Polish Tangos: The Unique Inter-War Soundtrack to Poland’s Independence
As Poland’s independence was being re-established in 1918, a tidal wave of jazz, tango and cabaret was sweeping across Europe from west to east. But it was in the new Polish state, reborn after 123 years of partitions and conflicts, that the sensational innovations of this culture were truly capitalised upon.
Bolstered by its newfound freedom, Poland took advantage of the marvels of early 20th-century society, building on influences from east and west and uniting all in a new sound for a new land. The now-legendary pieces of this era burst forth from speakers at a time when Poland itself was striving, and succeeding, in making its mark on the thriving world stage.
Tango was first introduced to Poland in 1913, with the performance of Victor Jacobi’s opera Targ na Dziewczęta (Girls’ Market) at the New Theatre in Warsaw. Its popularity over the following years grew not from palpable influences, but gramophone records, the radio and newspaper reports.
This popular consumption through media prompted Polish tangos to carve their own position in the history of the nation’s music: with a lack of direct contact, pieces began to veer away from the original Argentinian form, adopting a more melancholic sound influenced heavily by klezmer, and a softer melody and harmony. Theirs was a journey that blossomed along with the Polish state itself – these tangos were bulwarks of a new, revitalised Polish popular culture.
In 1925, Henryk Gold and his brother Artur established the Gold Orchestra, an 8-piece jazz band that played regularly at the Cafe Bodega in Warsaw. At first, the orchestra exclusively played ragtime, but soon, with the echoes of a more exotic yet wistful sound creeping across the continent, it slowly began to dabble with tangos and waltzes, styles that would become the pair’s legacy.
A year later in 1926, Artur Gold and his cousin, Jerzy Petersburski, co-founded the Petersburski & Gold Orchestra. By the end of the decade, it was one of the most renowned dance orchestras in Warsaw, performing in the fashionable Adria restaurant.
Alongside this development was the growth in popularity of theatres and cabarets, the most significant being the Qui Pro Quo theatre, led largely by Julian Tuwim and Marian Hemar, and, later, the Morskie Oko cabaret.
These two groups competed fiercely to recruit the best Polish stars of the interbellum era: artists like the now legendary Eugeniusz Bodo (often pictured with his dog, Sambo) and Mieczysław Fogg, who performed alongside Mira Zimińska, Zula Pogorzelska, Adolf Dymsza, and the smouldering Hanka Ordonówna.
Experiments in 1920s music, which at the time were coming thick and fast, now had epicentres from which new innovations and styles could thrive: Poland was beginning to embrace tango-fever like nothing else.
The Wall Street Crash and subsequent global economic downturn in the late 1920s hit entertainment establishments hard. Both Qui Pro Quo and Morskie Oko closed in 1933 – but the music passionately cultivated by the artists of these clubs only played louder, and interest in the style swelled. By the 1930s, Poland – and particularly Warsaw – was seeping with the sensuous melancholic passion of the tango, with new tunes churned out on a daily basis.
Above all, the record company Syrena Rekord, Poland’s first and arguably most eminent recording company, helped facilitated the development of this culture. Established in 1908 by Juliusz Feigenbaum to satisfy the Polish demand for popular music, Syrena Rekord was already booming on the eve of WWI, producing 2.5 million records a year.
But it was after the war that the popularity of the company truly soared: where other record companies fell following the economic depression, Syrena jumped from strength to strength.
In 1929, it invested in innovative electric recording technology to produce a higher quality of shellac discs with a crisper, warmer tone, saving it from oblivion and prompting a name change that reinforced its modernity: Syrena-Electro.
The company played an essential role in the progression of the Polish interwar music scene. The influence of the charismatic Henryk Wars, the company’s long-standing music director, was all-encompassing.
A whirl of influences
The music of 1930s Poland that Wars helped produce was influenced not only by traditional Polish countryside folk motifs, but also by the cosmopolitan nature of the interwar state: after regaining independence, the Polish nation exploded in freedoms of cultures, languages and lifestyles, with Warsaw the pivot. Entertainment united these disparate voices in a pleasant environment, providing a means by which any style could be heard and appreciated.
This was particularly true for the Jewish population, who were integral to the Polish interwar music scene. Jewish composers, singers, songwriters and musicians, many of whom originated from families steeped in traditions of classical music, found liberty in popular culture, combining their efforts with other previously-silenced minorities and cultivating an original sound for the new nation.
The Syrena founder Feigenbaum himself epitomised this atmosphere: a Catholic of Jewish descent, he worked as a musician, composer, inventor and businessman – the ultimate cosmopolitan multi-talent that inspired a generation of Poles to follow.
Though Polish Radio was the driver behind the record business at the time, they only wanted to push the most renowned artists – making Syrena the only medium by which all the Polish popular music of the period, all the new melodies and styles and flairs, could reach the heights of fame. Waltzes like Szklanka Wina - Fest Dziewczyna!, slow-foxes like Już Jestem Taka Głupia, and foxtrots like Nikodem and Tokaj perpetually quavered from gramophones and echoed out of the doors of fashionable nightclubs across the country in the 1930s.
But it was the wealth of unique tango sounds that the Polish population craved the most. With its influences from Eastern European, Jewish and Gypsy music, these particular interbellum pieces spoke to the population like no other music could: a population characterised by a tumultuous history, an investment in multi-culture, and the desire for sophistication and charm.
Poles of the 1930s were allured by the exotic yearning desire of such music: the quivering Slavic intonations, the broken passion, and enigmatic performers. The artists themselves sustained the vision through the adoption of a multiplicity of enthralling pseudonyms, adding a soupçon of piquant mystery to the culture.
The breakout tango hit of Syrena happened early: in 1929, Petersburski’s Tango Milonga (with lyrics by Andrzej Włast) burst onto the scene and quickly became not only a national favourite but also a widespread international triumph, with the English title being Oh Donna Clara. The aching cadences and swelling Eastern European melody gave the piece a lively originality, and it is no wonder that it is still remembered by many as a classic inter-war tune.
But there were also other tangos which had a momentous impact in Poland. The popular Umówiłem Się z Nią na Dziewiątą premiered in 1937, sung by Eugeniusz Bodo, with a legacy that lasts even today. The yearning 1935 hit Graj Skrzypku, Graj portrayed by the rich voice of Adam Aston and the charming tones of Mieczysław Fogg, among many others, was characteristic of the tango culture emerging at the time.
Meanwhile, the 1932 piece Rebeka, and its 1934 complement Rebeka Tańczy Tango epitomised the figure of the heartbroken female lover, a trope found in so many tangos of the period. Another of Petersburski’s greats, the ominous lament To Ostatnia Niedziela, nicknamed ‘Suicide Tango’, came in 1935 and still remains a symbol of pre-war Polish culture.
The Polish film culture of the 1930s also dramatically facilitated the rise of tango in the nation: the already renowned Wars wrote scores to around a third of Poland’s interwar films, whilst other stars who had found their fame in Polish tangos composed, sang, or acted in the nation’s biggest movies.
By the mid-1930s, the combination of tango and film was attracting artists to Warsaw from all over Poland, and giving up-and-coming individuals a chance to make a name for themselves: artists like the Szpilman brothers, Władysław and Henryk, who collaborated on songs for the classic Polish films Wrzos and Doktór Murek in 1938 and 1939, respectively; as well as composing some of the most timeless Polish tangos of 1930s.
Across Poland, the production of such tracks was ceaseless, with around 4,000 tangos composed during the inter-war period. The bloom of a new era of Polish music was truly in full swing.
End of the party
But all was soon to be obliterated: in 1939, a few days before the outbreak of war, the prosperous age of Polish tango climaxed with the agonising melancholy of the melody Złociste Chryzantemy, an expression of desperate nostalgia for something forever lost – an echo, perhaps, of the dark clouds of war gathering on the horizon that would tear apart the prospering 1930s Polish entertainment.
After 1939, never again would the climate of Polish interwar tango thrive: the internationalism prompting such melodies was annihilated in one fell swoop by the invasion, and Polish culture fell with it.
The staff at Syrena-Electro were shot or sent to camps, while the artists were torn from each other – many, being Jewish, were incarcerated in the ghetto where they continued to perform until they were later murdered. This included the fates of Andrzej Włast, Henryk Szpilman and Artur Gold, the latter of whom was allegedly forced to perform for the Nazis dressed as a clown.
The writers of Rebeka and Rebeka Tańczy Tango, Zygmunt Białostocki and Szymon Kataszek, perished too, along with many other tango composers, singers, and lyricists of the period. Even the heart-throb of 1930s Poland, Eugeniusz Bodo, died of starvation on the way to a gulag. His dog, Sambo, outlived him by a year.
Of those who survived, only Mieczysław Fogg and Władysław Szpilman remained central to the musical culture of Poland. Petersburski moved to Argentina and continued composing, later returning to Warsaw to spend his last years in his beloved city. Henryk Gold wrote songs in Israel and later New York City, whilst Henryk Wars found success in Hollywood. Julian Tuwim died in Zakopane in 1953, and Juliusz Feigenbaum died in the late 1940s in Zurich. The gorgeous Hanka Ordonówna established an orphanage, only to die of tuberculosis in Beirut in 1950. Adam Aston and Marian Hemar, meanwhile, moved to England and died in obscurity.
There were so many central players in the Polish inter-war tango that it is impossible to list the fates of them all, but the thriving society they belonged to was ultimately extinguished with little trace left.
The Nazis destroyed the factories of Syrena-Electro too, Shards of records were still visible on the site of the old factory fifty years later.
Keeping the legacy alive
The Syrena record company exists only in private collections today, with websites like Stare Melodie collating a wealth of detail on the composers, singers and songs that characterised this vibrant period. The site’s manager, Tomek Grdeń, is adamant that the Polish tangos of the 1930s are experiencing a resurgence in popularity today, even if only through covered versions and modern interpretations. He claims the ‘lyrics and sentiment to the old romantic times’ and the ‘heart-catching melody’ makes the songs appealing to all.
But the inherently and unashamedly Polish nature of the tangos written in the 1930s is the central factor: its widespread popularity in the interwar period means it will speak to generations of Poles for years to come.
There may be only mere fragments of shellac left now of the enthralling tango music which captivated a nation nearly 90 years ago. But touch the needle of time to history, and you can still hear whispers of the magnificent tunes that soundtracked a truly golden age in Polish culture – and theirs is a story that will never be fully silenced.
Written by Juliette Bretan, edited by AZ, Oct 2017