Comparative Literature
Paulina Mateja


Transfigurations of Polish Romantic Nationalism

  • Faculty Advisor

    Clare Cavanagh

Published On

May 2015

Originally Published

NURJ 2014-15
Honors Thesis

Grexik | Photo


My thesis chronicles the strange career of Stanisław Moniuszko’s opera “Halka,” documenting the transfigurations of Polish romantic nationalism through the Halka narrative as it adapted and responded to political and social aspects of life in Poland and the U.S. Midwest. While “Halka” has long been regarded as the most important operatic expression of Polish nationalism, my thesis is the first to explore the transformations of this national configuration in the Polish-American community, by recovering the lost story of Halka’s U.S. performances. In the following essay, condensed from my thesis, I briefly follow the narrative of Halka through its development in mid-nineteenth century Poland--where Wolski’s narrative poem and Moniuszko’s opera made it a premier vehicle for romantic nationalism. I then showcase my archival research on its adaptations by the Polish émigré community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1920s.

Romantic Nationalism in Mid-19th Century Poland

The particular configurations of romantic nationalism in Polish narratives were under distinct pressure from the imperial censors of the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian partitioning powers. Composer Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) and poet Włodzimierz Wolski (1824-1882) expressed Polish romantic nationalism through the story of Halka in Moniuszko’s opera “Halka” (1847) and in Wolski’s narrative poem Halka (1846) on which the opera is based. Emerging in the second half of Polish romanticism and based on the 1846 Peasant Rebellion, Wolski’s poem focuses on the poisonous tension between the peasants and landowning nobles. In the opera Moniuszko’s compositional choices, paired with Wolski’s libretto, emphasize a national identity rooted in folk traditions while maintaining the element of social tension. The secret to the success of Moniuszko’s opera lies in the emphasis on the Polish highlander culture, drawing on its deeply rooted traditions and absence of immediate political relevance, to help the opera pass censorship and gain popularity as “the Polish national opera” (Krawczykowski 26).

The structure of class and regional categorization of Poles in the variants of Halka is focused on the class distinction between the szlachta (nobility or gentry) and the lud (non-nobles). These ‘non-nobles’ were in turn comprised of several groups. The stories of Halka refer to the chłopy (peasant-serfs) or górale (Polish highlanders). The chłopy had no access to education and worked as laborers on the szlachta’s estates. The szlachta had access to education, notably education abroad, and had the option of living largely undisturbed by the partitioning governments as long as they were interested in living in accordance with the government’s ideals. The górale were Polish highlanders who—then and now—largely focused on maintaining strong traditions revolving around religion, garb, dance, and song. The górale lived in the mountainous region of Poland which was occupied by Austria at the time. Removed from the noble and peasant populations, they were not especially politically problematic. However, like all non-nobles, they fell under the category of lud.

Włodzimierz Wolski lived most of his life in the city of Warsaw, where the Russian Tsar had ultimate control and all uprisings were thwarted. The most prominent of these was the November Rising in 1831; “the defeat of the Rising caused the greatest single outburst of national feeling, and of literary activity in the nation’s history…well matched to the talents of the Romantic generation.” (Davies 327) Enter the poetic aspirations of Włodzimierz Wolski. Though known today primarily for his contribution to “Halka” as the librettist, prior to the opera Wolski had also been an avid poet and was relatively well-known in Warsaw in the 1840s when Moniuszko approached him. Wolski’s narrative poem Halka was based on the Peasant Uprising of 1846 when Austrian officers promised the peasants an end to their feudal obligations and encouraged them to turn on their masters (Davies 148). Meanwhile, Stanisław Moniuszko had just moved to Wilno, a city that had been part of the Russian partition since 1795. There, he was part of the emerging group of intellectuals who had a new and different understanding of social relations, even though they were from the landed class. During his studies in Berlin in the late 1830s, Moniuszko became interested in German folk opera and came to believe that music would help in the improvement of society (Prosnak 42).

Formulations of Polish Romantic Nationalism Through the Story of Halka

The origins of romantic nationalism took place in Germany with the emergence of a new concept of das Volk (the folk), using the peasant as a “symbol for the human race itself, differentiated by language into nations” (Taruskin). Romantic nationalists idealized peasant culture and searched for cultural and historical origins of the nation in the peasantry. In the Polish context, romantic nationalism celebrated folk traditions and asserted that the origins of the Polish nation belonged to the lud.

In their narratives of Halka, Wolski and Moniuszko formulate Polish romantic nationalism in ways that, despite their similarities, can be distinguished based on social and historical context, intended effect, and artistic medium. Wolski’s narrative poem Halka tells the story of two mothers who seek revenge against the injustices created by class distinctions. While her son (later called Janusz in the opera) is away at war, the szlachcica (noblewoman) mother uses his absence as an opportunity to get rid of his peasant fiancée Halka despite her pregnancy with his child. The szlachcica’s public humiliation of the peasant girl leads Halka to drown herself. Halka’s mother visits her daughter’s grave and wants to seek revenge, turning first to God and then to the devil, all against the wishes of Halka’s spirit. Upon the young nobleman’s return from war, Halka’s mother appears in his dream and tells him that his future wife and child are dead. She encourages the nobleman to kill his mother and then Halka’s mother rips the noblewoman’s heart out, bringing it to Halka’s grave as a sacrifice. This angers Halka’s spirit and she and her mother curse each other, though Halka ultimately forgives her.

Wolski’s Halka was born out of the legacy of romanticism from the mid-19th century Polish poetry established by the exiled poet Adam Mickiewicz. The romantic model often stressed non-rational and supernatural elements, rejecting Enlightenment discourses through the celebration of folk culture. Wolski was a “domestic” romantic, mixing Mickiewicz’s romantic supernaturalism with an emphasis on the class distinctions in Polish society. In her introduction to Utwory Wybrane[1], Krystyna Leśniewska mentions that Wolski’s Halka was “mercilessly cut apart by the censorship” (Leśniewska 22). The officials who were approved by the Russian Tsar most likely performed the censoring in Warsaw during the time when Warsaw was part of the Russian-controlled Congress Kingdom of Poland.

Although Wolski’s poem as presented in Utwory Wybrane is the censored version, it is full of romantic mysticism and represents a conscious effort to depict class conflict and the reality of an internally divided Poland. For example, Wolski’s portrait of Halka’s mother in Urywek I (Fragment I) shows how Wolski built on romanticism to create his version of romantically-fueled social commentary. He pairs romantic descriptions of nature with the hellish, wolf-like gaze of Halka’s mother before she carries out her plan of revenge against the szlachcica. “Like a she-wolf when they kill her cubs” is repeated multiple times in the poem. By attributing animalistic qualities to the peasant character, the phrase reinforces the romantic nationalist view of the origins of the nation in the peasant. Despite the frequently mystical aspects of Wolski's romanticism, he also uses the character of the mother to voice the anger the peasants feel toward landowning nobles. Indeed, Wolski’s Halka is a story of a mother’s revenge but uses the plural form “pani… diablice… matki” (ladies…she-devils…mothers) to point directly to the noblewomen as those with pleasant demeanors but “dead black hearts.” Halka’s mother promises to carry out revenge against the szlachcica and ultimately brings the szlachcica’s heart to Halka’s grave.

Wolski’s message however, is not a call for aggressive action. Upon finding out what her mother has done, Halka’s spirit tells her mother to “go away” (144) and Halka’s mother responds by cursing Halka’s grave. An angel figure holding a child appears and calls out, “Matko, przebaczenia!” (“Mother, forgiveness!”) (146). Though it is unclear who the spirit-angel is, the call for a mother’s forgiveness symbolically yokes Halka’s forgiveness, Halka’s call for her mother to forgive, Halka’s mother’s forgiveness of the szlachcica, and perhaps even a call for Poland as “the motherland” to forgive its internal murderers. Through this ambiguity, Wolski points to the internal chaos of Poland as the ultimate hindrance to a unified front against the partitioning powers. Halka’s spirit as the pacifier represents Wolski’s call for a Polish nation that, despite its struggles, can learn to turn away from violent internal reactions and band together against its true oppressors.

Compositional Choices and Social Commentary in “Halka” the Opera

After meeting Wolski during a visit to Warsaw in 1846, Moniuszko asked him to write the libretto to an operatic “Halka” based on his poem. By 1847, “Halka” was written as an opera in two acts, and its first performance took place in a private salon in Wilno on January 1, 1848 (Prosnak 88). In 1856, Moniuszko expanded the opera and added highlander dances, among other additions (Samson). The manuscript waited for several years in the office of the Warsaw theatres until 1857, “when the political atmosphere had somewhat relaxed and the opera’s theme became less objectionable to conservatives than it had been in the late forties” (Prosnak 91). Namely, the Tsar of Russia Nicholas I died in 1855 and Alexander II took his place. Although Russia strictly implemented its three principles of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality, different tsars had emphasized different principles, ranging from the severity of Tsar Nicholas I to the liberality of Alexander II (Davies 84).

The opera begins with Stolnik, a very wealthy nobleman, hosting an engagement party for his daughter Zofia who has just been engaged to Janusz, the owner of the neighboring estate. Upon hearing cries from outside, Janusz investigates and finds Halka, who is now pregnant with his child. They profess their love for one another and he makes a false promise to see her later. Jontek, Halka’s childhood sweetheart who is in love with her, tries to convince her to return home. After another confrontation with Janusz and other noblemen, Jontek finally takes Halka back to the village of highlanders. About a month later, the wedding procession comes through the village on their way to the church. Halka watches, feeling betrayed and hopeless, and thinks about setting fire to the church, but decides against it. She forgives Janusz before jumping off a cliff and drowning herself in the river. Jontek and other highlanders hear her crying out as she jumps to her death, and they rush out of the church, only to realize that she is already gone.

On the surface, the libretto of “Halka” has several attributes that must have been used in order to make it appear less politically divisive than Wolski’s poem. The opera is amenable to a politically neutral view of nationalism based on folk tradition. While the poem focuses on the poisonous relationship between the peasants and landowning nobles, the libretto places its emphasis on the górale (Polish highlanders) and their endearing and respected folk traditions. In the opera, Halka clearly belongs to the górale community, of which there is no mention in Wolski’s poem. Moniuszko even adds the highlander dances to the third act, presumably to further the emphasis on folk traditions. The added character of Halka’s childhood sweetheart Jontek also serves to reinforce Halka’s bond to the highlanders. However, the element of realistic social conflict is not absent from “Halka.” Elsewhere, I show, through close textual analysis of the libretto and Moniuszko’s compositional choices, how Moniuszko used dynamics (i.e. the volume of a given musical passage) to slip significant forms of class commentary past the censors, drowning expressions of liberal individualism in choral episodes of social cohesion, commenting on the differences between lud (non-nobles) and szlachta (nobles), or signifying power relations within the ruling classes through choral vocal strategies.

In their respective stories of Halka and in joining together to create “Halka” the opera, Stanisław Moniuszko and Włodzimierz Wolski evoke the ways in which Polish romantic nationalism expressed itself through shifting notions of social and class division. Wolski’s social commentary overrules any emphasis on Polish folk traditions, but he points to national origins in the peasant culture, stressing that an ideal Polish nation would need to put its poisonous internal aggression aside. Moniuszko’s “Halka” seems to take Wolski’s advice. The focus shifts from the chłopy-szlachta tension and instead emphasizes strong folk traditions in the Polish highlander culture. “Halka” the opera even suggests subtly that the entirety of the szlachta may not be doomed to always despise all peasants.

“Halka” and its Transatlantic Formulation in the American Midwest

Nearly seventy years after its first performance in Poland, “Halka” reappeared as a means to express the voice of the Polish national community across the Atlantic Ocean in the American Midwest. For purposes of length, available archival materials, and its status as the first unabridged performance of “Halka” in the United States, I will be focusing on the Milwaukee Polish Opera Club’s 1923 production. This part of my thesis will address why a working class Polish immigrant community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin would attempt to stage a complete production of this opera and why it was so successful, as indicated by its reception. I will proceed by explaining the significance of 1923 as a turning point in Polish history, the importance of góral culture, and the history of the Milwaukee Polish Opera Club—with a focus on the details of the “Halka” production and its reception. As far as I am aware, there is no secondary knowledge or discussion of this production and I am basing my analysis on my interpretation of evidence that I have gathered through archival research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries’ Archives Department.

Wolski’s call for a united Polish front against Russia, Prussia, and Austria was answered in 1918 when Poland broke from its partitioning powers and regained independence for the first time in over a century. Although Poland regained independence in 1918, it had to uphold that independence throughout six wars, culminating in 1921 with the Soviet War (Davies 394). Finally undisturbed, the Poland of 1923 was celebrating its independence and working to rebuild itself as a country. In Milwaukee’s Polish Fine Arts Club papers, an essay titled “Polish People: Their Customs, Habits, Religion, and Classes” stresses that the resilience of Polish people expressed through their traditions of folk dance and song along with religious faith “has made it possible for Poland to endure through all these centuries of struggle and persecution” (Polish). To these people, the góral traditions foregrounded in “Halka” were likely a showcase of these resilient Polish traditions.

In the 1880’s, the górale began to immigrate to the U.S. They tirelessly worked long hours in stockyards, mines, mills, and factories to earn as much money as possible, but made a point of finding the time to get together to sing góral songs, listen to góral music, and dance (Gromada 66). By the early 1900’s, góral social gatherings moved from tiny flats to local taverns, owned and operated by górale. Shortly after, the górale began importing their costumes from Poland and organizing formal highlander music and dance groups to perform publicly (Gromada 67). Regardless of their regional background, the working class Polish immigrants in Milwaukee likely shared a similar experience to that of the immigrant góral community. However, they chose to take the expression of Polish culture much further when they decided to stage a national Polish opera as opposed to a smaller scale evening of Polish song and dance. Their decision to stage “Halka” endorses it as an expression of Polish romantic nationalism and as a celebration of Polish culture through góral traditions.

Cast of May 13-17, 1923 Polish Opera Club production of “Halka” with Rose Saskowski in title role (seated extreme left); Anton Lukaszewski as Jontek (seated to the right of Saskowski).

The Polish Opera Club of Milwaukee staged Moniuszko’s “Halka” in May of 1923 at the Pabst Theater (O Jednym). Hailed by local Polish and American critics and journalists alike, the May 1923 production led to an October performance in Chicago of the same year, a 1925 film, and eventually to another Chicago revival of “Halka” in 1949 in English translation. In 1920, church organist and choir director, John C. Landowski (1879-1961), created a “musical organization [that] would give Milwaukee Polish young people recreation, education, and solidarity” (Biographical sketch). He began assembling the Opera Club by traveling to various Polish church choirs, “picking out a voice here and there which, however rough, held essence worth training” (Pettibone). Landowski and the Opera Club were the first to produce “Halka” in the United States in its entirety without cutting or simplification (Milwaukee). With this idea in mind, the preparation for rehearsals turned out not to be an easy task, as the orchestral music sent from Warsaw had missing parts. In order to make usable orchestral scores, Landowski had to rewrite approximately 4,000 pages of music (Biographical sketch). The Opera Club’s costumes for the production were all handmade with the utmost attention to detail (Historia). According to a newspaper article anticipating the Chicago performance of “Halka,” “every cent taken in for tickets was used to pay expenses, which ran high, what with really good costumes and scenery and a paid orchestra” (Milwaukee). The Opera Club’s income was also used to pay for voice lessons for the leading singers” (Milwaukee).

Shopgirl Turned Opera Singer

The Polish Opera Club’s production of “Halka” would not have been possible without the dedication of its members. Both musical director John C. Landowski and stage director Anthony J. Lukaszewski (1882-1956) gave selflessly without pay. Notably, these were all amateur singers and actors with blue-collar jobs during the day and strenuous rehearsal schedules at night. An article by Harriet N. Pettibone from June 3, 1923 entitled “Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker Go In for Grand Opera as Side Line” highlights the lives of these working class people turned opera stars. Soprano Emilia Klebanski’s (who played Zofia) “coloratura soprano [was] employed eight hours every day saying ‘Fifteen cents a yard’ in a department store on Mitchell Street.” Eugene Stachowiak, who played Janusz, would close the windows of his truck so he could practice his part on the way from work to rehearsal, sometimes forgetting to wipe the smut off his face (Pettibone). The dedication of the working class people to this production confirms the status of “Halka,” an opera that emerged out of Polish romantic nationalism, as the best expression of Polish nationhood. Moniuszko’s emphasis on the uniting factor of cultural traditions worked even in this unexpected context of working class Polish immigrants in Milwaukee.

Pettibone. The Sentinel Sunday Magazine, “Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker Go In for Grand Opera as Side Line” by Harriet Pettibone; Eugene Stachowiak, baritone also known as “Gene the tinsmith” with Zofia, sung by Emilie Klebanski.

Pettibone’s article also suggests an answer to “How is it accomplished?”—a question she posed to Landowski and Lukaszewski in the search for a reason behind the professional caliber of their amateur production. According to Pettibone, there is a “strong nationalistic feeling among Poles, an ambition to have the name of their country stand high, which, in view of their musical tendencies, naturally takes this form of expression. So much is music a part of their nature that they are willing to undergo almost any sacrifice. It keeps them working at rehearsals for six or seven months a year” (O Jednym). The “History of the Polish Opera Club” section of the 1923 “Halka” program notes confirms the performers’ nationalistic motivations. The program notes pride the Polish Opera Club for being equipped enough to stage the “national opera of Poland” and celebrate the use of a professional orchestra and attention to detail necessary to perform “Halka” in the “way this eternal work of Moniuszko deserves. Nowhere else in the entire country is amateur theatre produced on such a large scale, as in our dairyland” (Historia).

These ideas only represent a hint at why the amateur production was so successful. “Halka” was the Polish Opera Club’s first staging of a Polish opera, and it is no coincidence that Landowski decided to produce it at a time when Poland was reestablishing itself as a liberated country. The unwavering commitment of the amateur performers to produce “Halka” suggests that they viewed it as an expression of the enduring sense of Polish identity. Their desire to celebrate and uphold Polish traditions found a home in Moniuszko’s “Halka” and an outlet through the opera’s emphasis on góral culture.

Highlander Village Scene. May 1923 Milwaukee Polish Opera Club production of "Halka."

This photograph of the 1923 Milwaukee Polish Opera Club production of “Halka” shows authentic góral costumes, from the men’s embroidered wool pants and capes to the women’s flowered skirts and coral bead necklaces (Piskorz-Branekova 197-201). In addition to showing that góral culture is part of the larger Polish culture, the Opera Club’s production emphasizes the idea that Polish national identity originated in Polish folk culture. The Opera Club’s decision to produce “Halka” on such a grand scale shows that they were serious about the existence of Polish high culture and also implies that they wanted to bring their national identity to a larger stage than the local church or tavern. An operatic production, not to mention a shockingly successful one, would have the ability to reach past the local community, which it clearly did.

Lukaszewski’s fascination with “Halka” was more than just a hobby; it was a “passionate patriotic fervor” (O Jednym). Lukaszewski ordered the amateur actors about “with the cut finality of a dictator…but there was no sign of that usual attitude of amateurs of doing the directors a favor by coming. Each member of the club seemed jealous of belonging to it and willingly adhered to the strictest discipline as if only too glad of the opportunity for serious development” (Pettibone). This goal of perfecting the production likely arose from the goal of making it artistically impressive so that it would reach as many people as possible. This was the Polish immigrant community’s opportunity to organize a far-reaching propagation of Polish culture. Their remarkable dedication, attention to detail in the costuming, and the decision to hire a professional orchestra on a tight budget show that they were serious about proving the existence of high art in Poland and that it could have an impact in the United States.

Hats Off to Polish Milwaukee!

Both Polish newspaper articles and reviews written by English speakers in non-Polish publications spoke very highly of the production that left critics in awe of the capabilities of the working class amateur performers and more broadly, of the Polish community in Milwaukee and the Midwest. A review by well-known music critic Herman Devries from the Chicago Evening American of the same production in Chicago praises the performers as giving “all they have of enthusiasm and talent to the interpretation—and their best is very good—more than that, excellent, legitimate song and legitimate theater—the work of zeal and time as well as ability.” Devries refers to the production as “an example for us Americans. Hats off to Polish Milwaukee!” The Chicago performance was sold out and additional seats had to be placed in the boxes (Devries). Pettibone’s article also stresses the success of the production, calling it a “grand opera that not only astonished the city’s musical critics but brought Polish leaders of the musical world from Chicago and elsewhere leaving with praise on their lips: ‘We want to thank Milwaukee for showing us what Poles in this country can do!” (Pettibone). A later 1927 article in a Polish publication continued to praise the Opera Club, stating that the Polish community of Milwaukee can be proud that they have such a group (Polski).

The astonishment and enthusiasm in these reviews paired with the subsequent revivals of “Halka” in the Midwest is proof that the Polish Opera Club’s production of “Halka” was as successful as they hoped it would be. The decision to stage a “Polish national opera” by a late romantic composer is only a fraction of the importance of the opera to the Polish immigrant community. Milwaukee’s production of “Halka” followed Wolski’s advice to focus on internal unification and furthered Moniuszko’s emphasis on Polish folk tradition. Both Wolski’s poem and Moniuszko’s opera end tragically, reflecting a history of internal class conflict and its impending consequences. The Polish immigrants of Milwaukee took what had been a tragic opera during the time of partitioned Poland and turned it into a triumphant expression of Polish resilient identity at a turning point in Polish national history.

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Paulina Mateja (’14) is a dual degree student for the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Bienen School of Music. She is the recipient of the Comparative Literary Studies Best Senior Thesis (2014) and a Northwestern Undergraduate Research Grant (2014). Originally from the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Paulina is currently in the area working on law school applications and teaching guitar lessons.


Biographical Sketch. N.d. TS. John C. Landowski Papers, 1905-1961. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Box 1 Folder 1.

Cast of May 13-17, 1923 Polish Opera Club Production of "Halka." May 1923. Photograph. Anthony J. Lukaszewski Papers, 1923-1977. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Folder 1.

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Highlander village scene from May 1923 Milwaukee Polish Opera Club Production of "Halka". May 1923. Photograph. Anthony J. Lukaszewski Papers, 1923-1977. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Folder 1.

“Historia Polskiego Klubu Operowego” [“History of the Polish Opera Club”]. Program notes. Halka. Pabst Theater, Milwaukee. 13-17 May. 1923. John C. Landowski Papers, 1905-1961. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Box 1 Folder 6.

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"O Jednym Takim, co Się Rozmiłował w 'Halce'" ["About that Man, who Fell in Love with 'Halka'"]. N. title [Milwaukee] Dec. 1950: n. pag. Print. Anthony J. Lukaszewski Papers, 1923-1977. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Folder 4.

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"Polski Klub Operowy Spotkał się z Wielkiem Poparciem" ["Polish Opera Club Met with Huge Support"]. Nowiny Polskie [Milwaukee] 6 May 1927: n. pag. Print. John C. Landowski Papers, 1905-1961. U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries' Archives Dept. Box 1 Folder 3.

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