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Join the RSNO in Season 2020:21 as we celebrate the rich cultural history between Poland and Scotland.

Discover more about the fascinating links between the two countries with this exclusive article by classical music critic and columnist of The Scotsman, Ken Walton.

Scotland’s links with Poland stretch back to the late 15th century: to trade agreements established between Aberdeen and Gdańsk (formerly Danzig); to the ensuing migration to Poland of some 30,000 Scots traders by the 17th century; and musically to the celebrated visit to Scotland by Chopin in 1848, whose concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and numerous stately homes charmed the upper classes, especially his fawning female admirers.

More significantly to us today, though, was the arrival of tens of thousands of Polish soldiers at the onset of the Second World War, whose contribution to the Scots war effort was momentous. Many opted to remain and settle here, and their legacy is a descendent population in Scotland which today numbers around 90,000.

It’s their story, their presence, their music, that RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is looking to celebrate in an illuminating series of Polish-themed concerts permeating the 2020:21 Season.

‘In any given Season I’m keen to build a series of concerts that have conversations outside of classical music: conversations that connect with history, literature, the environment, social issues’, he explains. ‘As a national orchestra I think we should be integrated into that, and since the largest migrant population in Scotland is Polish, then they seemed like an interesting group to engage with first. There is a great story to tell.’

It began on 1 September 1939, when four Polish destroyers sailed Leith-bound into the Forth Estuary. Other Scottish ports soon welcomed Polish vessels: Rosyth, Port Glasgow, Greenock and Dundee. According to Renfrewshire-based Robert Ostrycharz – an expert on the history of Scotland’s Polish communities, an advisor on this RSNO project, and himself the son of an immigrant wartime Polish military man – the majority of UK-bound Polish soldiers were stationed in Scotland. That included Polish aircrews, many of whom were trained at military unit in Peebles and Grangemouth.

When it came to support in combat, none was more swift-acting than the impromptu response of the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun in defending Clydebank against the Luftwaffe’s catastrophic 1941 blitz of the strategic shipbuilding town.

Piorun, built the previous year at the John Brown & Company shipyard for the Royal Navy but subsequently transferred to the Polish Navy, was undergoing repairs on the Clyde. When the attack began, its selfless crew, under Commander Eugeniusz Pławski, manned the ship’s guns in defence of the unsuspecting town. A plaque opposite Clydebank Town Hall honours their bravery.

This Polish series, says Mackie, is not just about the central symphonic repertoire in the concert hall, although that remains the heartbeat of the initiative, and underlines the RSNO’s long association with Polish music and musicians, dating from Emil Młynarski (Polish Principal Conductor of the then Scottish Orchestra from 1910 to 1916 and early champion of Karol Szymanowski’s music) to composers who conducted their own works – Andrzej Panufnik in 1956, Krzysztof Penderecki on three occasions in the 1970s, and Witold Lutosławski in 1979 and 1981.

Among those thrilled with Mackie’s broad-based initiative is Lady Camilla Panufnik, widow of the dissident Polish composer.

‘Not only was my late husband indebted to the support his music received from the Scottish orchestras after escaping Poland and settling in the UK, but my own father was captain of HMS Legion which, at the time of the Clydebank bombing, was stationed at Greenock,’ she recalls. ‘He worked closely with the Piorun’s captain.’

She remembers especially Sir Alexander Gibson’s daring RSNO Polish premiere of Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra at the 1978 Warsaw Autumn Festival, a work of startling passion written to celebrate 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland, therefore hardly one the communist authorities would have approved of. ‘They did not welcome the performance, but nor did they stop it,’ she says.

It’s one of many Polish works featuring in this six-concert orchestral series, alongside music by Chopin (both piano concertos), Lutosławski, Górecki, and the lesser-known Mieczysław Weinberg (friend of Shostakovich) and Wojciech Kilar (better-known for such film scores as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Nicola Benedetti, in partnership with Music Director Thomas Søndergård, will also perform Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No1 with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

On the broader front, there’s a string quartet recital, Polish Reflections, by RSNO musicians; another of the RSNO’s informative In Focus round-table events featuring Lady Camilla Panufnik in Glasgow and Edinburgh; a commemorative concert in Clydebank honouring the 80th anniversary of the Blitz; and the RSNO Composers’ Hub participants will be taking inspiration from the Series, focusing their new compositions on the theme of migration.

But perhaps the most exciting outcome of this project is an open invitation to the RSNO to perform in the city of Katowice, reciprocating the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra’s appearance next March in the RSNO Season which, in the same spirit of exchange, opens with Elgar’s symphonic prelude Polonia.

Written in 1915 for a Polish Victims’ Relief Fund concert in London, commissioned and conducted then by none other than the Scottish Orchestra’s Emil Młynarski, and overflowing with patriotic Polish tunes, it’s a work that embodies fully the lasting bond between the Brits and the Poles. Scotland’s role in that deserves to be celebrated.

© Ken Walton 2020

The RSNO's Polska Scotland series is supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the international cultural programme marking the centenary of Poland's regained independence. Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual NIEPODLEGŁA programme 2017 - 2022.

Concerts included in the Polska Scotland series:


Swan Lake

Between day and night, between memories and dreams – that’s where the imagination runs wild. And it never runs wilder, or more gloriously free, then in Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s shimmering, sensuous Song of the Night. Thomas Søndergård adores this music, and he’s woven it into a sequence that embraces…

Fri 11 Dec 2020, 7.30PM
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Box Office: 0131 228 1155

Swan Lake

Swan Lake

Between day and night, between memories and dreams – that’s where the imagination runs wild. And it never runs wilder, or more gloriously free, then in Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s shimmering, sensuous Song of the Night. Thomas Søndergård adores this music, and he’s woven it into a sequence that embraces…

Sat 12 Dec 2020, 7.30PM
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Swan Lake

RSNO Chorus in Concert

The RSNO Chorus is one of the real jewels in Scotland’s musical crown. Today they scale things right down and take a journey through musical time and space, from the sacred medieval harmonies of Byrd’s Ave verum corpus to the extraordinary new sounds of Roxanna Panufnik’s Kyrie after Byrd and…

Sun 28 Feb 2021, 2.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

RSNO Chorus in Concert

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra: Tchaikovsky Four

A savage fanfare blasts out, but for Tchaikovsky this wasn’t just music but the sound of Fate itself. His Fourth Symphony tells the story of his emotional struggle – an electrifying showcase for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, visiting Scotland as part of our year-long celebration of Polish culture.…

Fri 5 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Box Office: 0131 228 1155

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra: Tchaikovsky Four

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra: Tchaikovsky Four

A savage fanfare blasts out, but for Tchaikovsky this wasn’t just music but the sound of Fate itself. His Fourth Symphony tells the story of his emotional struggle – an electrifying showcase for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, visiting Scotland as part of our year-long celebration of Polish culture.…

Sat 6 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra: Tchaikovsky Four

In Focus: Polska Scotland

This Season the RSNO celebrates the rich history and cultural connections between Poland and Scotland in our series Polska Scotland. Join RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie as he hosts a unique round-table discussion with Lady Camilla Panufnik, wife of the esteemed composer Andrzej Panufnik, Polish historian Robert Ostrycharz and Ewen…

Tue 23 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

In Focus: Polska Scotland

In Focus: Polska Scotland

This Season the RSNO celebrates the rich history and cultural connections between Poland and Scotland in our series Polska Scotland. Join RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie as he hosts a unique round-table discussion with Lady Camilla Panufnik, wife of the esteemed composer Andrzej Panufnik, Polish historian Robert Ostrycharz and Ewen…

Wed 24 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
L’institut français d’Ecosse / French Institute Scotland, Edinburgh
Box Office:

In Focus: Polska Scotland

Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet

There’s a lot more to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet than just the theme tune to The Apprentice - no composer has ever got close to capturing the tenderness, the violence and the pure emotion of Shakespeare’s great love story. Conductor Ludovic Morlot will make every note count; but first, experience…

Fri 26 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Box Office: 0131 228 1155

Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet

Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet

There’s a lot more to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet than just the theme tune to The Apprentice - no composer has ever got close to capturing the tenderness, the violence and the pure emotion of Shakespeare’s great love story. Conductor Ludovic Morlot will make every note count; but first, experience…

Sat 27 Mar 2021, 7.30PM
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet

Nicola Benedetti with NYOS & RSNO

There’s nothing quite like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony: music with the power of an artillery barrage, a life-or-death struggle for freedom, written in a city under siege. Imagine hearing it unleashed by the combined forces of the RSNO and the superb young players of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. And…

Fri 16 Apr 2021, 7.30PM
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Box Office: 0131 228 1155

Nicola Benedetti with NYOS & RSNO

Nicola Benedetti with NYOS & RSNO

There’s nothing quite like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony: music with the power of an artillery barrage, a life-or-death struggle for freedom, written in a city under siege. Imagine hearing it unleashed by the combined forces of the RSNO and the superb young players of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. And…

Sat 17 Apr 2021, 7.30PM
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Nicola Benedetti with NYOS & RSNO

Chamber Series: Polish Reflections

Featuring Adrian Wilson, Lena Zeliszewska, Robin Wilson, Tom Dunn, Arthur Boutillier and Julia Strehle-Lynch.

In the 20th century, Polish music burst out of its homeland and set Europe on fire. The three Polish pieces in this concert are intimate in scale, but epic in emotion, whether they’re Szymanowski’s sensuous, soaring Violin…

Sun 25 Apr 2021, 2.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Chamber Series: Polish Reflections

Composers' Hub Workshop

The RSNO’s Composers’ Hub goes from strength to strength. An exciting scheme which offers emerging composers the chance to work with the RSNO over the course of a Season, this year our composers will be focusing on the theme of migration. In this public workshop you will hear five brand-new…

Tue 27 Apr 2021, 10.00AM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Composers' Hub Workshop

Symphony, Soup and a Sandwich: Heroic Dvorák

‘Polish music is a little bit of a mission for me!’ says the young Polish conductor Marta Gardolinska – and this lunchtime she kicks off with a real firecracker: Witold Lutoslawski’s sparkly Little Suite. Then, as the dust settles, Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony emerges from the shadows. Dark, stormy and heroic,…

Wed 5 May 2021, 1.00PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Symphony, Soup and a Sandwich: Heroic Dvorák

Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Chopin

‘Cannons hidden in flowers’ was how one writer described the music of Chopin – and throughout the long and stormy history of Polish music, dazzling colours and heartfelt romance have gone hand in hand with fiery national pride. Expect poetry and panache from Benjamin Grosvenor, a young pianist with charisma…

Fri 14 May 2021, 7.30PM
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Box Office: 0131 228 1155

Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Chopin

Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Chopin

‘Cannons hidden in flowers’ was how one writer described the music of Chopin – and throughout the long and stormy history of Polish music, dazzling colours and heartfelt romance have gone hand in hand with fiery national pride. Expect poetry and panache from Benjamin Grosvenor, a young pianist with charisma…

Sat 15 May 2021, 7.30PM
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Box Office: 0141 353 8000

Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Chopin

© Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2020