The Irresistible Siren of Warsaw: The Pre-War Story of Syrena Record
default, The Irresistible Siren of Warsaw:
The Pre-War Story of
Syrena Record, Chmielna Street, Warsaw, 1914, photo: Biblioteka Narodowa Polona, center, chmielna_warszawa_polona.jpg
Established in 1908 by Juliusz Feigenbaum, Syrena Record – Poland’s first and most charming recording company – was a pillar of the Polish music, culture and entertainment industries in the Interwar years. In the first of two articles, Juliette Bretan explores the role of the company, from its inception during the heyday of Polish modernity to the moment all was nearly lost: WWI.
The birth of an icon
Pouring out a steady, velvet stream of delicious harmonies, which totalled tens of thousands of titles, Syrena was nurtured during an era voracious for the infectious novelty of modern music.
Feigenbaum, the trailblazing father of Syrena, was himself reared on a wave of sound, which included family ties to recording technology. A Catholic of Jewish descent, he was educated in music, playing the cello and composing. His heart, however, was in the entrepreneurial wizardry of recorded sound – in the nascent growth of the phonographic industry already beguiling millions with its ability to regurgitate the glorious, enrapturing harmonies of the day.
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Syrena’s story began in the dying days of the 19th century, when developments in the recording industry were teeming. Feigenbaum – with money and a sharp, resourceful mind behind him – found a match in the phonograph’s inventor, Thomas Edison. With the support of his American counterpart, Feigenbaum was able to instigate the first imports of phonographic cylinders to Warsaw.
In 1890, Feigenbaum was also there as the first gramophone was exhibited in the city; by 1902, he was selling Edison phonographs himself. Two years later, he would even be producing his own gramophones, named Saturn, with material from those Edison imports straight from America, as well as from Germany.
But, ever the entrepreneur, Feigenbaum’s interest soon turned to the phonographs’ cores: those flimsy slices of gorgeous jet-black disc, then wax or shellac, onto which could be inscribed the very souls and voices of an age. In 1904, he began his first – and Poland’s first – foray into record production, releasing discs under the name Ideal. It was the popularity of this embryonic enterprise that encouraged Feigenbaum to go ever further.
After four years, Ideal’s name was switched for the enigmatic Syrena as the factory expanded – and the rest was history. Situated on Piękna Street, and with a name evoking Warsaw’s ubiquitous mermaid symbology, the company would become the throbbing, sumptuous heart of the city until 1939.
A stream of successes
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Thomas Edison and his early phonograph. Cropped from US Library of Congress copy. Edited Version. Dust removed by Arad, 1878, photo: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Tomasz Lerski, the author of quite possibly the most meticulous opus on Syrena ever published, Syrena Record – Pierwsza Polska Wytwórnia Fonograficzna (Syrena Record – Poland's First Recording Company), relays that Syrena’s swift rise to prominence was noted even during its first year of existence:
In the summer of 1909, Syrena Record took part in the First Exhibition of Industry and Agriculture in Częstochowa. This was a prestigious enterprise organised under the auspices of the Polish gentry and headed by representatives of well-known aristocratic families, such as the Zamoyskis and Lubomirskis. The official debut was a success – with the company’s records awarded the Grand Gold Medal and their quality ranked equal to those made by Pathé Frères. Futhermore, the press reported that from a technical point of view they were even better than the German ones. This was proof of the recognition the young Warsaw firm had won.
Trans. Barbara Dudycz-Hajgiel
Though Feigenbaum’s adept flair for phonography was already proving financially rewarding – with two successful, prizewinning music shops in Warsaw by 1909 – his Syrena was a record company also built on diversity. Alongside the unrivalled support from Edison, Feigenbaum had also arranged for international experts and technicians in the recording business to assist with the factory’s early work.
In 1911, the Russian paper Gramofonnyj Mir (Gramophone World) summarised Feigenbaum’s international inclinations:
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He always interrupts the conversation with digressions and sayings, he mixes Polish speech with German expressions, French proverbs and Italian puns. He speaks the worst in Russian, and sometimes he weaves in a Latin word, and he immediately straightens himself out. And if someone wants him to, he will play some beautiful Popper song on his cello!
Syrena’s operations also soon began to flit between recording studios in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and St Petersburg, with production in the millions of records almost immediately. Street jokes, urban sets, cabaret and theatre all found a home on those polychrome, often multilingual discs, embellished with two siren-esque figures and an ethereal gramophone.
Yet, the Greek myth undone, the siren on the label was in fact the gramophone horn, which belched out melodies intangible and invisible to the eye – yet wholly entrancing to the listener. Countless numbers of Syrena’s songs would prove to be the same.
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‘Panie Mój’ (My Lord), operetta; Der Graf von Luxemburg, Jósef Redo, Maria Tracikiewicz, 1910; Syrena Electro label, photo: www.russian-records.com
Many of the releases in Syrena’s early days were songs of Yiddish or Russian origin, or Tatar folk tunes. Klezmer, too, played a large role. In the BBC World Service documentary Syrena Songs: Music Extra, the discographer Michael Aylward reports that many of the Klezmer musicians who recorded for Syrena in the early 1910s were often barbers by trade, as their musical careers were insufficient sources of revenue. Though their recordings have survived, the names of these artists have been lost to history.
A more well-known, but equally ambiguous series from this era can be found in the clumsy recordings of Belf’s Romanian Orchestra, a satirical Jewish band with whom Syrena cut up to 60 sides between 1911 and 1914. The consensus now is that Belf may not have actually been Romanian, with this name perhaps added to attract buyers. Still, the group’s unique surviving recordings – steeped in Yiddish inflections, leaching a vibrant taste of Klezmer, and grounded in a heavy dose of allusions to a geography which would stretch as far east as Ukraine – is a testament to the sophisticated capabilities and promise of Poland’s first recording company. This was classic Syrena.
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True to his scrupulous form, Feigenbaum himself was present at every recording session in those early years, setting the recording equipment in order days before scheduled production. As business boomed, he could afford to treat artists lavishly and pay hefty sums, but his audiences – ravenous to devour the hits of the day – often came into contact with Syrena only through the gramophones transported through housing districts on rickety carts.
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Lerski writes that even then, still only a few years into Syrena’s activity, the contemporary press was emphasising the company’s superior quality of recording and its meteoric rise to fame. As more and more were drawn into Syrena’s orbit with the gravity of its sound, Feigenbaum employed a new strategy, injecting an increasingly high-brow repertoire into its production schedule. Operatic recordings began to overpower more religious or folk pieces as Syrena attempted to forge a renown on a par with its Western counterparts.
On 18th February 1911, the famed newspaper Świat (World) offered its readers a tour of the factory at the heart of it all:
About the progress the turntable is making in the entire civilized world, or rather about its achievements and triumphs, we have often written in our ‘Świat’. Our country, like others, is ever more widely and at an ever-faster pace using this epochal invention, which has become a special blessing of the provinces: in houses in smaller cities, where there are neither theatres nor concerts, and country manors, as well as in the apartments of agricultural, forestry, railway, etc. officers. The turntable brings noble and beautiful entertainment everywhere [...] Our readers should be informed that the gramophone industry is no longer completely foreign and that we no longer pay tribute to German, English and other manufacturers.
We have a gramophone record factory in this country, and it is developing simply perfectly. It has been in existence for three years. The industrialist Mr Juliusz Fajgenbaum, full of energy and ingenuity, became acquainted with gramophone record production, raised serious capital (reaching half a million roubles), created a limited partnership and founded a factory in the country; at the head of it, he set a great specialist, a Swedish engineer, Mr Karol Zandahla.
By then, as Feigenbaum himself noted in the interview for Świat, the company was shipping throughout Russia, as well as to Galicia and Poznań, and beginning international production. It was, however, still a business irrefutably driven by the galvanic modern evolution of Warsaw:
Syrena-Rekord also has a library of its catalogues – every month, the clientele is to be notified about new releases. Arias from the newest operettas, witty cabaret songs moving to fashionable waltzes, clever monologues – everything that the field of music produces, assimilates and popularizes in the big city. Syrena-Rekord captures her albums and sends them to all corners of the country; thanks to these excellent records, the whole province is constantly informed about what Warsaw is singing and humming, what it is moving and amusing.
Emphasised in italics, the interviewer’s astonishment that the company was already stamping 6,000 double-sided plates a day is as clear as Syrena’s recordings were crisp. Only a quarter of these enchanting discs were, in fact, dispatched to Polish homes. Syrena was the third-largest producer of records in Europe at the time – hence those multilingual labels – offering up a sweet sound that nobody could resist:
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Three-quarters goes to the empire, where it would be difficult, indeed, to find a corner where our records would not reach. This impressive export – it is the new victory brought by Mr Fajgenbaum’s industry, so thoroughly modernist.
The paper revelled in the success of a native company amid flurries of imports, particularly from Germany – but Feigenbaum had his worries:
Currently, it is only possible that we can [meet demand] with excessive effort.
A pragmatist at heart, and even despite his early successes, Feigenbaum and his factory still seemed to lack the capabilities to truly crack the national and international recording markets.
The centre of Polish music
Only a few months later, Feigenbaum’s concerns would be assuaged: on 20th November 1911, he moved from the company’s modest origins at 33 Piękna Street into specially designed premises at 66 Chmielna Street, where 300 roubles had translated into 76 presses, producing a cleaner, clearer sound. Lerski points out that this factory was both centrally located and linked to the manufacturing sector in western Warsaw, as it was situated next to the Warsaw-Vienna Railway Station – all the more important with the impending Christmas rush on records.
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And so, as 200 or so employees moved in, the premises were inducted with an opening marked with pomp and ceremony and 500 invited guests. It was here that the company’s fortune would truly make its mark on Polish history. A year later, Tygodnik Illustrowany (Illustrated Weekly) was still singing the company’s praises in its new home:
With a kind of pride, we must admit that Warsaw – in a list of cities that produce gramophone discs – nowadays occupies a place of utmost importance. It was due to the acumen, energy and gifts in forecasting of our educated industrialist, Mr Juliusz Feigenbaum.
But they, too, were mainly infatuated by the intricacies of the company’s operation within its state-of-the-art, two-storey locus:
The factory described can be compared with the Philharmonic, or with an enormous artistic institution whose concerts last continuously throughout all hours of the day.
Whilst the costs of the factory had been extortionate, it proved – as ever with Feigenbaum – to be a lucrative investment. Lerski states that by the following year, Syrena had paid off the factory and was even showing a return. Its rapid financial prosperity even triumphed over textile and coal factories of the same age.
Tygodnik Illustrowany also noted that artists were now being paid at an equal rate to the fees they would have received for stage work. It was certainly a comparable business: celebrities like Antoni Fertner and Mieczysława Ćwiklińska were recording for Syrena at the time. But there were also reams of patriotic songs, military and city orchestras, as well as bands dabbling in the innovative melodies which were becoming popular – and driving the birth of popular music – across the world.
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Antoni Fertner in ‘Antoś Pierwszy Raz w Warszawie’ (Antoni’s First Time in Warsaw), photo: public domain
By 1912, Syrena was producing 15,000 discs a day, or 4.5 million a year, all whilst the company was only five years old. At the end of the year came a contract with a recording company in Baltimore – Syrena had cracked the United States.
Then, the following year, the company expanded its sales to England via Liverpool. The move, as Lerski notes, required further glittering ingenuity on the part of Feigenbaum:
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Meticulously prepared pink labels, specially designed to match the quality of the labels on the Gramophone Company’s ‘Monarch’ records, were provided specially for the foreign, opera-loving public (the English records had pink labels, a colour reserved for the greatest opera celebrities). These labels also had a photograph of the performing artist on them – an important innovation on the part of ‘Syrena Record’. These photograph labels were the first of their kind in Europe and subsequently could be found fairly frequently on many foreign records.
Trans. Barbara Dudycz-Hajgiel
The First World War
Feigenbaum was holidaying in Switzerland in mid-1914 when the unprecedented declaration of WWI came. Although his Syrena initially appeared to be unscathed by the conflict, its operations ceased in June 1915, when the Russians were evacuated from Warsaw. The company’s stand-in directors had believed some form of musical production could be resumed – but their plans appeared thwarted when the now-occupying German army confiscated 2,000 kilograms of shellac, once rich with musical promise, from the factory for military use.
Yet, through shrewd legal proceedings, Feigenbaum was able to acquire compensation for the losses of shellac reserves, and the Syrena factory kick-started production again in December 1915 with a series of patriotic melodies. As Lerski puts it, these ‘caused a real sensation among the Polish public’. In 1916, lighter music was also released – but this deprived Syrena of the entirety of its remaining shellac collection, and the factory came to a complete, deafening halt in 1917.
Syrena ended up relocating some of its equipment to Moscow. In the meantime, a zeppelin bomb exploded on Chmielna Street near the plant, wounding one of its directors. Though the factory remained standing, with war still rumbling on, the future fate of Poland’s once most glorious recording companies seemed dire and unlikely.
But the story did not end here…
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jul 2019
polish art of the interwar period
Sources: ‘Syrena Record – Pierwsza Polska Wytwórnia Fonograficzna’ (Syrena Record – Poland's First Recording Company) by Tomasz Lerski (Karin, 2004), http://www.polishjewishcabaret.com, http://www.tedstaunton.com/labels/1910_1919/pages/Syrena_Grand_Record/syrena_grand_record.html, http://www.budowitz.com/Budowitz/Essays_files/Budo%20Mother%20Tongue%20CD%20Text%20Final%21.pdf, ‘Polish Cinema: A History’ by Marek Haltof, ‘Już Nie Zapomnisz Mnie: Opowieść o Henryku Warsie’ (You Won't Forget Me) by Ryszard Wolański (Muza, 2004), BBC World Service - Syrena Songs: Music Extra