Chór Dana & Poland’s Revellers’ Choirs
default, Chór Dana &
Poland’s Revellers’ Choirs, Choir members. Visible from the left: Władysław Daniłowski-Dan, Mieczysław Fogg, Tadeusz, Bogdanowicz, Tadeusz Jasłowski, Adam Wysocki, 1937, photo: w, center, chor_dana_nac_2.jpg
Historically, choirs in Poland had been a traditional and religious affair, with musical prowess held back by the Partitions. But there’s another side to the story. Culture.pl looks at one of the finest and most successful examples of Polish choral history: the prolific work of revellers’ groups in the inter-war period, and how the very first – Chór Dana – achieved a legendary status in Polish musical history.
standardowy [760 px]
Dan's choir Pictured: Choir members. They stand from the left: Wacław Brzeziński, Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, Hanna Brzezińska, Adam Wysocki, Władysław Daniłowski-Dan, Tadeusz Jasłowski, 1938, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Poland’s initial choral development was certainly haphazard: whilst choral societies did develop in the 19th century, holding concerts of mainly religious music, the repression by the partitioning powers curbed their development.
Patriotism, therefore, became a mainstay of choral enterprise: the first choral societies, writes Barbara Milewski, were ‘decidedly of a patriotic character’, created as part of a desire to protect Polish heritage. Choral music back then, when Poland was under partition, took on a cultural role to celebrate Polish composers and champion Polish independence, and religion, above all, predominated. And this trend even continued into the 20th century, with the popularity of Kraków’s Mariański Choir, founded in 1932.
Indeed, in 2013, the theatre critic and journalist Roman Pawłowski, writing in Gazeta Wyborcza, was scathing about Polish choral history in general, saying:
Poland has no successes in choral music, a nation of extreme individualists cannot create good choirs or good orchestras.
But after Poland regained independence, something did change in the choral world – and that something was the international rise of revellers’ choirs. A cappella music was becoming fashionable by the 19th-century, and moving away from the Church with the development of the improvisational barbershop quartets at the end of the period. When the jazz age blossomed in the 1920s, it only prompted a wave of vocal groups to form who, as Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman put it, ‘included hot syncopated songs in their repertoires’. The popularity of these harmony ensembles was assured following the successes of one group, the African-American Mills Brothers.
Soon, Polish artists and musical directors wanted a piece of the action.
The birth of the legendary Chór Dana
standardowy [760 px]
Group photography of band members in stage costumes. They stand from the left: NN, Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, Mieczysław Fogg, Władysław Dan (in a tuxedo). Sitting: Zachariasz Papiernik, Aleksander Kruszewski and Wincenty Nowakowski. Photograph from the period of the Debut in Qui pro Quo, 1929, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The development of Chór Dana, the most famous of all revellers’ groups in inter-war Poland, is inextricably linked to the burgeoning career of its most famous son, Mieczysław Fogg. At the beginning of his career, and after hearing the Qui Pro Quo cabaret needed a small choir to accompany soloists, Fogg auditioned with a pre-arranged group of aspiring singers.
But, as he explains in his memoirs, Od Palanta do Belcanta, he was initially rejected.
I thought on the way back [home] that I must not give up (...) Maybe I'll go to this Daniłowski [the creator of Chór Dana] and bring him some friends – I thought about who I was sung well with. The original quartet, which was met with such criticism from Boczkowski [director of Qui Pro Quo], was just a random cluster of people who could not capture the mood of a modern song. And Iwo Wesby himself, a great bandmaster of Qui Pro Quo, told me after passing me on the threshold of the office:
‘Don’t worry and do not give up. You have a nice voice. Surely your artistic career is waiting’.
Wesby could not be wrong. Yes, I will go to Daniłowski! He has just returned from Paris (...) he explored the unfamiliar style of revellers’ choirs. This type of production of small choirs was personally known to me from my record recorded by the famous English vocal quartet ‘The Revellers’ at that time. I felt instinctively that such a native choir of revellers had a future. (…) I went with four selected colleagues to Daniłowski, who after hearing my suggestion and hearing my colleagues agreed to lead the choir.
Fogg’s recollection is a testament to the influence of American music on Polish inter-war styles – but the debut of Chór Dana in 1928 at Qui Pro Quo was to be a strictly South American affair, with a repertoire influenced by the popular tango sounds from Argentina. In fact, the group would not initially be called Chór Dana at all, but rather Coro Argentino V. Dano – named after its creator Władysław Daniłowski. Their premiere was performed in Spanish; the members dressed in ruffled shirts and with painted sideburns. It was an instant hit – with the group’s first recordings made at Syrena Records only a few weeks later.
Tango with a Polish Twist: The International Roots of Interwar Music
And soon, the jazzy backbone of their repertoire, inspired by their American counterparts dissipated for a more Polish focus on cabaret-esque songs – a far cry from the traditions of Polish choral music. And though the group was an immediate hit, for Fogg, the start of his career in Chór Dana required intense training:
This new style was almost shocking for me (as for the rest of my colleagues). After all, I was used to singing mainly in church choirs (including Gregorian chorals) or classical opera singing, and here suddenly you had to produce in a song that required faultless diction and appropriate content, you had to sing in a light and modern way.
Even after Chór Dana had successfully gained a spot on the Qui Pro Quo programme, the rigid cabaret hierarchy meant their performances were never to be taken as a permanent fixture: they were seen as amateur novices, with Fogg noting a ‘chasm’ between more established acts at Qui Pro Quo and the revellers’ group.
But working from ‘dawn to dusk’ was paying off, and Chór Dana was rapidly becoming an audience favourite – Fogg himself soon stopped dreaming of an operatic career to embrace the lighter styles which would cement his legacy. At the time, Polish cabaret was maturing, and the revellers’ choir began to collaborate with other stars like the comic actor Adolf Dymsza, star of stage and screen Hanka Ordonówna and the versatile Zula Pogorzelska.
I am inspired by the joy and passionate work that prevailed in Qui Pro Quo.
Boczkowski was able to infect everyone with his enthusiasm, inspire everyone to creative effort. He instilled in us the unshakeable principle of toughness and artistic craftsmanship. (…) There was also vigilant discipline, punctual attendance at rehearsals and attendance at a designated time in the theatre before the show.
Chór Dana goes global
standardowy [760 px]
Dan's Choir during a tour of the United States, members of the Dan Choir in Miami, Florida. Visible from the left: Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, Tadeusz Jasłowski, Władysław Daniłowski-Dan, Mieczysław Fogg, Adam Wysocki, 1939, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The success of Qui Pro Quo’s resident revellers’ choir was down to a variation in repertoire too: one concert, they would be performing folk songs from the Tatra mountains, the next would include pieces from the Łowicz region in new jazz arrangements. And, as their popularity grew every further, the group soon ended their exclusive association with Qui Pro Quo and began to perform in other Warsaw theatres. Though the arrangement of the group changed over the years, with new members including tenor Adam Józef Wysocki, the group still went from strength to strength, even featuring in films for the first time in the same year.
Polish Cinema's Golden Age: The Glamour & Progress Of Poland's Interwar Films
Their popularity across Poland also meant a tour for the revellers was inevitable – and in May 1931, Nowy Kurjer advertised their concert in Poznań by saying:
They don’t need advertisement. Anyone who has ever heard their songs broadcast on the radio will definitely stay under the spell of this great band. How wonderful the interpretations of Chór Dana sound: fiery Argentine tango, moving sentimental Russian songs or wild Mexican songs, full of passion and unbridled heat.
And the following year, the group went on an international tour, including performing in Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and the USSR.
And, at the end of 1936, as Fogg recalls, the group sailed to America.
We sailed the ocean in the French trans-Atlantic, Ile de France (three times the size of [MS] Batory). We happened to meet the most famous singers quartet at that time on American the ship: the Mills Brothers. The captain’s ball became an occasion to organise a concert-match with the participation of both teams. Judging by the passengers’ responses, we won in this vocal duel! The program of the performance required each band to sing three songs. Encouraged by applause, we performed three additional songs for encore, whereas the Mills Brothers only performed one.
The duel had been presided over by French actor Fernand Gravey – Fogg remembered that the audience preferred the variety of the Polish revellers’ programme, including the performances of folk songs in modern arrangements, whilst the American quartet was seen as too one-sided.
Cultural Fusion: Poles in Latin America
Their visit to the States proved tumultuous: in Chicago, the group was asked whether they believed there would be a war in Europe; whilst touring the north of the country they were pictured in front of Niagara Falls; and all the while the group was lauded in the American press for promoting a more eastern, more Polish style in the west.
The legacy of Chór Dana
standardowy [760 px]
Mieczysław Fogg at the Artistic Cafe Café Fogg, Warsaw, 1946, photo by Stanisław Dąbrowiecki / PAP
The war caused the irrevocable decline of the cabaret and revellers’ boom in Poland, and Chór Dana was no exception. The choir itself had initially endured the occupation – and in two separate forms: in Poland, the name of the band changed to Chór Bogdana, after the name of member Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, and operated until 1944. But the war also meant the death of several of Chór Dana’s members: Zachariasz Papiernik was killed in 1940, and the aforementioned Tadeusz Bogdanowicz and Tadeusz Jasłowski were killed in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. A new ensemble was created by some of the surviving band members under the name ‘The Four Aces’ in 1945, but the band was never the same.
But the second configuration of Chór Dana took the choir back to its American roots. Władysław Daniłowski, the man behind the choir, left Poland for America in 1940 – there, he decided to establish an American version of Chór Dana, but the ensemble broke up when many of the members were conscripted into the American army. Daniłowski began working for the Polish Radio, and noticed that ‘these Polish Americans didn’t care much for popular music. They like folk music — polkas and obereks’.
Ever the musical entrepreneur, he spotted a gap in the market, and, in 1946, established the Dana Recording Company in New York to bring big-band polka music into the American mainstream. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of 1949, he was ‘a musician with a mission’.
Polka Kings: Does Polka Music Really Come from Poland?
The polka, to me, has a very powerful dance rhythm. It makes people feel happy, and I like to see people happy.
But Daniłowski also resurrected Chór Dana’s music with his recording company: in 1948, Billboard reported that the company had acquired the American rights to the Syrena Records catalogue from Syrena’s owner Włodzimierz Falencki:
Till now, Syrena [discs] were virtually unknown here, except for a few imported direct by retailers in Polish [neighbourhoods].
Daniłowski’s influence on Polish-American music cannot be understated. Dana Records became the top Polish polka label in the country, and in a 1952 poll by Billboard, it ranked ahead of Decca, Capitol and Mercury. When he died in 2000, Billboard also ran an obituary, saying he was a ‘prodigious force’.
Reams of revellers
But Chór Dana were by no means the only popular music vocal group to reach prominence in the interwar period. On a wave of their successes, Henryk Wars, Poland’s King of Jazz, decided to establish his own revellers’ choir, Chór Warsa in 1930 – and this group would be where stock interwar crooners Adam Aston and Tadeusz Faliszewski first found fame. They performed at the Morskie Oko theatre, with successes rivalling that of Chór Dana.
Another band of revellers was Chór Eryana, founded in 1930 and named after Jan Ernst. Initially operating in Lviv, Chór Eryana gained a reputation for highly polished musical output, and until the band broke up in 1937, they performed in two hundred and fifty radio broadcasts, including in the Lviv’s Merry Wave programmes. After an eight-year hiatus, the choir was resurrected in 1945 in Warsaw and gave thousands of concerts, also taking part in the first experimental television broadcast by Polish Television in 1952.
And there was also Chór Juranda, formed in 1932. This group began as amateur singers in Kalisz, but was transformed into a professional choir in Warsaw, giving concerts in theatres and on the radio. With a focus on musical parodies and grotesque pieces, as well as traditional folk songs, they became a mainstay of revue theatres in Warsaw, and also toured abroad, surviving into the post-war period.
Moved Away, Then Faded Away: Polish Interwar Artists after WWII
And, even when war had broken out, the creation of vocal groups and choirs persisted – though the styles had changed by then. The Polish Army Choir was established in the UK in 1940, and with concerts ranging from theatres to barracks and hospitals, the group rapidly achieved popularity, particularly in Scotland.
Their repertoire consisted of folk and soldier songs from Poland – but also Scottish classics like Loch Lomond, of which Time Magazine reported that he choir had ‘further built up good will by adding a Slavic swing to the highland lilt’. The group even starred in the Polish-Czech concert at the Proms in 1943. Writing about his American tour with Chór Dana, Mieczysław Fogg recalled the Polish community press response to the revellers’ choir:
'One of the newspapers published in Detroit, referring to the Polish choirs, wrote:
"There is no doubt Polish choirs played an important role in general Polish work (…) An ordinary rural song, if it is well harmonized, has a lot of charm and beauty, and such beautiful songs became famous in the world – but not as much as a small choir as a group of five people, ‘Dan’s Merry Five’, who come to Detroit for one show only. Our Polish diaspora singers from numerous secular choirs, as well as from parish choirs should consider themselves, as a duty and pleasure, to familiarize themselves with the Dan Choir’s repertoire.'"
A band of revellers they were, but Chór Dana’s transformation of choral music into a lighter, more suave, more glamorous vocal group style allowed Polish choirs to reach wider audiences than ever before, uniting tradition with trends and achieving international popularity.
Written by Juliette Bretan, December 2019
Sources: e-teatr.pl; bibliotekapiosenki.pl; Mieczysław Fogg, 'Od Palanta Do Belcanta', Warsaw: Iskry, 1976; Barbara Milewski, ‘Poland in Nineteenth-Century Choral Music', London: Routledge, 2013; Larry Starr and Christopher Alan Waterman, 'American Popular Music', Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; Victor R. Greene, 'A Passion for Polka', Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992; Paula Savaglio, 'Negotiating Ethnic Boundaries: Polish American Music in Detroit', Detroit: Harmonie Park Press, 2004; 'Music in American Life', ed. by Jacqueline Edmondson, Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2013; 'Billboard', 16 October 1948 & 25 March 2000; 'Pittsburgh Post-Gazette', 23 October, 1949