The Kolbergs in Warsaw
The father of Oskar, Juliusz Kolberg moved to this city at the end of the 18th century. He was 20 years old when he came from the Mecklenburg region, and he was already a graduate of the Academy of Architecture (today’s Technical University). He found employment as a topographer of the administrative units that belonged, at that time, to Prussia. By the end of his life, Juliusz received the royal title with the coat of arms of the city of Kołobrzeg which symbolizes the Slavic roots of the family.
In Warsaw, he met Caroline Mercoeur, the mother of Oskar. She was born in Prussia to the family of Gotfryd Mercoeur, a French emigrant, and Henrietta von Arnim who had aristocratic roots. Caroline came to Warsaw as a child and grew up here; this is why she felt truly Polish. When she was eighteen years old, she married Juliusz Kolberg.
Around 1810, Juliusz and Caroline moved to Przusucha with her mother and their first son, William, where they stayed for a few years. This is the place where, in 1814, Henryk Oscar and few of his siblings were born.

The Warsaw Lyceum
After spending few years in the Opoczno region, Juliusz Kolberg was appointed a professor at the University of Warsaw. The family was introduced into the Warsaw aristocratic community. The friendships with some of its members lasted their whole lifes. The Kolbergs moved to the outbuilding of the Kazimierz Palace; they became neighbours with Kazimierz Brodziński and the Chopin family. In 1829, they moved to the house at the corner of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Oboźna streets.
In the years 1823-1830, Oscar attended the Warsaw Lyceum which, at that time, was located, just as the university, in the Kazimierz Palace. Some of his teachers were, among other people Samuel Bogumil Linde (the headmaster), Joachim Lelewel and Kazimierz Brodziński. Some other students of the Lyceum were two older brothers of Oscar, William and Anthony, as well as Frederic Chopin, Julian Fontana and Józef Sikorski. The school’s curriculum comprised the Polish language, history, mathematics, physics, practical geometry, architecture, topography, religion, drawing and calligraphy, as well as a few foreign languages. At the same time, Oscar started to take piano lessons. His first teacher was Głogowski. Then, between the years 1824-30, his second piano-master was Francis Vetter, a native of Lusatia. In 1830, the young Kolberg started to take lessons from Józef Elsner, a Chopin’s instructor. Subsequently, he took piano lessons and a course in composition from Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński. The childhood of Oscar finished with the November Uprising and the death of his father in the autumn of 1831. After closing of the Lyceum, Oscar worked as an accountant until 1833.
When he realized that it was impossible to get a better musical education in Warsaw, Oscar, like many other musicians at that time, moved to Berlin. Later, when he came back, he received rave reviews from his former teacher, Józef Elsner.

A musician and composer
Kolberg came in contact with the capital’s aristocracy. He was a guest of the salon of Seweryna Pruszakowa, according to an account given by Paulina Wilkońska in her book: “We asked Oscar Kolberg to play us Chopin’s mazurkas; he delighted the whole gathering”.
For many years, Kolberg wanted to become a composer. He was composing songs, polonaises, mazurkas, kujawiaks, and his pieces were published in Warsaw, Poznań, Berlin and Lipsk. In 1853, the non-professional performance of ‘Król pasterzy’ [The King of Shepherds] for the libretto by Teofil Lenartowicz took place. The official premiere took place in the Grand Theatre, in 1859. The opera was played seven times, which is evidence for its great popularity. Kolberg composed also the music for the ‘Scena w karczmie’ [Scene in the Inn], whose libretto was based on the text by Jan Kanty Gregorowicz entitled ‘Janek spod Ojcowa’ [Janek from the Ojców Surroundings]. At the beginning of 1860s, he started to work on music for the text by Kazimierz Brodzinski ‘Wiesław’, with corrections by Seweryna Duchinska-Pruszakowa. Years later, he related: “I started to write and I already had a few scenes, but the events from 1863 stopped me again”.

In the search for a folk melody
Kolberg started to collect songs and folk melodies already by the end of the 1830s. During his first voyages to the vicinity of Warsaw, he was assisted by writers, painters and musicians. Later he reflected upon this:
“In that summer time we visited country very often to breath in the fresh air and listen to the fresh melody that was continuously humming from this source of national music. One of those trips took place in 1841, on the Whitsun holiday, when we travelled for four days from Warsaw to Czersk with the late Józef Konopka, Walenty Zakrzewski and Emil Jenike. Later, we travelled in other places near Warsaw and Prague with Teofil Lenartowicz, as well as the late Norwid and I. Komorowski. Some of the other companions were also the painters W. Gerson, the late Karol Markoni and my late brother Antoni. Not to mention other trips that were made later.”
Kolberg was gradually collecting melodies from other regions. At the beginning of the 1840s, his manuscripts consisted of a few thousand melodies and texts. He also started to publish collections of folk songs, at that time, still with piano accompaniment.

The Warsaw-Vienna Railway
Starting from 1845, and for the next twelve years, Kolberg made his living as a clerk at the Management Board of the Warsaw-Vienna Railway. Some of the cities that were located on its way are Pruszków, Grodzisk, Żyrardów, Piotrków, Radomsko and Częstochowa. The same cities are listed in Kolberg’s notes. It is probable that, in the summertime, he used those trains to travel to the places of his research. For sure, he interviewed other travellers, too.

The ‘Bibliotaka Warszawska’ [Warsaw’s Library]
At the same time, he was writing for some newspapers, such as the ‘Warsaw’s Library’, whose chief editor was Kazimierz Władysław Wójcicki. Wójcicki and Dobrzyński encouraged Oskar to document the musical folklore, which was, at that time, a cliché subject. In 1865 the ‘Biblioteka Warszawska’ [Warsaw’s Library] published the programme of his ethnographic research.
Kolberg was also a co-editor of S. Orgelbrand’s ‘Encyklopedia powszechna’ [Universal Encyclopaedia]. He edited around 1000 entries connected to various fields of music, including almost 300 biographies of musicians, among others Chopin, whom he described as “one of the biggest musical geniuses and the most outstanding Polish composer”.
Kolberg was fascinated with the Chopin’s play. He heard him playing numerous times. Oskar gathered material related to the great composer, since he was going to write his biography. However, he did not manage to realize this plan.

The first volumes of ‘The People’
He conducted the systematic field research. He travelled to Cracow and Modlnica, as well as to the regions of Podhale, Sanok, Pokuttia, Galician Podole and Ruthenia. In 1857, he went to Vienna, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Trieste and Venice. He started also the research in the Grand Duchy of Poznań. Later he wrote:
“My travels were carefully organized and planned. I used to stay at my friends’ houses that were scattered in various corners of the country. After my arrival, I interviewed people from manor and made friends with them. When I gained their trust, they started to relate their stories to me and sing me their songs. When they finally understood what I was doing, they encouraged others to come. The promise of drinks and money brought others to the manor and opened me their houses”.
Some of the collected material was published in Warsaw: ‘Songs of the Polish People’ (1857) and the two first regional monographs ‘The Sandomierz Region’ in 1865 and ‘Kujawy’ between 1867-69. In 1871, after spending half of the century in Warsaw, he moved out near Cracow.