‘Tango Milonga’: The Remarkable Journey of a Polish Interwar Hit
default, ‘Tango Milonga’: The Remarkable Journey of a Polish Interwar Hit, Pre-war poster 'Tango', photo: Biblioteka Narodowa / Polona, center, _tango_polona.jpg
When the guitars will sound, and harmony sings sweet sounds…
It’s a song that feels as if it could be made out of red wine. Its opening bars toll with all the consequence and desolation of a funeral peal, heady and suspenseful, when a beguiling, if simplistic, rhythm streams to the surface. It is like a church organ shot through with a whimsical swing of joviality – all with those underlying, quivering accents of melancholy which imbue every Polish tango of the period.
It earnt Stanisława Nowicka the epithet: ‘Queen of Polish Tango’ – and earnt Jerzy Petersburski an international reputation.
The title? Tango Milonga.
The first bars
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It was on a cold spring morning in 1929 that Tango Milonga, written by the giants Jerzy Petersburski and Andrzej Włast, was first heard by Polish audiences ever hungry for those voguish, shattering melodies siphoned straight from Argentina.
Tango had arrived in Poland around a decade before, with its melodramatic cadences instantly gaining favour, as bands and songs were shaped to a Latin American mould.
In name, Tango Milonga was certainly suffused by the Argentine, referring not merely to the dance form tango, but also to its Milonga origins – and to the term milonga, the social event at which tango was performed. But the song also blossomed from a Polish environment which had come across Argentine tango rather indirectly, from poor-quality recordings and newspaper reports, with Polish renditions thus rapidly deviating from the jagged, feverish and sensational sounds of the original. This is possibly the reason behind the semantic irregularity and tautology of ‘Tango Milonga’ – or perhaps the ever-witty Włast was just trying to be clever; to saturate his song with the ultimate symbols of Argentine culture.
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In any case, although Tango Milonga was wired by an internationally recognisable and fashionable rhythm, so clearly cut from Argentina, it also bore the softer, more vulnerable melody of Polish tango. Here, the underlying Argentine buoyancy of the bandoneon was removed, and the songs instead seeped slides and a concentrated vibrato, with the shattering anguish of Polish classic music, straight from Chopin.
Aside from the foundations of an attractive melody, Tango Milonga was probably always destined to achieve renown in the budding world of popular music during the early 20th century. It was on one of Warsaw’s most loved stages, the theatre-cabaret Morskie Oko, that the young star Stanisława Nowicka, with her low and rich alto voice, would make history by debuting the song. She was supported by the A-Team of Polish Interwar music: a revellers’ choir made up of Eugeniusz Bodo, Roland (Witold or Jerzy), Tadeusz Olsza and Ludwik Sempoliński, with an orchestra conducted by Henryk Gold.
The song featured in the revue show Warszawa w Kwiatach (Warsaw in Bloom). Stanisława Nowicka was one of Poland’s first tango stars, who had begun her career dancing and singing alongside Pola Negri and Karol Hanusz. She was at the height of her career in 1929: that year, she had started recording for Syrena Electro, and had previously been employed at Qui Pro Quo and Mirage.
The revue show poured forth reams of that astonishing, fantastic world of Interwar cabaret. Nasz Przegląd reported that, after Loda Halama had danced at the feet of a giant gorilla in one scene, the next performance saw the stage transformed into a thriving jungle of flowers and blossoms, followed by another performance with a real stream of water on stage to emulate the River Seine.
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But soon, tragedy plucked away the very heart of the show – and a real-life tragedy, away from the make-belief melodrama of tango. One of Nowicka’s co-stars, the electric Eugeniusz Bodo, was involved in a car accident in May, which claimed the life of another co-star, Witold Roland. In June, Echo reported that:
In the Morskie Oko theatre, a performance was presented to raise money for the family of the tragically deceased, late Witold Roland – the great revue ‘Warszawa w Kwiatach’, with abundant guest performances by theatre artists from Qui Pro Quo.
Despite this catastrophe, Warszawa w Kwiatach remained popular. By late July, it had presented more than 100 performances, with Robotnik reporting:
The 150th performance of the great revue Warszawa w Kwiatach will take place. It will be one of the last performances of this revue of songs and humour.
A great revue & a great song
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Album covers by Artur Gold, 'I want to be yours!', Tango, contributor: Andrzej Włast, 1928, Warsaw, 'There's no use crying, girl: charming tango from the revue', 'Whole of Warsaw' in the Morskie Oko theatre, contributor: Andrzej Włast, 1929 , photo: The National Library of Polona
Though, at the time, it was the revue show which captured the hearts and eyes of baying crowds, it would not be long before Tango Milonga itself rose to a prominence far beyond the encouraging reviews of Warszawa w Kwiatach. After its popularity at Morskie Oko, the song was recorded that same year by a plethora of popular singers – Nowicka, Tadeusz Faliszewski, Chór Dana – on the titan of the Polish recording world, Syrena Electro. With its captivating tune, it may be truly a Syrena (or siren) record, but its appeal took it far beyond Polish gramophones.
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With the prolific Petersburski and ‘King of Trash’ Włast at its footing, Tango Milonga was a prime example of their characteristic strategy to pen songs which would be popular to every audience’s taste. As Piotr Stratus notes, Jeremi Przybora describes the lyricist Włast in his Autoportret z Piosenką (Self-Portrait with a Song), saying:
None of the classics of literature, neither then nor later, took over such tracts of memory as those from the master Andrzej Włast, the prophet of Morskie Oko.
The future of the song was certainly cemented by the pair’s ability to rapidly pen classic hits – the Polish translation of which, ‘przebój’, was itself invented by Włast in 1930 in a competition to create an equivalent for the term ‘szlaiger’.
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That year, Peterburski took his ‘przebój’, Tango Milonga, to concerts in Vienna – allegedly even playing in the famous Café Sacher. And it was there that the history of the song would take its most prosperous turn. The publisher Wiener Boheme Verlag bought the rights to Tango Milonga for 3,000 shillings – an astronomical amount of money at the time – and the lyricist Fritz Löhner-Beda transformed it into German, giving it the title Oh, Donna Clara:
In einer dämmrigen Diele tanzt die Spanierin jede Nacht.
In ihrem edlen Profile ist die Saharet neu erwacht.
Und ein Genießer aus Posen, er schickt täglich 'nen Strauß roter Rosen,
denn er hat wilde Gefühle, und er flüstert heiß, wenn sie lacht:
hm, Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna Clara,
Donna Clara! Oh, Donna Clara.
In a dim hall, the Spaniard dances every night.
In her noble profile, Saharet has awakened.
And a connoisseur from Poznań, he sends daily a bouquet of red roses,
because he has wild feelings, and he whispers fervently when she laughs:
Hm, Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna Clara,
Donna Clara! Oh, Donna Clara.
It was to be one of the most sumptuous exports of Interwar Poland.
In the early 1930s, Polish newspapers were reporting on the contemporary phenomenon of Polish tango going European – but none went further than Tango Milonga. It was ironic that the German lyrics mentioned ‘ein Genießer aus Posen’ (‘a connoisseur from Poznań’). At the time, Poznań was shedding its large German population, as it found itself in the newly independent Polish state, and was thus a symbol of the fluid boundaries of Central Eastern Europe as a whole.
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The song also leapt across cultural and political divides: it slipped to Paris in 1930, where, translated by King of the French Music Hall Henri Varna, it was performed by Pierre Meyer and Miss Florence for the finale of the Paris Qui Remue revue at the Paris Casino.
Then, it slid across the Channel to England, adopting English lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy. This version was performed in London and recorded for HMV by George Metaxa and Ray Nobel and his Mayfair Orchestra in 1930. Metaxa was a British crooner with a Romanian background – and so, the song remained still irrefutably Eastern European, even if it was growing ever-more international:
I saw a fair Spanish dancer
In a café in Spain one day;
Her castanets beat a tango,
And it thrilled me to see her sway.
She was seductive and slender,
I threw a kiss to her red lips so tender.
Then, as I looked, she was smiling,
And it gave me the chance to say;
Oh, Donna Clara,
I've seen you dancing tonight,
Your fascination steals my heart away!
Oh, Donna Clara,
I'm in a well of delight:
You're pure temptation in your cabaret!
A year later, the British music publisher Feldman released a glowing review of the song in its journal, Feldmanism:
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This is the slack season of the year, but nothing can stop the demand for ‘Oh Donna Clara’ [...] it’s the most popular hit of the day and proving a success with a host of band leaders […] Feldman hits are world hits!
Also in 1931, a mere two years after its Polish premiere, the song soared across the Atlantic, to be sung on Broadway in The Wonder Bar – its American debut, performed by Al Jolson. Allegedly, the first American records of the song did not specify Petersburski as the composer, instead attributing the song to the Austrian composer.
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Chór Dana. From left: Mieczysław Fogg, Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, Wincenty Nowakowski, Władysław Daniłowski, Adam Wysocki, 1932, photo: Jerzy Benedykt Dorys / New Digital National Library Polona
Fogg Mieczyslaw portret chor polony.jpg
Tango Milonga may have been an international success story in the 1930s, but during the war, the song took on a darker history. Once a symbol of Polish modernity, the Nazi regime twisted the song into an object of mockery.
Petersburski’s cousin, the stirring composer Artur Gold, had been deported from Warsaw to Treblinka in 1942. There, he was ordered by the SS officer and camp commander Kurt Franz to establish a camp orchestra. Allegedly forced to perform dressed as a clown, one of the songs that Gold and his band played as other prisoners were sent to their deaths was, supposedly, Tango Milonga. Gold himself was murdered in the camp in 1943.
The memoirs of a Dutch volunteer in the Waffen-SS, Hendrick C. Verton, also recall the use of the song in the mid-1940s for propaganda purposes, but this time by Soviet forces on the Eastern Front:
We were subjected to Russian propaganda over a very scratchy ‘tannoy’ [speaker], as well as given leaflets, which we used as toilet-paper and to roll our cigarettes. It was a weapon used by the Soviets and part of their psychological warfare designed by their Military Directive. We heard top-of-the-chart ‘hits’ of that time: ‘I've Seen You Dancing, Oh Donna Clara’. They were changed to propaganda slogans, aimed at our souls, and to coax us over to their side.
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Singer Al Jolson in a scene from the movie 'The Singing Kid', 1936, photo by Archive Photos / Getty Images
Marred, blighted and crumpled by 1945, the sheet music for Tango Milonga must have been seen as an emblem of a lost world in the immediate landscape of post-war Europe. The burgeoning Polish Interwar popular music scene had been decimated. Even Andrzej Włast, the famed lyricist of the original edition of Tango Milonga, had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Yet the song lived on – and experienced a renaissance in 1954, when the singer Bruno Majcherek won first place in a competition of old melodies in Amsterdam with a Dutch rendition of the song. This was the beginning of a new, richer age for the tune from 1929, which allegedly made it to top hit lists in Japan and Brazil, and even travelled to Argentina.
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Back in Poland, Mieczysław Fogg was resurrecting the climate of Polish interwar music by issuing new recordings of Polish songs from the era. One of his most-loved pieces was a new rendition of Tango Milonga. But the song also broached other cultural boundaries, too, even featuring in plays. In 1962, Jerzy Grotowski’s edition of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Acropolis, another symbol of Polish culture, featured the song as a refrain to the action.
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International Tango Festival in Łódź, the so-called Tango Milonga: Intended for dancing and not for listening. Dancers from around the world danced at 21 Pomorska Street. And after midnight a show of dance skills from a couple of professionals, photo: Piotr Kamionka / East News
Petersburski – whose career following Tango Milonga had included his songs which had travelled to Russia and Lithuania – settled in the home of tango, Argentina, in 1948, just as his song had. He later recalled the pre-war tango fever which had sparked hits like Tango Milonga:
It seemed to us that we write tango. No, Argentine tango. It’s like our folklore: can a nation write a ‘kujawiak’ like ours? In life! It’s the same with tango.
Despite this, the song remains a keystone of Polish Interwar culture – and, in whichever language it is sung, testifies to the timelessly unique genre of Polish tango in itself.