Dabrowski's Mazurka and the Serbs

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Yugoslavia, I am ashamed to say, shares a national anthem with the land of my birth, Poland. The origins of the tune date back to the dark days 200 years ago, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was wiped off the map of Europe by the three partitioning powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria. It was then that the Polish tradition of struggle for independence from foreign rule began. Ex-warriors and politicians gathered in Germany, Italy and France to form governments-in-exile, and legionnaire battalions sworn to restore the existence of the Polish state, ln overall command on that occasion was General Dabrowski. The Poles were noted more for their unbridled valour than for their powers of organisation, and even Napoleon said, 'These Poles fight like the Devil'. As the politicians squabbled and the legions were formed from the pan-European tide of Polish refugees fleeing from the oppression of the conquering forces, an anthem emerged, to a patriotic poem by the warrior-poet General Jozef Wybicki, which began with the words 'Poland has not yet perished while we still live,/What the Alien has taken from us by force we shall reclaim with the sword . . .'

This marching song was, perversely, a mazurka in three-four time, and it was said that only the crazy Poles could actually march to what was effectively a quick waltz tempo. But march they did, to what became known first as the Song of the Legions, and later, more famously, as Dabrowski's Mazurka; not because Dabrowski had composed it - he didn't - but he had adopted it as his forces' song of liberation, even though, ultimately, the planned re-invasion and restoration of the homeland never materialised. Poland had ceased to exist until after World War One, and Dabrowski's Mazurka melted into legend.

The song resurfaced again in 1926, when it was finally adopted as the reinvented Polish state's National Anthem. Yet the origins of the tune are shrouded in tantalising mystery, and are to this day the subject of academic research by Polish historians and musicologists. According to some sources it was written by the freedom-fighter and pianist-composer Prince Michal Oginski, who was among General Dabrowski's coterie of friends and plotters in exile (see Contemorary Review, February 1997, pages 94-99). He was also one of the most romantic figures in Polish history. The question is of consuming interest to me because Oginski was my great-great-great grandfather.

He was at this time Poland's most famous composer, and his Polonaises for the piano had become the true expression of the Polish soul, and were just as popular in the enemy's ballrooms of St Petersburg as in Warsaw. One of Oginski's many marching songs, written to inspire his fighting units wreaking havoc with the armies of Catherine the Great, found itself in her personal piano album - its significance unsuspected at the time. Oginski is today almost unknown in the West, but his main claims to posterity, apart from the possible authorship of the Polish National Anthem, are two-fold: firstly, he was a major formative influence on young Chopin, who modelled his early Polonaises on those of Oginski, and secondly, to have written what is without doubt the most well-known piece of music in all the Slav lands. It is played by every pianist, orchestra, dance band and street busker from the River Oder to the Bering Straits, from Archangelsk to Belgrade: a Polonaise entitled Farewell to the Fatherland. I am horrified to learn that it has been widely recommended as the new National Anthem of the Republic of Belarus, where Oginski is revered not only as a folk hero, but also as the national composer.

Current research largely claims that whatever the origins of Dabrowski's Mazurka - and there are several theories - Oginski was not the composer. Dabrowski's Mazurka has, over the years, emerged from the mists of legend to become the anthem of pan-Slavic unity. It was also adopted after World War One by the newly created state of Yugoslavia as its national anthem. …