło: plotkarska, ciekawa,
lecz gdyby plotek nie było, byłabyż Warszawa?
Jednak z pewnych nieba znaków sto za jeden stawię:
za sześć wieków mniej próżniaków będzie już w Warszawie!
You hear it happening all the time: gossiping, plotting,
but if there weren’t rumors, would it be Warsaw?
Nevertheless, with certainty from above, you can bet a hundred-to-one:
In the past six centuries, there have been fewer idlers than there will be now!

History calls

Let the onslaught begin… rather than viewing each post as a thesis, I’ll begin using this as a running tally of my thoughts at the moment.  And there will be a few of them!

In searching through quite a bit of Polish music, Polish history – the good, bad and worse – jumps out everywhere.   In the periods of relative abundance or scarcity of nationalistic/patriotic songs, and in the countless tunes with general themes of tęsknota (longing), we realize that music in Poland has often had a purpose other than for pure enjoyment.  For that, I’ll take a moment to appreciate Poland’s past, and sacrifices made.

Thank you…

…for those who attended my first foray into Polish art songs.  I’ve done songs of many traditions (German, French, Italian, Irish, and many more), but I felt that this event was uniquely rewarding.  The translations I undertook were difficult, but opened up a hidden world to me!

My song list on Sunday, 6/5/11 @ Nothin’ Less, 2642 N Milwaukee Ave in Chicago:

  1. Preludjum  [1916], Irena Białkiewiczówna
  2. Zasmuconej  [1895], Mieczysław Karłowicz
  3. Życzenie  [1886], Władysław Żeleński
  4. Na spokojnym, ciemnym morzu [1896], Karłowicz
  5. Skąd pierwsze gwiazdy [1896], Karłowicz
  6. Na Fujarce [1889], Żeleński
  7. Do Oddalonej [1844], Stanisław Moniuszko
  8. Polały się łzy [1893], Ignacy Paderewski
  9. Triolet [1842], Moniuszko
  10. Pieśń Wieczorna [1852], Moniuszko
  11. Kwiatek, Moniuszko
  12. O Matko Moja [1857], Moniuszko
  13. Morel [1842], Moniuszko
  14. Dwie Zorze, Moniuszko