Henryk Wars – King of Polish Tango
portrait, Henryk Wars, photo: Michal Karski, center, henryk_wars_portret_.jpg
Everyone sang his songs: those blissfully in love as well as the tragically rejected; residents of occupied Warsaw and the soldiers of Anders’ Army. The greatest Hollywood film companies sought his composing talent.
The king of tango and cinema
He is born in Warsaw as Henryk Warszawski, but he spends most of his childhood abroad. Between 1906 and 1916, he lives in France with his musically gifted family. His older sister Józefina is an opera singer performing at La Scala, while the younger Paulina is soon to become a pianist.
Encouraged by Emil Młynarski, the director of the Wielki Theatre, Wars enrols in the Warsaw Conservatory. He studies composition under Karol Szymanowski and Roman Statkowski. He graduates in 1925.
Even as a student, Wars works restlessly. He leads a choir at the Hollywood theatre, performs in several cabarets in Warsaw and is a band member of Weseli Chłopcy z Columbii (The Merry Boys from Columbia).
In 1925-1927 Wars serves at the Artillery Officer Reserve Academy in Volodymyr-Volynskyi (then Włodzimierz Wołyński). Upon graduating, he returns to music. He writes pieces for cabarets and composes jazz music. His New York Times Foxtrot (1928) is the first jazz song ever composed in Poland.
In 1926, Wars becomes the music director for the Polish record company Syrena Rekord. Four years later, he débuts as a film music composer. His score for the movie Na Sybir (Exile to Siberia) by Henryk Szaro becomes a success, more commissions follow, and soon, Henryk Wars becomes the king of Polish cinema.
The street composer
Throughout the 1930s, Wars composes music for over 50 movies, and his prolificacy becomes the subject of many jokes among Polish filmmakers. Wars writes music for Michał Waszyński’s Jego Ekscelencja Subiekt (His Excellency The Shop Assistant), Juliusz Gardan’s Czy Lucyna to dziewczyna? (Is Lucyna a Girl?), Mieczysław Krawicz’s Paweł i Gaweł (Paweł and Gaweł) and Leon Trystan’s Piętro wyżej (Upstairs).
The greatest music stars are singing his songs: Eugeniusz Bodo, Adolf Dymsza, Hanka Ordonówna, Tola Mankiewiczówna, Szczepko and Tońko. And they’re echoed in the streets. Among his many timeless classics are such hits as Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy (Love Will Forgive You Everything), Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą, (I Have a Date With Her at Nine) Zimny drań (The Cold-hearted Guy) Śpij kochanie (Ah, Sleep My Darling), Sex Appeal, Ach, jak przyjemnie (Isn’t It Nice), and Dobranoc, oczka zmruż (Goodnight, Close Your Eyes).
The outbreak of war interrupts his career. Wars is drafted to the army but doesn’t fight for long. After just a few days, the Germans destroy his troop, and Wars is taken prisoner. He manages to escape while being transferred, only to be taken prisoner again: this time by the Soviets. Nevertheless, he escapes again.
Wars gets to Lviv, where he starts a band called Tea-Jazz in 1940. They play all over the USSR: from Odessa and Kyiv to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). In 1942, Wars joins Anders’ Army. There, he starts a band called Polish Parade. The members include his bandmates from Tea-Jazz.
With Anders’ Army, Wars walks the battle trail. He crosses Russia, Iran, Iraq and Palestine. In the army, he meets Michał Waszyński who makes patriotic and propaganda films for the military. Together, they make the movie they call Wielka Droga (The Great Journey).
When Anders’ Army arrives in Italy, Wars receives the royal Cavaliere della Croce medal, and Polish Parade is awarded the title of the best Allied music band.
After the war ends, Henryk moves to England, but he dreams of Hollywood. He arrives in the USA in 1947. First, he lives in New York, then in Los Angeles. However, the homeland of the free hardly welcomes him with open arms. Wars struggles to find employment, especially as some film studios are moving their production to Europe: which, after the war, is cheaper than the United States.
The American Dream
Wars works as a copyist and arranger. He can’t find a full-time job, but keeps composing. Between 1947 and 1951, he writes a four-movement Symphony No. 1 for orchestra, the City Sketches orchestral suite, a three-part Sonatina for orchestra and a piano concerto. Some of his sheet music won’t be discovered until 2002.
In Hollywood, he débuts with his score for Harry L. Fraser’s Chained for Life in 1951. He soon realises the film business is all feast or famine. He works for the most prominent film studios, but his name doesn’t always make it to the final credits. After some lean years, success finally comes, however.
In 1955, he writes music for a sports comedy Ski Crazy! by Gordon McLean. The movie becomes a breakthrough for his American career. In the following years, Wars works for the greatest producers: Columbia, Universal, 20th Century Fox, MGM, United Artists and Paramount.
Wars composes film scores for over 30 films and TV series, including Seven Men from Now by Budd Boetticher, China Doll by Frank Borzage and Flipper, a feature film for teenagers by James B. Clark. He works with John Wayne, and his songs are sung by Bing Crosby and Margaret Witting, Doris Day and Jimmy Rogers.
Over time, Henryk Wars’s American home becomes the destination for numerous pilgrimages of the Polish artistic bohemia. Krzysztof Komeda brings his new music there to show it to Henryk, and the Wars household is frequented by such guests as Mrożek, Osiecka, Grynberg or Polański. Wars visits Poland just once, in 1967. He dies in Los Angeles on 1st September 1977, after a long illness.
Translated by Agata Zano