Dialects & Subcultures: The Linguistic & Structural Accents of Polish Interwar Music
default, Dialects & Subcultures: The Linguistic & Structural Accents of Polish Interwar Music, Editorial staff of the radio of Lwów in the 1930s, pictured (seated): Tońko & Szczepko, photo: public domain, center, #000000, lwow-radio-studio.jpg
Interwar Polish music has many unique qualities – but few are as telling as its linguistic and structural diversity. Reflecting not only the array of influences from the multi-ethnic Polish state, but also the ceaseless virtuosity of Interwar Poland’s artistic sons and daughters, the music of the era was designed to appeal to all. And this proved true, even if it meant indulging in some surprising trends and fashions…
The definition of popular song
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From the 'Pod Parasolem' (Under the Umbrella) revue in the Małe Qui Pro Quo (Little Qui Pro Quo) cabaret in Warsaw, 1939, photo: Stanisław Brzozowski / National Digital Archive NAC / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
Interwar Polish songs were earworms, through and through. Known for their notoriously addictive quality even at the time, that they are still beloved now is testament to their classic charm and memorable styles. But the skeleton to the songs – their language and structure – was more manufactured than it might first appear.
Sung in salons and laundry rooms, popular amongst the elite and the down-trodden, an interwar hit was written to have timeless appeal, even if the song’s lifetime as an act or performance was a short one. The period was the dawn of the popular music age, reflecting the diverse, fast-moving and technology-driven nature of the modern world. No longer stale and solemn, interwar music was characterised by an intrinsic and everlasting sense of fun – playing into the rise of recorded sound, the launch of radio, and a growing awareness of foreign styles, which were seen as exotic.
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This meant there was a certain spontaneity to Interwar music too – the era, after all, was one of free living, and musicians hopped between bands as new arrangements were shaped and shelved. But constructing an easy-going, popular music hit was an art in itself. In Poland, this paradox unfolded in the melding together of high and low cultural forces.
High-culture art played a prominent role in the popular culture of the time. The literati were leading the way – one of the first cabaret writers was the Skamanderite Julian Tuwim. But even in his wake came writers and lyricists who artfully mimicked Tuwim’s masterful, if playful use of the Polish language. One was Tuwim’s semi-protégé, Marian Hemar, who worked with Tuwim in Qui Pro Quo. The cabaret historian Beth Holmgren characterises him as ‘a Skamandrite wannabe, a cabaret genius who longed to be a great Polish poet’.
Holmgren also notes a certain poetic pedigree in interwar Polish music – and Hemar’s own recollections identify the specifics and spirit of popular Polish hit. In 1934, he wrote in Wiadomości Literackie (The Literary News) that:
When it easily falls into the ear, and comes out hard, when for at least three days in a row, it is buzzing around the head, it presses on the lips between the first tablespoon of warm food and the second, and haunts the mind, but without interrupting sleep. A successful song, a so-called hit, is sung by an unmusical man and without memory. He sings it falsely and twists the words, but he can’t do anything else – he must sing. The value of the song is the success of its ephemeral popularity. A care for the beautiful and original form of the text and music is a good testimony to the author’s private talent, but it is indifferent to the song’s success. This success is sometimes achieved by both horrible lyrics and banal melodies washed out in cloudy glycerine, as well as lovely poems for charming musicians. What is the trick that determines the success of the song? Why can it never be foreseen or fabricated according to a prescription, recipe, template?
True, Hemar denies the existence of a ‘template’ to popular song here, but there is a vital, if enigmatic, quality to popular music which he does acknowledge. More importantly, he appears to suggest this form of music is something special, which can turn into a cultural goldmine – even in its most ‘horrible’ forms. As he also noted:
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In a good song, the most important thing is neither the lyrics nor the music. The value – and here we get to the bottom of the matter – is decided by the compatibility between music and text. This compatibility is something extremely odd; it is the secret of the song, its aroma, its sex appeal. In pursuit of getting this absolute compatibility, you can taste and enjoy writing songs like solving crossword puzzles or chess puzzles.
And this is at the heart of the low-high cultural paradox in the period – and which was influenced by the social dynamics behind Polish interwar musical output.
Ambition & criticism
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Holmgren notes that interwar popular culture was a genre of ambition, particularly in cabaret. She believes that claims of ‘the poetic pedigree of the Polish-language literary cabaret […] may have assuaged feelings of ambivalence for Tuwim and […] Hemar.’
The artists – many of whom were Jewish – often faced hostile reactions from the Polish press and certain parts of society. Because so many hits were produced in the era, song production was labelled as near-industrial: rumours abounded that Tuwim and Hemar used a glossary of monosyllabic rhymes, with reviewers criticising lyrics based on hackneyed verse.
With Hemar’s description of listeners almost unconsciously devouring popular song, it could certainly be said that the genre was treated with some condescension. But artists like Hemar and Tuwim never quite abandoned their high-class aspirations either, meaning Polish interwar music took on a unique form.
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The youthful excitement and experimentation of Interwar artists melded with their literary aspirations, resulting in popular hit after popular hit – which were meticulously constructed to tap into trends and meet demand. On top of this was the fact that Poland received much of its 1920s popular cultural influences second-hand, with artists looking to Western nations for inspiration.
According to Anna Mieszkowska:
Hemar admitted (and he was no exception) that he listened to nightly musical broadcasts from London, Paris, and Vienna, and they inspired his compositions […] there are many songs with different titles, but the melodies are the same or very similar to each other.
Many interwar songs were written in a universal szlagwort style – a word derived from the term ‘schlager’, or, in Polish, szlagier. Infectious, catchy numbers, szlagiers were built on happy-go-lucky or sentimental themes, often with a particularly memorable refrain, and structured around easily whistle-able music.
And the King of Polish schlagers – so much so that he became known as the King of Trash – was Andrzej Włast.
The King of Trash
Hemar once said of Włast:
Before the war in Warsaw, it was the case that Tuwim and I were writing the best songs. But hits which went straight from the stage to the streets of Warsaw, Łódź and Radom, which roared through radio and gramophone speakers – only Andrzej Włast could write.
Włast became the king of Polish popular culture because he was adept at churning out those stock 1920s and 1930s easy-going hits, which were ever-popular among Polish audiences hungry for sentimentality. Allegedly writing songs between sips of coffee, Włast became the king of popular music to such an extent that he even helped popularise the Polish word for szlagier, ‘przebój’. But he was also fully aware that any ‘przebój’ needed a perfect construction.
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Hemar might have suggested that a ‘compatibility between music and text’ was the key to the ‘sex appeal’ of a popular hit, but the indefatigable Włast went a step further. According to the recollections of artists around him, Włast very quickly realised that the lyrics to a song didn’t really matter – what was key was having an irresistible melody. From more poetic beginnings, Włast’s songs thus became even more banal and worn-out than Tuwim and Hemar’s cabaret classics. This also prompted copycat songs from other lyricists, keen to capitalise on Włast’s gift for sentimental convention and cliché. His popularity only progressed when he opened up his own venue – the glitzy revue theatre Morskie Oko – which prioritised spectacle over the clever skits and songs of the literary Qui Pro Quo. As Włast saw it, songs were for pleasure.
Key to Włast’s idea of popular hits were his banal rhymes, sarcastically labelled ‘Częstochowa rhymes’ for their alleged background in religious folksongs from that city. These primitive and crucially predictable rhymes are seen as the sign of a poetic amateur, and Włast was certainly criticised in the press for such verses. But, as Tuwim’s cousin, the cabaret star Kazimierz Krukowski, put it, he was also ‘the best in Warsaw’ for these pieces.
According to Interwar historian Ryszard Marek Groński, Włast was so successful precisely because he helped to ‘fill the void’ between high and low culture. And key to this was Włast’s focus on banalizing melodrama – his songs, after all, were so often agonising tangos, fraught with heartbreak and devastation.
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Warsaw’s Praga-Północ, intersection of Targowa & Ząbkowska streets, 1950s, photo: Zbyszko Siemaszko / audiovis.nac.gov.pl
Włast’s reliance on the styles and fashions of low culture references another theme of interwar Polish song. Interwar artists often played on critics’ condemnation of popular styles: in cabaret, famous for its sense of fun, actors parodied the arrogance of intellectual high culture, as well as undercutting tradition and hierarchy. This also occurred in music. Groński credits Włast as being the first conscious creator of mass culture, saying this was due to his consciously slumming style:
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Tuwim or Hemar could write a bad text if their hand missed the mark [...] Włast deliberately descended to the level of a suburban pub, a fog, the half-illiterate nothings of love. He added everything to the end, and after the end he continued, wading into unbearable sentimentality […] Every path led to an inevitable rhyme: ‘jak łez to kres, jak dal to żal, jak ust pąk to żar mąk’…
Suburban influences were right – much of Polish interwar music was inspired by themes which filtered in from the underworld. Across the period, particular references were made to darker, murkier corners of Warsaw, with one hit about an again real-life dingy restaurant, Bal u Starego Joska (Ball at Old Josek’s), written by leading artists and performed by high-ranking singers.
Songs based on Warsaw’s urban musical subculture – like street music classics – were also popular.
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Henryk Vogelfänger as Tońcio in the movie ‘Włóczęgi’ (Hobos), directed by Michał Waszyński, 1939, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa, fototeka.fn.org.pl
The blurred lines between social classes in interwar music also came across in accent. Most popular songs of the era – and therefore most of Włast’s hits – were performed in a uniquely Interwar Polish patois, heavily influenced by the distinct Lvovian ‘ł’.
This letter was pronounced differently in the Interwar era, drawing on eastern linguistic influences to be voiced more as ‘luh’ than ‘w’. And despite Lviv’s position on the edge of Poland’s interwar boundaries, and despite right-wing tensions against Poland’s diverse interwar population – with Lviv itself home to various national and ethnic groups – this accent became the standard in popular culture of the era. Artists were even trained to speak and sing in it, allegedly due to the fact that pronouncing ‘ł’ as ‘luh’ allowed better enunciation on stage.
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Lviv also played into more low-cultural influences. The city’s comedic duo Szczepko and Tońko danced into national hearts with their hilarious Lviv’s Merry Wave broadcasts on Polish radio – all whilst speaking in Bałak, the vernacular of Lviv’s Interwar commoners and hooligans. As if to prove how such subcultures could influence a wider cultural output, this dialect would also be used by the ‘Skamandrite wannabe’ Hemar.
The fashion for popular music
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Krakowska Street, photo from ‘Przedwojenny Lwów: Najpiękniejsze Fotografie’ (Pre-War Lviv: The Most Beautiful Photographs) by Żanna Słoniowska (Warsaw 2013), photo: Wydawnictwo RM
Crafting an interwar hit – a popular one, at that – was a multifaceted and meticulous process, irrevocably tied to influences from the world around. In the case of Włast, the face of Polish popular song, low-culture merged with dexterous and slick poetic composition, as well as international fashion.
Groński says that Włast was able to slip effortlessly from one trend to the next, whilst his Morskie Oko was plucked – quite literally – from the Folies-Bergère of Paris. Włast often travelled there to gain inspiration for future acts and hits, and once said that a popular Polish song was constructed from a szlagier idea, but bolstered up by foreign styles, and effective polishing.
Echoing Hemar’s description of the catchiness of an interwar music hit, Antoni Słonimski and Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński said of Włast that:
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His songs have the precious property that they can be sung backwards and in all directions.
art of the interwar period
Perhaps that multi-directional quality could be seen as a symbol for the whole era.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jun 2020
Sources: ‘Collecting the Show on the Road: Spotlight on Anna Mieszkowska and the Polish Cabaret Archive’ by Beth Holmgren, ‘Mistrzowie Kabaretu Marian Hemar i Fryderyk Járosy: Od Qui Pro Quo do Londynu’ by Anna Mieszkowska, ‘The Polish Language Cabaret Song’ by Beth Holmgren, ‘This is the Sound of Irony: Music, Politics and Popular Culture’ by Katherine L. Turner