Tango with a Polish Twist: The International Roots of Interwar Music
default, Dance music ensemble of Artur Gold and Jerzy Petersburski during the performance. Visible, among others musicians: Artur Gold (2nd from the left) a, center, artur gold jerzy petersburski nac_6917637.jpg
The interwar era is widely considered one of rich musical output in Poland. The inspiration for the songs and dances which typify this golden age of culture, however, can often be traced to outside the newly independent country.
With sources from the United States to India, Argentina to France, the tangos, waltzes and foxtrots churned out by Poland in the interbellum were suffused by the multicultural and international. Written by preeminently Jewish artists engaging in redefining their place in the Polish state, and peppered with references to foreign lifestyles, they reflected an internal diversity within Poland itself.
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Despite a lack of infrastructure – and with the transcontinental often seen as distant and unfamiliar – these Polish artists capitalised on a widespread interest in the perceived extravagance beyond the borders of their nation.
Members of the Dana Choir; standing, from the left: Wacław Brzeziński, Tadeusz Bogdanowicz, Władysław Daniłowski, Adam Wysocki, Tadeusz Jasłowski; seated: Hanna Brzezińska; 1937; photo: National Library / Polona
Polish music of the Interwar period possibly owes the most to tango. It was this mysterious, shatteringly sumptuous sound which haunted the most popular Polish melodies of the period, percolating from North America, through Europe and into the Polish state in the early 1910s.
The performance of Victor Jacobi’s opera Targ na Dziewczęta (The Marriage Market) at the Nowy Theatre in Warsaw marked the first time tango’s devastating harmony reached Polish ears – but its influence really became apparent after Independence. In 1919, the stage icon Karol Hanusz performed Ostatnie Tango (The Last Tango), with music by E. Doloire, at Warsaw’s Czarny Kot (Black Cat) cabaret. Notably, the song’s Polish lyrics refrain began: ‘under the modest sky of Argentina’.
The Argentinian roots of the tango would resurface time and time again in the Polish music of the interbellum. One very visible example is Chór Dana, the Warsaw revellers’ choir founded in 1928 as Coro Argentino V. Dano. In his memoirs, band member Mieczysław Fogg describes how the ensemble first practiced much-loved Argentinian songs, learning the Spanish accent from the wife of the co-owner of Asco, a renowned lingerie factory.
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Fogg also recalled the initial struggle to establish the band, which would later go on to taste the richest successes of any such group:
Władysław Daniłowski, irritated by the fact that none of the theatres wanted to engage us, went straight to the ‘lion’s den’ [meaning the director of Qui Pro Quo, Boczkowski]. ‘Director,’ he addressed him, ‘we will sing at the premiere for free! If we fall in love with the audience, you will stop us; if it’s a flop, we’ll go home and stop bothering with singing.’ Boczkowski interrogated us and decided to take a chance. The day of the premiere came. We were dressed in silk pants, shirts with ruffles, we had painted sideburns, heads decorated with shiny sombreros and…the curtain went up.
Our choir was called (to intrigue and lure a snobbish Warsaw audience!) a Spanish name – Coro Argentino V. Dano. We sang (of course in Spanish) lovely songs, with Argentina in the scenery in the background, imagining the bay in ... Rio de Janeiro. After the curtain falls – an explosion of enthusiasm! The audience was ours. The press also welcomed the performance of Coro Argentino V. Dano and praised the initiative of director, Boczkowski, who spared no cost to bring such an excellent team from Argentina.
From ‘Od Palanta do Belcanta: Wspomienia’ by Mieczysław Fogg, trans. JB
It wasn’t just Chór Dana that achieved success when evoking the Argentinian origins of the tango. In the same year their revellers’ group was founded, the tango Wanda was performed at Morskie Oko (a period Warsaw cabaret, not to be confused with the lake in Poland’s Tatra mountains). Composed by Jerzy Petersburski and Kazimierz Englard, with lyrics by Andrzej Włast, its score depicted the fronds of a palm tree surrounding a captivating young woman. The lyrics, which describe a renowned character called Wanda, implore her to ‘take my heart; take everything’. Wanda appears to be a fictional celebrity from Argentina – but there is also speculation from collectors that this may in fact be an inside joke, referring instead to the cabaret set designer Wanda Jewniewiczowa.
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Soon after this tango, in 1931, came Ty i Moja Gitara (You and My Guitar), written again by the charming duo of Petersburski and Włast. The song was performed in a revue titled Hallo! Ameryka! at Morskie Oko, which premiered on 6th October. Receiving an enthusiastic response from audiences, the show was modelled after American revues. But the song itself instead whispered of that enthralling Argentine sound:
It’s rhythmic, it’s soft
And the hand on your strings
Plays our love
Poland’s musical love affair with Argentina persisted into the 1930s, even as Polish tango became increasingly separated from its South American counterpart. The influence of Argentina even went as far as to feature in a 1933 Polish film, Prokurator Alicja Horn (Prosecutor Alicia Horn), starring Jadwiga Smosarska – but on this occasion, in foxtrot form, with the song Argentina.
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The electric dancer Loda Halama performed the song towards the beginning of the picture in a flamboyantly ruffled evening dress, shimmying and cartwheeling as she sang:
At the beginning is A, at the end is A
How much life does it have (oh, how much does it have?)
This short name has something in itself
It cannot be forgotten
From the operetta 'The Yacht of Love' at the 8.30 Theatre in Warsaw; lyricist of the music of Fanny Gordon in the company of the libretto authors Julian Krzewiński and Leopold Brodziński; 1933; photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Other international influences on Polish interwar music can be found closer to home, with many songs oozing an unmistakable Slavic twinge. A central proponent of Eastern European musical ties was Fanny Gordon, the only female composer of light music in Poland during the interwar period. Her background was Russian, and with her came the jovial harmonies and folk nuances that mark a considerable proportion of the most popular Polish interwar pieces.
One was her 1919 Pod Samowarem (Under the Samovar), the song which initiated Gordon’s career in musical spheres. As the story goes, the famed Polish lyricist Andrzej Włast heard her performing the tune on a child’s piano and immediately saw it as a potential cabaret hit. After being released in Poland at the Podróż na Księżyc (Journey to the Moon) revue in Morskie Oko, Polydor Records persuaded Gordon to translate the lyrics into Russian.
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From there, its popularity grew quickly. One of the pioneers of Lithuanian and Russian popular music, Danielius Dolskis, recorded an original version in 1931, whilst Peter Leshchenko, known as the ‘King of Russian Tango’, added two further stanzas to his own recording for Columbia in 1933. Leshchenko himself was no stranger to the effortless charm of Polish music. He counted Jerzy Petersburski as one of his favourite composers, and many recordings of his performances of Petersburski’s songs still exist today.
But Gordon was also a proponent of cultural diversity further than Eastern Europe, infusing her songs with references to countries like India in her Buddha (1931) and Indje (1933) – tangos which, on recording information, were referred to as ‘Eastern tangos’. But this particular flair didn’t stop with Gordon. The region itself was cultivating a bountiful collection of sophisticated artists and movements, holding a certain sway over inter-war musical output. This was quite literally, too: Fryderyk Jarosy, the acclaimed compere of Qui Pro Quo, was of Austrian descent, his hazy Polish accent earning him endless devotion.
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'We Want the King' revue, performed at Perskie Oko Theatre and then Morskie Oko in Warsaw; pictured: Zula Pogorzelska in one of the scenes of the revue; 1926; photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Another Eastern European influence came from Romania. In 1933, a Polish version of the Romanian classic waltz Valurile Dunării (Waves of the Danube) by Ion Ivanovici was released as Fale Dunaju, which sparked a general musical interest in all things Romanian. The song itself was produced in the wake of the Paramount Pictures film Dishonored, starring Marlene Dietrich, and it was her photograph which appeared on the Polish sheet music. Nonetheless, the Polish version was performed by the well-known interwar crooner Tadeusz Faliszewski, as was the 1934 Walc Rumuński (Romanian Waltz) – another import from the pen of Ion Ivanovici, with Polish lyrics by Tymoteusz Ortym.
There was also Ach, Te Rumunki! (Oh, Those Romanians!), also written in 1934, this time by Zygmunt Białostocki and Andrzej Włast. The pinnacle of Romanian-Polish musical enterprise, this ‘Romanian foxtrot’ was performed in the Wielka Rewia (Great Revue) theatre for the Marian Hemar-directed variety show, Halo! Zaczynamy! Lub Szukamy Gwiazd (Hello! Let’s Begin! Or: We’re Looking for a Star).
How to love,
Romanians in Bucharest
How to go crazy,
In this charming city
Oh these Romanians
From a foreign country
The gates lead
Straight to paradise
From ‘Ach, Te Rumunki!’ by Białostocki and Włast, trans. JB
Polish curiosities had been piqued about Eastern European music even earlier, however. The 1930 foxtrot Tokaj, its name referencing the Hungarian wine, kick-started references to Hungary in popular Polish music. Even the harmony to the song hints at the Hungarian csárdás, or folk tune:
Hey, girl, you'll be drinking tokaj
Happy today, you have to be happy with me today
Hey, girl, kiss me again
Tomorrow, maybe sadness will overwhelm us
In 1931 came Węgierska Dzieweczka (Hungarian Girl), a foxtrot written by the Hungarian composer Pál Ábrahám for his operetta Wiktoria i Jej Huzar (Victoria and Her Hussar), which premiered at the Warszawski Theatre in April 1931 (though it was recorded by Faliszewski for Syrena Electro).
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There was also the 1934 Tango Węgierskie (Hungarian Tango), performed at the Złota Defilada (Golden Parade) revue at the Morskie Oko cabaret and recorded by Faliszewki and Adam Aston. Two years later, Poles could enjoy Węgierska Piosenka (Hungarian Song), another tango with an evocative ending:
Do not regret that your lips are mine,
After all, a Hungarian heart is throbbing in you
In 1938, Węgierska Kapela (Hungarian Band) was released. This foxtrot, performed by Albert Harris, echoed the frivolity of the original inspiration with Tokaj:
Music is coming
It’s Sandor with his band
And everyone is happy
When Csárdás plays, our lad
Western Europe & beyond
With music constantly developing, it was no wonder that Polish eyes would soon turn to Western Europe, a stage with which Poland was in constant competition. Post-Independence, the cabaret culture, foxtrots, tangos, waltzes and recorded music had largely pulsated its way to Poland from French and German cabaret stages, but by the late 1920s, the Polish state was holding its own against a matured Western musical output.
In 1929, the smash hit of the Polish state arrived: Tango Milonga, by Petersburski and Włast. Sold for 3,000 shillings in Vienna to be translated into English as Oh, Donna Clara, the catchy tune went on to achieve success across the globe. Al Jolson premiered it in America, and it was later performed by the likes of Édith Piaf.
Another Western import was the outrageous Charlie Chaplin hit Je Cherche Après Titine, released in Poland as Titine and performed by the effervescent Eugeniusz Bodo in Qui Pro Quo in 1924. This foxtrot-shimmy would prove a favourite – it was later re-released by Andrzej Bogucki – but it was also given new lyrics for a comic performance at the Ali Baba theatre in 1939 as Ten Wąsik, Ach Ten Wąsik (This Moustache; Oh, This Moustache). Dressed as Hitler, Ludwik Sempoliński sung of bowler hats transforming into helmets, and laughter turning to screams – all as the shadows of war grew ever closer outside the cabaret doors.
In fact, as the threat across the border increased in the months leading up to September, interventions from a critical German ambassador in Warsaw meant that the show had to be altered repeatedly. When the Nazis arrived, they attempted to persecute Sempoliński specifically because of the song, but were unable to do so – because Sempoliński had disguised himself under a pseudonym, Józef Kalina, and was hiding in Vilnius.
While this story may evoke the much later American musical Cabaret (and its period sources), in 1931, the United States itself became an object of musical interest in Poland. The duet of Henryk Gold and Jan Brzechwa penned Jedź do Santa Fe (Go to Santa Fe), a tango depicting cowboys on the cover of its sheet music:
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Because in wonderful Santa Fe
You can enchant your senses
Here you have eternal sunny heat,
And the whole world is yours
There were also songs describing Paris, the origin of that refined cabaret lifestyle now prevalent in Poland. Petersburski and Włast wrote To Jest Paryż (That’s Paris) in 1931, which was also performed at the Podróż na Księżyc revue. On 18 April, it was reviewed in newspaper Nasz Przegląd, which particularly noticed the Parisian sound ‘against a background set design depicting the Moulin Rouge’.
Petersburski and Emanuel Schlechter also wrote the 1934 Ani Londyn, ani Rzym (Neither London, Nor Rome), a slowfox – the smoother, more graceful cousin of the foxtrot – which noted the unique environment of the French capital:
Every pub, every bar
It has appeal, it has a spell
What sweetness, what charm
It lies in one word
Oh, mon Paris
Polish culture was so well-developed by the end of the interwar era that the Polish recording company Syrena allegedly signed a contract with the English musical powerhouse HMV. Western European influences would remain prevalent even in the wartime music of Poland. In 1940, a Polish version of the English classic It’s a Long Way to Tipperary would be sung by the theatre group Lwowska Fala (Lviv Wave).
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Lastly, and perhaps most poignantly, in 1944, Adam Aston performed his evocative Warsaw Melody, which recounts the destruction of his beloved city, its lyrics entirely in English:
Warsaw, you are like a melody,
Echo of a song that I sing, always in my heart.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jan 2019
art of the interwar period
Sources: Stare Melodie, Polona,‘Od Palanta do Belcanta: Wspomienia’ by Mieczysław Fogg (Warszawa: Iskry, 1971).