Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Polish Language

The Number One Song

Polish cavalryman (ułan) of the times when Mazurek Dąbrowskiego was created.

Many songs competed for the title of the Polish national anthem.  There were several good candidates, like for example Warszawianka (still a big favorite during all military parades). Finally, the victor was Mazurek Dąbrowskiego written in 1797.  Both songs bring up uprisings against the Russian partitions and the fight of Poles at the side of the Napoleonic armies agains the Russian occupiers.  This version of the Mazurek provides English subtitles.  The poetic impact of the song, loses of course, quite a bit in translation.  

Poles tend to like their anthem.  It is easy to sing, which comes very handy, for example, during international soccer matches (events that are taken extremely seriously).  When singing the Polish anthem in earnest you stand up, preferably in a military-style attention stance.  You do not salute, unless you are a soldier who at the time of the anthem being played is wearing a head covering.  (As you see on the picture below, the Polish military salute is performed with two fingers only).

Women in classical music

Before Chopin charmed the world with his music, Maria Szymanowska was bowing on western stages after encores of her virtuoso piano performances, which included her own compositions.  Women composers of the past and today have provided great contribution to Polish classical music. To learn more on this little-discussed subject, check out this article from the University of Southern California's Polish Music Center. 

By the campfire


Poles love to hike and camp.  Singing as a group during vacation or weekend trips is a big part of social life.  There is an entire genre of what we could call "camping music" which is sung by high school and college students, as well as more mature hikers.  The variety of songs is great, from old songs of the partisans to new compositions.  The requirement: the song has to work well with just a backup of a single guitar. In recent times one of the groups whose songs have been memorized, added to songbooks passed around by friends, and sung by endless campfires, are the compositions of Wolna Grupa Bukowina.

Popular music

Maanam is one of the most popular groups in the history of Polish rock.  They have been on the scene since the 70s. Their understated style was highlighted by high quality lyrics.

Radio history

This is the last broadcast of Polish Radio in Warsaw on the 28th September 1939.  In the brief communique the speaker announces that this is the final transmission since Nazi army has entered Warsaw. He passes greetings to Polish soldiers who are still fighting the Germans at the Hel peninsula, "and all those still fighing, wherever they may be". He finishes by saying Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła! (“Poland has not perished yet”-- which are the first words of Polish national anthem) and Niech żyje Polska! (Long live Poland!).  The final sounds are that of Mazurek Dąbrowskiego – the national anthem.

The last live music broadcast of the Polish Radio was a performance by Władysław Szpilman (whose life is portrayed in Polański’s Oscar-winning movie, The Pianist). On the 23rd September 1939 he was forced to stop playing because the Germans began bombarding the radio building. When Szpilman resumed his job at the Polish Radio in 1945, his first performance was that of the interrupted piece by Chopin, Nocturne in C sharp minor.

Radio Stations

Polish radio began regular transmissions in 1925. Much has changed since then. If you want to check out today's Polish airwaves, you can try which lists several radio stations in Poland and also a few serving the diaspora. To hear what kind of music can be heard on Polish radio, what is popular right now in Polish music as well as European and US imports, check out open fm.

Opium for the masses

During the dark days of communist rule Polish television was a propaganda tool for the regime.  Nobody watched the news seriously.  Very often, as a symbolic protest a Polish family would turn off the sound of the evening news and tune in the shortwave radio to Radio Free Europe, BBC, or Voice of America.  What was bearable to watch were sports (primarily soccer), children's programming and  theatrical performances (so called Teatr telewizji). The latter produced many memorable performances.  Compared to other communist bloc countries, Polish TV showed a fair number of western movies and serials, which were not dubbed but rather had a speaker reading Polish dialogue in the background.  "Bonanza" was a family favorite, lieutenant Columbo was a household name, and all the kids breathlessly watched the exploits of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. The TV programming was highly regimented (with only one station initially, later two) everyone knew what would be on TV in prime time.  If it is Monday, there will be a theatrical play, if it is Thursday (everyone's favorite) the TV would show some sort of a crime story, etc....

Television in Poland today is not much different than in any western country: a multitude of channels, many West European and American shows, including dubbed soap operas, etc. For a taste of local Polish programming go to this list of streaming TV. More streams and online video feeds can be found here.


When you ask someone to name a Polish composer, the most probable answer will refer to the man in the picture above.  Whether you spell his name Frédéric François Chopin, or Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen, most people will know who you are talking about. However, there were others that composed classical music before and after his meteoric flight through the stages of Europe.

University of Southern California's Polish Music Center is a fantastic resource for learning more about the history of Polish Classical Music. It offers an extensive database of classical composers, past and present, can be found here.