Prof. Lidia Zielinska /Poznaň University, Poland/

The following paper is part of a larger piece that includes both text and sounds: original sounds, sound documents, and musical excerpts.

In Polish history, sound plays an important, however unrealized, function. It is very often a symbol, a signal, a trip-gear for unconscious associations. Over the centuries, its symbolic function has been manipulated for political purposes to create or activate the “right” meanings for the nation. Sound constitutes the common memory, sentiments, knowledge, and identity - though this is not, of course, only the Polish case. Most of the sounds discussed here evoke in Poland a mixture of private sentiments and social feelings of pathos, pride, and patriotism.


Poland is a civilization coming from the Mediterranean culture and Christianity. The date 966 is regarded as the beginning of the Polish state when Poland absorbed its baptism.

It is not my intention to tell the history of Poland as it is possible to find it in the superb book of the British author Norman Davies (1982) God's Playground: A History of Poland. New York: Columbia University Press.

I will only pay attention to the periods in which Poland lost its independence. Those historical periods influenced the process of shaping the country, the feeling of national identity, patriotism, and culture and especially mentality of Poles in the fundamental way. Running battles for regaining independence for over two hundred years resulted in the growth of Polish culture along with its numerous signs, symbols, emblems, both visual and sound icons and the omnipresence of the double meanings.

II The Battle of Grunwald (1410)

The defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (1410), arguably the most important military victory in the whole history of Poland and perhaps the largest battle of medieval Europe, offers the potential to reconstruct its sonic dimension without difficulty. It is easy to imagine the rich acoustic aura of such a big military (and conceptual) event and we still know the sound of every element of this kind of soundscape well enough to re-create a composite sound panorama of the battle.

Indeed, modern Poles do not have to imagine its sounds, as they can see and hear this heroic encounter through the famous painting by Jan Matejko (1878) and the movie by Aleksander Ford „Krzyzacy“ (1960), after the 1900 novel „Krzyzacy“ („Teutonic Knights“) by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

As a result we use in Poland a schematic and simplified symbolic representation, an essence of pathos instead of a deeper experience of history. Sound memories stylized by painter, writer, moviemaker and composer become the sediment of collective sound memories, whereas an individual interiorization of the history is lost for generations.

For centuries the image of the battle has been manipulated to propagate certain ideas of the Polish raison d'etre and to achieve explicit political goals. In the process, it has been reduced to a stereotype or, rather, has become "an archetype [of German imperialism] in the Polish imagination" (Milosz 1983:313). This "official" image has been deliberately simplified to such an extent as to trigger in the nation the "Pavlov's dog" reaction of hatred towards the Germans as Poland's enemies from time immemorial. During the Communist regime, this idea served additionally to divert people's attention from another real foe, the one behind Poland's Eastern borders, to discredit the authority of the Catholic Church, and to undermine the appeal of the Catholic faith, of which the Teutonic Order was in the past a voracious representative.

Somewhat stereotypically, the Poles have been known for their gallantry and courage, their worship of the Virgin Mary, and their love for horses.

SOUND 1: konie, miecze

The sounds of armour and galloping mounts are not necessarily associated in Poland with the ravages of war, but rather with elevated, patriotic and "romantic" feelings. On the other hand, the melody of archaic song "Bogurodzica" ("Mother of God") directly attests to the popularity of the cult of the Virgin and is, at the same time, the oldest surviving song with a Polish text.

SOUND 2: „Bogurodzica”

The song was most probably composed in the thirteenth century, but the first extant manuscript comes from the fifteenth century, after the battle of Grunwald. Even if Sienkiewicz's novel and, consequently, Ford's movie make the incorrect assumption that "Bogurodzica" was sung by the Polish troops just before the battle, the association of both the song and the epic struggle for survival has become irresistible. Therefore, the three aforementioned aural components: the sacred song as well as the sounds of steel and hooves are like three elements of a puzzle which will always bring to mind the one, concrete military engagement.

SOUND 3: wszystkie 3 klockiIII “Pan Tadeusz“

Written in 1834 by Adam Mickiewicz the monumental epic Pan Tadeusz is yet another source of (sonic) inspiration. This vast work in twelve books, which Czeslaw Milosz called "the last epos in world literature" (1983:228) is the key to understanding the modern Polish mentality. Pan Tadeusz was written when Poland, partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria, disappeared for 123 years from the map of Europe. It presents an abundance of age-old and contemporary events and sonic spaces – from the beautiful description of a concert by the revered Jewish musician Jankiel, through echoes of multiculturalism to recollections of the glorious past to, finally, a dispute with God.

In „Pan Tadeusz“, the reader can see either the deeply provincial and quarrelsome nature of the characters, or a typical Polish-Lithuanian gentry’s milieu, which becomes the proverbial hotbed for the highest spiritual, ethical and patriotic values, and which preserves the nation's memory for posterity.

The wedding performance (a "concert") by the Jewish cimbalom player Jankiel is of utmost and special significance.

Jankiel‘s improvisations are full of clearly recognisable musical references, which stir among the dining company extremely powerful emotions and historic as well as patriotic associations.

To enhance the effect, Mickiewicz lists and describes in detail these associations triggered by music, and he does so as a poet fully conscious of his social rôle, of his historic mission.

Today, the "Jankiel" passage of Mickiewicz's masterpiece serves Polish schoolchildren as a mnemonic device helping them train the memory and understand the essence of the past epochs (Mickiewicz 1992:XII 679-745).

SOUND 4: zegar z kurantem

Chiming clocks playing patriotic tunes are characteristic for both: Mickiewicz`s works and for material culture of the 19th century Poland. These clocks used to be and still constitute a significant family possession and a symbol of times of private and above all national magnificence.

IV Polish soundscape on the second half of the XXth century

A specific "schizophony" emerged in the Polish soundscape after the Second World War.

The so-called real socialism divided virtually everything into the "official" (legal, justified and promoted) and the "private" (condemned to termination). The only accepted form of privacy was the notion of "dobrobyt" (well being) and its two aforementioned material symbols. One was the primitive car called Syrenka.

SOUND 5: syrenka

The other was another breathtaking "invention" of Communist propaganda and its "designers", a sickly imitation of a washing machine called Frania.

SOUND 6: pralka

These were the two rewards for docility and obedience. The sounds of punishment, it has to be stressed, could not escape from behind the thick walls of the torture chambers of the Secret Service.

This soundscape was rich in noises and their high amplitude. All political gatherings and propaganda manifestations and events were promptly amplified to the highest degree – the louder the better, of course.

SOUND 7: Gomułka

This was achieved through such means as omnipresent loudspeakers, organized applause, the stiff requirement of participation in all Communist celebrations, mass songs and "poems" learned since kindergarten, and also an institution called simply Megafonizacja Kraju (The Office for Megaphonization of Poland).

Paradoxically, even clandestine listening to Radio Free Europe was characterized by a very high dynamic level of noise. While walking up or down typical high-rise staircases, one could feel and hear from behind the apartment doors the deep vibrations. It was the specific low-frequency modulation’s noise of various Secret Service devices used to suppress the "illegal" radio transmissions. The technical idea was simple (but expensive): to generate radio frequencies distorting the RFE broadcast, thereby making its programs and speeches incomprehensible. The sound result from the receiver was the very obvious information about who was listening to this forbidden radio station, a punishable offense (Daniszewski 1995:10-21). Listeners tried, often successfully, to bypass these obstacles.

Similar methods, for example producing extra noise to deafen a "suspicious" sound, were employed by the “habitués” to suppress the noises produced by typewriters, not infrequently used to type anti-Communist brochures and pamphlets, as well as books and essays by underground writers. Fortunately, this was quite easy as many household electrical devices were energy hogs (and very loud at that), and there was no single standard determining frequency at which they operated.

SOUND 8: 4 stopnie zamrażarki

To put it simply, the two aural realms (that of the deafening aural censorship and that of the sounds of the free and independent world) were "organically" superimposed, and they fought for supremacy on the airwaves.

Even a summer stroll down the street was an experience in itself. At 7:30 pm sharp one could hear the well-known opening theme of the only official TV news.

SOUND 9: sygnał DTV

One could also recognize the content, as the Communist party news invariably appeared against the background of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. Even soccer matches were presented in the name of the "international friendship" and "leadership" of Moscow.

SOUND 10: Rachmaninow II

These sonic symbols are not intelligible to those who never spent any time in the Eastern Bloc. However, those who experienced the Moscow-dominated media (a Pole, a Russian, a Ukrainian, a Mongol, or even a Cuban) will, as long as they live, immediately pin them down. These sounds are nothing but a sonic niche in so-called real socialism.

The legitimate question arises whether the incredible success of Polish art music in the late 1950s and the 1960s (Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Gorecki and many other widely known composers) was, at least partially, caused by the level of noise and the G-sharp buzz of electrical devices. Is it not a by-product of the Communist struggle for souls? I don’t suggest the composers used the noises of communist Poland subversively, but in my opinion it is the rather unconscious source of sound inspiration which made their music so densely sonorous compared to other European composers of the post-war period. Here I am thinking of works such as Penderecki’s „Threnody“ (1960) and Górecki's „Scontri“ (1960).

SOUND 11: „Scontri”v

V The Polish Soundscape Today


Today Polish soundscape has been greatly changing. As the globalization is progressing, Poles are gaining material goods. We have new sonic signs of a social status.

Together with the beginning of the free market in the Polish economy, a plenty of sonic icons appeared. Children in a kindergarten use the sonic icons from the TV commercials in their talks and games as a secret code.

The rise of interest in folk music has been significant.

Folk music and musical styles that were removed from the soundscape of the homogeneous, Communist country (for example klezmer bands and folk instruments from Poland's eastern lands that were incorporated after the war by the Soviet Union) have made a triumphant comeback. The rich traditions of Polish folk music in its entirety and temporal dis/continuity are being revived and invigorated.

The musical choices made by people often denote their identification with their particular social class or group.

The transformations of various sonic sounds` functions are the results of processes consciously or subconsciously carried out in the lives of Poles. For some people it is a search for identity and a multicultural heritage, which had been systematically destroyed during the 50 years of the USSR occupation. For others it is a way to catch up with world after 50 years of lying behind. In fact this process is almost equal with Americanization.

I have described these important events in a few words although they have the rich background of facts, ideas and consequences.

Earlier sound patriotic symbols are becoming today rather heraldry of individual ages, particularly the emblems of last decades of the 20th century.

The emblematic of the 50ies became the voice of Gomulka, who was the Prime Secretary of the Party associated with the severity of standard of living and a continuous feeling of a being threatened by the Security Office. The 70ies was the time of “private” sounds’ domination – apparent prosperity and flourishing opposition activities. In each of the decades, or to be more precise, the periods of the subsequent Prime Secretaries’ authority and determined policies, the domination of sounds from either a social or private sphere is to be heard, much as it is always marked and entangled politically. The point of gravity moves from political emblems towards the sounds of private political and economic activities, and again towards the mass grassroots movements, and then in the last years towards the Americanization.

One may draw a curvature of the amplitude’s changes, variety of sounds factures, different pace of development and atrophy of various sound niches, as well as a constant rise of tuning (the tuning for a1 has risen from 440 Hz with even 8 Hz up since the 50ies). But it is already a topic for the completely different occasion.

Prof. Lidia Zielinska
composer, theorist / Academy of Music of I.J. Paderewski, Poznaň, Poland/

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