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The man without a digital recorder

Henryk Oskar Kolberg was a 19th century Polish composer, folklorist and ethnographer. For over 50 years he documented folk culture. His main interests included oral and musical folklore, but also folk customs and ceremonies. Throughout his life, Kolberg published 33 volumes of material. Altogether, Kolberg’s collection is the largest of its type in Europe.

September 1, 2014 - Łukasz Smoluch - History and Memory

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This article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe issue 4/2014.

Oskar Kolberg was born in 1814 in the town of Przysucha (Poland). Five years later, the Kolberg family relocated to Warsaw where they were in close contacts with intelligentsia circles, which had an impact on the young Oskar and his interests. His musical education of included piano and composition. At first, he believed this would become his destiny. This vision changed, however, when Kolberg began attending musical evenings organised in Warsaw where he came across folklore. He became interested in folk music probably because of two things: first, he started studying the already existing compilations of songs (which included the works of Wacław of Olecko and Kazimierz Wójcicki). Second, he was under the influence of the Romantic fascination with folklore that was popular at that time, which saw it as a carrier of the idea of the nation.

Collector of songs

Intrigued to discover the roots and origins of folk music, Kolberg began making expeditions. At first, these were short outings with friends to areas mainly around Warsaw. In time, however, he began transforming his visits into regular and largescale studies. Kolberg published the results of his studies and ten years after his first trip when he was already respected as an editor of song compilations as well a person with a recognised position in the field of folk music. Kolberg’s collections published in the years 1842-1847 included The Songs of the Polish People (1842), On Lithuanian Songs (1846) and Czech and Slovak Songs (1846). Kolberg transcribed the songs with written accompaniment and designed them for loud solo performances with piano. With time, however, Kolberg began to treat folk songs as fully-fledged pieces of music not requiring additional ornaments. Hence, he stopped adding accompaniments.

At the same time, he saw the need to classify the materials (the songs included in the first collections were not categorised), which led him to the idea of publishing The Songs of the Polish People foreseen as monographic collections. The first collection in this series was published in 1857 and contained ballads from various parts of Poland. In its arrangement, Kolberg decided not only to use the genre criterion but also arranged the songs in such a way as to illustrate the spreading of particular themes and their adjustment to the local conditions, which was undoubtedly a novelty at that time for studies on folklore. Regular trips and contacts with country life allowed Kolberg to more vividly perceive the connection between folk songs, customs and ceremonialism of rural living. This awareness as well as the emerging critical-scientific positivist approach in the studies of folklore led Kolberg to abandon the decision of publishing The Songs of the Polish People. What followed this decision became, in fact, the basis of Polish folklore and ethnographic studies for the next 120 years. It was an idea to publish regional monographs covering the territory of 19th century Poland (then divided into three partitions) as well as describing all aspects of the people’s lives from folklore to material culture. This series was given the title The People. Their Customs, Way of Life, Language, Legends, Proverbs, Rites, Witchcraft, Games, Songs, Music and Dances (Lud. Jego zwyczaje, sposób życia, mowa, podania, przysłowia, obrzędy, gusła, zabawy, pieśni, muzyka i tańce) and included as the first volume the already-published Songs of the Polish Folk People.

Scrupulously taking notes

Over the years, Kolberg developed his own methods of collecting and organising material. More than anything else, he would extensively prepare for his fieldwork. He never embarked on journeys alone to the Polish countryside, as he was well aware of the failure of such undertakings. Instead, he arranged for a hospitable reception in the region he was about to visit by gaining the support of its inhabitants, mainly the landowners. Kolberg’s family and friends would often help him during these field trips. At a later stage of his studies, members of the Polish intelligentsia also assisted his studies. Most importantly, however, the local leaders who had substantial knowledge of the community were the ones who were crucial in assisting Kolberg to reach the respondents. His own experience taught the ethnographer as whom to ask for and how to later persuade the locals to sing, play and chat for hours about their country life. Trying to get as much information as possible from his interlocutors, Kolberg scrupulously noted down everything. He was very friendly and patient towards them. Once the field visit was successfully completed, Kolberg would often try to maintain contacts with his interlocutors and continued corresponding with them even after he moved to another location.

The author of The People took advantage of every opportunity he had to register valuable folklore texts, regardless of the location. In a few cases, he managed to include in his collections songs and fairy tales which he had gathered without even travelling to the region they came from. In this way he wrote down, for instance, 13 Silesian fairy tales in Mazovia where several Silesian men happened to be working. The same was with the Mazurian songs noted in the area of Płock and Ostrołęka or songs of the wandering Slovakian tinkers who ventured as far as Warsaw. Even though The People was primarily envisioned to present the culture of the peasants, it also included some popular songs which were performed in aristocratic mansions as well as in cities. By including these in the collection, Kolberg proved that there was a connection between the folk repertoire and popular culture.

In fact, the field study was only one of the sources of information that Kolberg would use. While wishing to describe regions as fully as possible and being aware of the gravity of that job as well as the limitations of collecting all the information by himself, Kolberg also sought folklore texts, descriptions of regions, different customs and studies of languages published by other researchers. In addition, he obtained materials directly from others who were also collecting folklore. And he encouraged others to collect it too. The most illustrative of this was his open letter in 1865 in the newspaper The Warsaw Library (Biblioteka Warszawska) in which he requested readers to send folklore texts and information that could be used in research.

While working on his collection, Kolberg co-operated both with professional and amateur informants. Among them were people of different social status, gender and age; landowners and priests, writers and medical doctors, as well as many other professions. These individuals, however, did not form a network of permanent co-workers, which was impossible both because of the political situation that characterised Poland at that time as well as Kolberg’s working conditions. However, the material that Kolberg managed to obtain from them was incorporated into the different volumes of The People. Characteristically, in most cases, he did not mention its origin (quite often at the request of the person who provided it) or just posted a general note about it.

Property of mankind

Regardless of how Kolberg acquired his material from the field, whether it was by mail or simply copied from literature, the information that mattered to him the most was its location. Hence, Kolberg took the most meticulous notes of the name of the location which different songs or fairy tales originated from and based on this information arranged them in appropriate volumes of his collections. Overall, Kolberg did not pay attention to the names of his informers, as he perceived folklore to be the general property of mankind.

The folklore texts as well as the descriptions of customs and ceremonies and other information gathered was placed by Kolberg in the volumes of The People in a certain order he imposed on himself. Every volume of The People usually starts with a description of “the land”: a given region presented from both the geographical and historical perspective. Subsequently, the author briefly characterises the local community (“the folk people”) and moves on to describe of their year-round customs. In this section, there are records of songs and dances accompanying particular events. Quite similar is the organisation of the subsequent chapter on family ceremonies. However, Kolberg devotes separate sections of the monograph to songs that are not related to customs or ceremonies as well as assigns an exclusive chapter to dances. This is the only place in the monograph where the material is arranged in accordance with musical criteria: Kolberg divides them into duple and triple meter dances. Other chapters are devoted to: beliefs, fairy tales, games and language. However, not all fourteen monographs published by Kolberg reflect the pattern described above, which results from a partial shortage of materials from some of the regions.

One man’s work

Without a doubt, Oskar Kolberg is one of the researchers who made a breakthrough in the field of folk studies and ethnography. He conducted studies that were among the most innovative for his time and thus left a valuable legacy. In fact, Kolberg’s contribution to Polish science is undisputed, with numerous experts highly valuing his collections. At the same time, Kolberg belongs to a group of researchers who has caused some trouble. His methods are not completely known, the origin of the material varies and is often non-verifiable. Due to the turbulent fate of the manuscripts, there is no access to the whole collection, which prevents us from a complete evaluation of Kolberg’s work and understanding of his research methods.

It is, however, difficult not to be impressed with the over 10,000 published songs (the vast majority of them include tunes), another 35,000 still in manuscripts, fairy tales, stories, proverbs and other folklore texts. This is the result of one man’s work. This is a man who had no equipment to record sound or video, which is worth keeping in mind today in the era of technology. Kolberg often worked in very difficult conditions whose scope was limited by a shortage of resources. The material left by Kolberg in his manuscripts has been continuously edited and published by a team of researchers from the Oskar Kolberg Institute in Poznań (www.oskarkolberg.pl). The works published by this institution, which include both Kolberg’s original material as well as publications of the institute’s scholars, are a priceless source for folklorists, ethnographers, musicologists, historians and researchers of many disciplines. They also constitute an inspiration for performers and creators of contemporary musical culture.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Łukasz Smoluch is an ethnomusicologist lecturing at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. His research interests include relations between music and identity as well as transformations of traditional music culture. He conducted field research in Siberia, Belarus, Ukraine and Brazil.

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