On 6 July 1915, Sir Edward Elgar mounted the conductor’s podium at the Queen’s Hall in London to lead the London Symphony Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world) in a grandly patriotic composition he had recently written.
One of his famous Pomp and Circumstance Marches, presumably? Not exactly. The piece was called Polonia – the Latin word for Poland – and Elgar had written it for a special concert in aid of the Polish Victims’ Relief Fund. Founded in response to World War One, the fund aimed to assist Poles caught up in the bloody conflict between Russian and German forces in eastern Europe.
Ribbons of white and red, the Polish national colours, draped the programme booklets and inside were messages from the great Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, whose Polish Fantasy on Original Themes for Piano and Orchestra was one of the works featured in the concert. Paderewski had co-founded the Polish Victims’ Relief Committee just a few months earlier, and donated over $2m of his own money to relief efforts.
Why did Elgar compose Polonia to help the Poles?
But what was an English composer doing writing a piece to bolster Polish spirits? Would that job not be better done by Polish composers? Several had been trying. Zygmunt Stojowski, for instance, produced the cantata Prayer for Poland in the same year as Elgar’s Polonia, and Paderewski later wrote the patriotic anthem Hey, White Eagle.
But when war broke out in 1914, Poland was a hopelessly divided territory, not an independent sovereign country. Ruled by a combination of Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian authorities, its young men were conscripted into all three armies for wartime purposes, often facing their fellow Poles in battle. To write patriotic music for a nation that had not existed as a legal entity for over a century seemed an impossibility as Europe rent itself asunder.
Yet Elgar did it. But why? The key was a connection he had with the Polish expatriate Emil Młynarski. Since 1910 Młynarski had been principal conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and knew both Elgar and conductor Thomas Beecham. Like many Polish exiles, Młynarski had a strong desire to see his homeland re-united, and contributed keenly to the war effort. He commissioned Elgar to write Polonia for the Relief Fund concert in London, where a movement from his own Polonia Symphony would also be included. According to Elgar scholar Jerrold Northrop Moore, it was Młynarski who suggested the Polish national melodies – the Warszawianka, With the Smoke of Fires and the Dąbrowski Mazurka (which became the Polish national anthem) – that Elgar included in the 14-minute ‘symphonic prelude’
he ended up writing.
As a patriot himself, Elgar had no difficulty empathising with the plight of oppressed peoples, and had similarly written Carillon for wartime Belgium the previous year. As Polonia progressed, he inserted further musical quotations from Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy and a Chopin Nocturne (Op. 37, No. 1) – ‘linking the two greatest names in Polish music’, as Elgar put it.
Does Polonia still get performed?
Elgar dedicated Polonia to Paderewski, as leader of the Polish Victims’ Relief effort. Although the new work proved successful at the time, Polonia is largely neglected nowadays, and rarely gets a concert outing. Paderewski himself admired it, though. ‘I heard your noble composition on two different occasions,’ he wrote, professing himself ‘deeply touched by the graciousness of your friendly thought, and profoundly moved by the exquisite beauty of your work’.
Elgar himself thought enough of Polonia to record a shortened version of it in 1919 for the HMV company. By then, Paderewski, a musician turned statesman and politician, was prime minister of his newly liberated country, and Poland was a nation once again
Find out more about Elgar and his works here
We named Elgar one of the greatest composers of all time