Poland’s Oldest Songs: The Best of Polish Medieval Music and Beyond

Poland is more than one thousand years old, and its musical heritage goes back just as far. Although seldom recognized today, Poland’s earliest songs date to the medieval era and earlier.

At that time, Latin was the universal language in Europe, and the Catholic Church reigned supreme. As a result, most of the beautiful hymns from that era are religious in nature.

Below are a few of the oldest Polish hymns (embedded from YouTube), along with a brief description of each.

Gaude Mater Polonia (Rejoice, oh Mother Poland)

One of Poland’s most revered hymns, Gaude Mater Polonia was composed by Vincent of Kielcz in 1253 for the canonization of St. Stanislaw Szczepanowski, who had been martyred 200 years prior. Throughout the centuries, this hymn was sung at Polish coronations, royal weddings, and after victories in battle.

Bogurodzica (Mother of God)

This Polish religious hymn, dates to the thirteenth century. It is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was most famously sung before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when the Poles fought and defeated the German Teutonic Knights. It was also played at coronation ceremonies during Poland’s Jagiellonian dynasty.

Breve Regnum (Brief Kingdom)

Composed in the 15th century, Breve Regnum was originally sung by Krakow’s students during a week of debauchery that occurred every October. Students would take over the streets, elect their own “king,” and partake in several festive activities similar to Carnival. The original hymn was sung in Latin, and the title appropriately translates to “brief kingdom.”

Oj Chmielu, Chmielu (Oh, Hops, Hops)

While the other songs on this list are religious, Oj Chmielu, Chmielu is the oldest known Polish folk song, dating to the pre-Christian era. It’s a wedding song performed during the custom of Oczepiny, where a young lady was symbolically transitioned into the married life.

It was sung for centuries in Polish villages and continues to be sung today in certain parts of Poland that have either held on to the old traditions or are trying to revive them.

Hac Festa die (This Feast Day)

The oldest-known text of this Polish-Latin hymn dates to around the year 1300, although it is believed to be older. Its verses describe the martyrdom of Poland’s patron saint, Adalbert of Prague, at the hands of the Prussians in 997 and the Poles’ purchase of his relics.

Pieśnią Na Narodziny Królewicza Kazimierza (Song For The Birth Of Prince Kazimierz)

This Latin hymn was written in the early 15th century by one of Poland’s most famous medieval composers, Mikołaj of Radom. As the title suggests, the piece was composed to commemorate the birth of Prince Kazimierz, the son of King Władysław Jagiełło.

Modlitwa, Gdy Dziatki Spać Idą (Prayer When Children Go to Sleep)

This hymn is written as a prayer to God for protection before bed. It was composed during the 16th century by Wacław of Szamotuł and is technically a Renaissance song as a result. The words are in Polish.

Of course, there are many more centuries-old songs from Poland, and I will be adding to this list as time goes on. In the meantime, comment what your favorites are below!


Poland 2015: My First Impressions

I just returned from my first trip to Poland in eight years, and WOW, what a fascinating, exciting and inspiring experience. The trip has infused me with an even greater passion for all things Polish. I just feel like sharing everything with you at once, but that’s impossible (and not reader-friendly). This trip will certainly influence all of my future posts, and I am already thinking of new ways to engage all of you on my blog.

In this post, I just want to share the general impressions of Poland that I gained from my vacation. In the posts leading up to my trip, I recollected all of my prior trips and how they instilled a love of Polish culture within me. I knew this trip would be different because I’m not a kid anymore. A part of me wondered if I might be left disappointed after seeing Poland as an adult and fully understanding its realities. That didn’t happen. Although I did have some negative impressions, overall the trip has only reinforced my love for Poland.

Expressways like this have popped up across Poland, drastically improving commute times.
Expressways like this have popped up across Poland, drastically improving commute times.

Poland has developed a lot in my eight-year absence. The most immediate improvement I noticed was the roads. The new expressways Poland has built since joining the European Union have vastly improved travel from place to place. The expressway from Krakow to Katowice, for example, basically allows for an hour commute. It used to take at least two hours by car and nearly four hours with public transportation.

Modernity has permeated Poland in other ways too. Just like in the U.S., seemingly everyone under the age of thirty has their nose in a Smartphone at all times. At one point, I saw two girls, probably in their early teens, walking home from school and giggling over something on their Smartphones. At that point I realized that Polish and American kids were virtually indistinguishable—they both are growing up around, and becoming proficient in, technology that was unheard of even 10 years ago.

polish mall1
The modern-looking and massive “Galeria Krakowska” mall in Krakow.

Add to this the rise of consumerism in Poland. Beautiful, giant malls are popping up all over the place, even in small towns. Some of these malls actually put American malls to shame because they are so new and modern-looking. Stores like Saturn and Empik have all the latest gadgets, movies, games and books. Indeed, people are buying things, lots of things. Poland ceased being a commercial backwater long ago. The European Union and the West is present everywhere you look.

This westernization is also a curse to some extent. American society and youth is often criticized as being robotic and overly-reliant on constantly-changing technology. You can say the same thing about Polish society now. In a way, the increased technology and consumerism has made Poland and Polish people seem less personable and approachable than in the past.

Additionally, the influx of western pop culture has made American and English music more popular than Polish music in Poland. I see this as a problem and will rant accordingly in a future post.

Although much has changed, you don’t have to go too far to still see Poland as it once was. The old market squares, churches, castles, cobblestone streets and town halls are all reminders of Poland’s long and rich past. The awe-inspiring rural and hilly landscapes in Southern Poland where I stayed awoke my romantic spirit and continue to play a major role in my love for the country. At one point, I came across a herd of cows blocking the road—it was as if I had traveled back a couple hundred years. Yes, Poland is becoming a highly-developed nation, but that doesn’t mean it’s losing its unique, old-style charm.

polish cows
Yes, this literally happened. Proves Poland still has some country charm.

So those are my first impressions. My brain is still digesting everything, and I will certainly hit on these points in greater detail in future posts. For now, I invite those of you who have visited Poland recently to tell me about your own experiences. Maybe we can compare.

The Best Things About Poland: Episode II

It’s time to conclude my two-part series on the best things about Poland (Check out episode one here). Like I said two weeks ago, this could be a 10-part series, but there’s so many other wonderful topics to write about. If enough of you comment on this one, though, I won’t be able to help myself. Here it goes…

The Language

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters. Notice the 3 types of “z.”

Polish is not a language for the faint of heart. If your native tongue is English, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most difficult languages you can possibly learn. With seven grammatical cases, a boatload of various word-endings and three versions of the letter “z,” it will unleash hell on your brain.

So why is it so great? I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m good enough to begin realizing its beauty. Unlike German, which sounds like yelling, or French, which sounds very nasally, Polish sounds soft, fluid and innocent. I especially become entranced whenever I hear Polish women speak it on TV, the radio or in person—it’s such a delicate and soothing collection of syllables.

If you ever read the Polish literary masters—Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Kochanowski—even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll definitely see how beautifully the language flows from the page. It makes learning it, even a little bit, worth it.

The Music

When it comes to music, Poland has so much to offer. For traditionalists, there are plenty of folk songs that will whisk you away to old Poland with their violin and accordion sounds. Folk fans should check out Rokiczanka and Brathanki. There is also, of course, Polka music and the Polish-favorite “Disco Polo.”

In the early twentieth century, tango was big in Poland. When you listen to these old songs, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an old café or saloon in pre-war Warsaw or Kraków. Check out Sława Przybylska for an example.

For rock and pop fans, Poland has a ton of music from the 1960s through today. Lady Pank, Wilki, Elektryczne Gitary, Perfect, Marek Grechuta, Gosia Andrzejewicz, Ewa Farna, and Urszula are just some examples. I purposely didn’t add hyper links to all those names—stay tuned to my blog for much more on Polish music in the near future.

Oh, just don’t listen to Polish rap. It sucks.



Polish Żur soup.

Ok, soup isn’t just Polish, but it definitely plays a big part in Polish life. I remember visiting my grandmother in Poland during my childhood. After the long, tiring, transatlantic voyage from the U.S. to Poland, and the additional journey from the airport to my grandma’s house, the first thing she greeted us with was a hug and kiss. The second, a bowl of hot soup. So soup plays a pivotal role in my conception of Poland.

Traditionally, soup is the first course in a Polish meal. From rosół, to tomato soup, to żur, Poland has no shortage of belly-filling, heart-warming soups. Polish soups are especially delicious and gratifying when you’re sick—a spoonful of warm vegetable, chicken and broth can often provide relief from the worst colds or flu.


Slavic beliefs
An imaginary painting of Poland’s Slavic origins.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about Polish traditions and customs—from Wigilia to Zaduszki—and there is much more to come on that front. The reason I can write so much is that Poland offers a seemingly infinite supply of intriguing cultural and religious practices.

Remember, before Poland became Catholic in 966 AD, it adhered to the ancient Slavic beliefs. Like many pagan peoples, the ancient Poles worshiped nature and believed in numerous supernatural entities. With the arrival of Catholicism, many of these beliefs were eliminated, but many were absorbed. This is why, even today, many Polish traditions are loaded with superstitions.

Aside from that, each region in Poland has its own customs—from the Górale in the southern mountains, to the Kashuby of the northern shores—you will find a rainbow of local costumes, dances and dialects across Poland. It’s a “melting pot” in its own right.

The Polish National Anthem (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego)

Poland has not yet perished. Those lines begin the Polish national anthem. They symbolize the Polish people’s undying hope and strong desire to preserve their identity. Written in 1797, just two years after Poland had been partitioned and erased from the map of Europe, this anthem was, from its inception, a statement that the Poles weren’t just going to lie down and die. As we have seen, there are just too many great things about the Polish nation for that to happen. Generations of Poles have fought and died to protect the idea of Poland, of its customs, food, music, language and people—it’s this Polish spirit that is embodied in the national anthem, making it perhaps the greatest thing about Poland.