9 Of The Greatest Polish Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The history of Polish music is a long and rich one. There are many great composers who have come from Poland with a lot of them remaining among the most popular names to this day and others may require a quick refresher on who they are. Regardless, they have created some of the most influential music that isn’t going to be forgotten any time soon.

In this post, we’re going to look at 9 of the greatest Polish composers, their lives and some of their music.

1. Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin

An article covering the best Polish composers has to really start with Frédéric Chopin.

Also known as Fryderyk, was born in Żelazowa Wola in 1810 he was a composer and piano virtuoso that remains one of the most renowned to this day.

A musical prodigy, Chopin completed his musical education by age 20 and not long afterwards, he left Poland and settled down in Paris.

Despite his talent and popularity, Chopin didn’t give many public performances throughout his life – mostly due to lifelong poor health.

Instead, he opted to survive by selling compositions and giving piano lessons as one of the most desired instructors in the world.

All of Chopin’s compositions included the piano with the majority of them being for solo piano.

It’s said that Chopin liked composing for piano as a challenge for himself as a pianist.

Some of the most circulated Chopin pieces include “Nocturne in E Flat Major,” “Waltz in D Flat Major,” and “Étude in C Major.”

Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major

1842 is when Chopin’s health really started to go downhill.

He spent most of his time from then to his death bedridden.

He knew the end was near and reconnected with family in September 1849.

He died a month later of tuberculosis at the young age of only 39.

2. Stanisław Moniuszko

Stanisław Moniuszko

Stanisław Moniuszko was born in Ubiel in 1819.

However, the Romantic Era composer spent a good deal of his life living in Warsaw for increased exposure.

Moniuszko isn’t among the most well-known internationally but is held in extremely high regard within Poland.

Much of his music is patriotic and he is sometimes referred to as the father of Polish national opera.

Some of Moniuszko’s most famous works include Straszny dwór,Verbum Nobile, and Flis.

In 1872, Moniuszko released his opera Beata.

This ended up being his last finished work since he died of heart failure in June of the same year when he was 53 years old.

3. Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki was a composer and conductor born in Dębica in 1933.

The Modern Era composer Penderecki composed a diverse repertoire of works in his over half a century of composing.

Being a popular modern composer, Penderecki’s music appeared in movies and television series from the 1970s through the 2010s.

He became well-decorated with the awards he won all around the globe.

Some of the most popular of his works include “Cello Concerto No. 2,” Dies Irae, St. Luke Passion, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and “Symphony No. 3.”

Penderecki did work around the world due to his fame as a composer but remained close to home in Krakow as his health declined with age.

He died of unknown causes in 2020 at age 86.

4. Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman was born in 1911 in Sosnowiec was a pianist as well as a well known composer.

Szpilman studied at the Chopin Academy for Music and his career as a pianist and composer started relatively well.

However, it was short-lived since was of Jewish descent which led him to having to hide out for 2 years due to the Nazi invasion of Poland.

He immediately resumed work afterwards with his story becoming the inspiration for the film The Pianist.

Even so, his fame mostly remained in Poland.

The prolific composer created hundreds of works without ever taking a break in his career.

Some of his most beloved pieces include “Waltzer in the Olden Style,” “Concertino for Piano and Orchestra,” and “Ouverture for Symphonic Orchestra.”

However, despite the vastness of his compositions, Szpilman remained mostly famous for his abilities as a pianist.

After a long life, Szpilman died in 2000.

At the age of 88, the cause was unknown.

4. Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was born in Kuryłówka in 1860 and had a diverse career as a pianist, composer, and politician.

This led to him to be have a few residences around the world and he donated much of his wealth as well.

Paderewski started life as a musician being a virtuoso pianist with a large following and began releasing his own compositions in his teen years.

He toured Europe and the US during his career but around 1910, his musical career was put on the backburner as he became a popular spokesperson for Polish independence.

He ended up bringing music back to the forefront in the early 1920s.

Throughout his career, Paderewski composed music for various instrumentations including orchestra and solo piano.

“Piano Concerto,” “Polish Fantasy,” “Minuet in G,” and “Symphony in B minor” are among the most famous.

Later in life, Paderewski returned to politics one last time.

He became the Prime Minister of Poland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Chief of the National Council of Poland.

He stopped releasing new music in this time, but continued to tour as a pianist.

While on tour in the US, Paderewski contracted pneumonia.

He died a couple days after the diagnosis.

5. Wojciech Kilar

Wojciech Kilar was born in Lwów in 1932.

The composer focused on both classical music and film music throughout his career.

Kilar wrote a decent range of musical works including chamber music, orchestral pieces, choral music, symphonic poems, and piano music.

Kilar is one of those composers that most people have heard even if they don’t recognize him by name.

He found some of his biggest successes through film music including his score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and “Moving to the Ghetto Oct. 31, 1940” in The Pianist.

He had success outside of the film industry as well with pieces such as “September Symphony,” “Krzesany,” “Orawa,” and “Advent Symphony.”

In 2013, Kilar was beginning to exhibit signs of his health failing.

In September of that year, he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor which was successfully removed through surgery.

Following the surgery, Kilar needed radiotherapy.

Though he survived treatment, it did a large toll on his body.

Kilar ended up passing at the end of the year.

6. Krzysztof Komeda

Krzysztof Trzciński, more prominently known by his stage name Krzysztof Komeda, was born in Poznań in 1931.

The composer mostly wrote film music and was also a jazz pianist.

Komeda is most well known for his strong influence on European jazz.

His 1966 album Astygmatic is among the most highly regarded European jazz albums of all time.

In addition to his various jazz albums, Komeda also composed the scores for dozens of films.

His works appeared in films such as Knife In The Water, The Cats, The Fearless Vampire Killer, and Rosemary’s Baby.

While working in the US at the tail end of 1968, Komeda was involved in an accident that led to a brain hematoma.

It was diagnosed as terminal and he was transported back to Poland while in a coma.

He never woke up and died a few months later at the age of 37.

7. Zbigniew Preisner

Zbigniew Preisner, born Zbigniew Antoni Kowalski, was born in Bielsko-Biała in 1955.

The composer never received formal musical training.

Instead, he studied history and philosophy.

The composer began his musical work in 1981.

Preisner is best known for composing film scores, particularly with Krzysztof Kieślowski.

However, he’s also composed a play, orchestral pieces, and some works for varying solo instruments.

Some of his best known compositions include orchestrations for David Gilmore’s albums On An Island and Rattle That Lock and his own album, Requiem For My Friend.

His works are also included in films such as When a Man Loves a Woman, The Tree Of Life, Three Colors, and The Secret Garden.

Preisner remains an active composer to this day.

Though he hasn’t released any independent work in over half a decade, he continues to compose film scores.

His most recent work was the score for the 2021 film Man Of God.

8. Grażyna Bacewicz

Grażyna Bacewicz

Grażyna Bacewicz was born in Łódź in 1909.

She followed in family footsteps by becoming a composer like both her father and brother.

She was a violinist, teacher, and one of the only female Polish composers to ever gain international recognition.

Bacewicz spent most of her career settled in either Poland or Paris.

She was very devoted to her music, often working multiple positions in the industry.

This didn’t consume her life though as she was still an active mother to her daughter Alina Biernacka who became a well-recognized painter.

Bacewicz primarily wrote pieces for violin and piano, but her repertoire of pieces has quite a bit of diversity.

She even used to perform secret underground concerts.

She even premiered her “Suite for Two Violins” and “Sonata for Violin” at a couple of these events.

Some of her other popular pieces include “Muzyka na smyczki, trąbki i perkusję,” “String Quartet No. 3,” and “Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn.”

Bacewicz’s health began to decline following a car accident in 1954.

At this point, she reduced her workload to just composition. Bacewicz had a heart attack in 1969 and passed at age 60.

9. Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 in Tymoszówka.

He was born into the noble Korwin-Szymanowski family.

After finishing his musical education, Szymanowski wasn’t pleased with the musical scene in Poland so he became a well-traveled man which helped him make a name for himself worldwide.

He also brought attention to the Young Poland arts movement in areas that it may not have otherwise travelled.

Szymanowski wrote a variety of works including operas, orchestral pieces, ballets concertos, and more.

Some of his most popular compositions include “Song of the Night,” “Symphonie Concertante,” “Étude No. 3,” Hagith, and King Roger.

Szymanowski’s health began to decline in 1928 and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He continued composing as he went through intermittent treatment for the remainder of his life.

The treatment proved to no longer be helping in 1936.

Szymanowski then passed away in 1937 when he was 55.

Summing up Famous Polish Composers

We hope this article has given you a little insight into the lives and music of some of our favorite Polish composers.

The next time you want to enjoy listening to great classical music, we highly recommend giving these 10 composers a try!

Which one is your favorite?

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.