The Sounds of Liberated Warsaw
default, The Sounds of Liberated Warsaw, The National Theatre, destroyed in September 1939, photo: http://encyklopediateatru.pl, center, zycie_koncertowe_po_wojnie_teatrnarodowy-zniszczenia1939_pic_2-177-smll.jpg
What did the city of Warsaw sound like after World War II? What were the musical trends of the time? Where did people go to listen to music? Culture.pl presents the post-war music scene of the Polish capital.
Shrieks & explosions: the audiosphere of liberation
Let us try to imagine the sound landscape of Warsaw during the Second World War – perhaps in mid-September 1944, when the Nazi Germans were expelled from the district of Praga by the Soviet army and the First Polish Army.
On 17th January 1946, one year after the liberation of Warsaw, the newspaper Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw) recounted:
Capturing the Ruins of Warsaw
In the morning, around 6:00, extraordinary cries rang out across the backyards of the capital. Many emerged from the basements or finally looked out of their windows. People ran towards the gates to see the streets, where the uproar was coming from. All of the Praga locals went out onto the sidewalks. Apparently, our people were coming from Grochów and Radzymińska Street. Some shook their heads in disbelief, others swore that yes, it was clear... After all, there was not a single German in sight.
It should be remembered that the cries they’d heard were quite unusual for Praga, as they were decimated and deprived of male voices. At the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazi Germans had arrested men aged 18 to 50, who were later deported to concentration camps (some died in mass executions at sites such as next to the Church of St Mary Magdalene). Whereas in 1939, there were 260,000 people living in Warsaw's Praga district, only half of them survived to September 1944.
The description in Życie Warszawy is somewhat unreliable, however. First, we read about Praga in the morning, but a few sentences later, we learn that only around noon, ‘people, numb with shock, started to come out from cellars, nooks, dungeons, attics and lockers after a long period of tyranny’.
Unfortunately, the sounds of joy prompted by the retreat of the Nazi Germans were not the only ones that could be heard in liberated Warsaw. Until the beginning of 1945, Nazi soldiers attacked the right bank of Warsaw, but they acted randomly and irregularly, never aiming at specific buildings. The enemy's cannonade was accompanied by the sounds of the work of sappers, as the retreating Nazi Germans left behind explosives in many buildings. For many months, sappers added even more sounds to the audio sphere of Warsaw; they also worked on the left bank, which would be disarmed over the next few months.
Praga was slowly coming back to life. The Polish Red Cross organised an infirmary and pharmacy at 2 Kawęczyńska Street. Other, similar places were soon created in the area. The medical staff was always busy, as the sanitary conditions of the district were catastrophic: clean water was a rarity, and sewers weren’t installed yet. Every day, the infirmaries helped dozens of wounded people. Typically, they had either been shot by German soldiers or trapped under collapsed buildings.
Targowa Street, the main street of Northern Praga, was called ‘the street of death’, as most of the wartime victims were transported down that route. On the other hand, Stalowa Street was known as ‘the street of life’ or ‘the street of consumption’, as it was home to an impromptu marketplace. There, clients could find tablecloths made by the elderly, as well as gold, religious objects, stolen canned goods and sweets. Trade also flourished on Radzymińska Street, Brzeska Street and Szembek Square.
Stanisława Mrozińska, an art historian, could vividly recall the market at Stalowa Street:
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A really skinny man with a huge head and crooked legs would roam the market with a warped box in his hands, shouting: ‘Candy! Fruit, cream, raspberry flavoured candy!’ On the other side of the street, a man with a pair of sharp eyes would hassle you and say: ‘Want some lemonade pills?’ Children sold homemade shoe polish and cigarettes, which they got or stole from soldiers [...] In order to avoid this swarm, you had to walk on the cobblestones, which were always muddy, no matter what the weather was like.
In October 1944, children returned to school. However, most of the school buildings were in an utterly ruined state. At the end of 1944, the War Tribunal of the Red Army operated in some of the rooms of the Władysław IV Junior High School (today, it is known as Władysław IV High School). Students came there in February 1945, but they did not have access to the pitch, as it was occupied by the Soviet army.
The windows overlooking the pitch were covered with gray paint. Andrzej ‘Szabla’ Lisicki – a member of the Gray Ranks and wounded in the Warsaw Uprising, was also a junior high school student at the school. He recalled that because these windows were poorly painted, he could see prisoners being dragged to interrogations during his lessons, visible through the gaps in the paint.
The atmosphere of Praga was also pierced by cries of despair. Many of the public buildings and private tenement houses in the area were transformed into headquarters of communist authorities and apparatuses of repression. Sobs and screams could be heard from basements that had been transformed into prisons, but they were often drowned out by extremely loud music.
Sounds of a free city
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In September 1944, a seven-person ensemble was formed in Praga, run by Igor Ivanov, who later became a concertmaster of the National Philharmonic. At the same time, Bohdan Wodiczko organized a symphonic orchestra in Otwock, near Warsaw, operating at the Citizens’ Militia.
On 25th September 1944, posters calling artists to report to the Department of Urban Culture of the National Council were placed on the walls of many Praga buildings. A week later, Colonel Marian Spychalski, the president of Warsaw, established an orchestra led by the pianist Jerzy Wasiak.
It is hard to imagine how precious it was for these artists to finally play together; legend says that they decided to perform a concert as soon as their first day together. The ensemble was called the Representative Philharmonic Orchestra of the City of Warsaw (according to some sources, it was called the Great Orchestra of Warsaw). Their rehearsals took place in a hall next to the Warszawa Wileński railway station. They played concerts in the Syrena Cinema and the Wedel factory.
Instruments, graphic notations and manuscripts were all destroyed during the war. Many composers lost their entire archives and sometimes, the only existing copies of their works. Some musicians, however, were apparently luckier than others. When Jan Ekier came back to Warsaw after 17th January 1945, he assumed that his belongings in his flat at Washington Avenue in Praga would have been destroyed in the war. The building was riddled with bullets, and many rooms were destroyed by shells – but his two pianos and book collection had survived.
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Teatr z popiołów. Premiery powojennej Warszawy
Po II wojnie światowej odbudowywano nie tylko ulice i budynki. Warszawskie środowisko artystów i artystek teatru przywracało życie kulturalne stolicy na dawne tory z niezwykłą determinacją.
What did Varsovians listen to after the war?
It is difficult to describe Polish post-war music without mentioning Kraków, which was far less destroyed than Warsaw. Many music institutions opened there in the period following the war. In the last months of 1944, many musicians moved to Kraków as well.
On 6th April 1945, the violinist, teacher and publisher Tadeusz Ochlewski was appointed by Mieczysław Drobner, the head of the Department of Music at the Polish Committee of National Liberation, to establish the Polish Music Publishing House. The Polish Composers Union was established in August 1945. Ruch Muzyczny (Musical Movement), a magazine edited by Stefan Kisielewski, was established in October 1945. Musical life in Poland was slowly rising from the ashes.
What was the situation in the capital? Zygmunt Mycielski could vividly recall the sounds of post-war Warsaw:
How Kraków Made It Unscathed Through WWII
I passed through Warsaw, where the only music was the wind whistling in the broken windows of the train car, on which the old, asthmatic locomotive was carrying me to Kraków. Musical impressions? It’s difficult to overcome another, of those first, first steps around Warsaw, which, after all, despite everything, remained as the capital, the heart and the consciousness of the country.
‘Ruch Muzyczny’ no. 5 / 1945, Trans. LD
The National Philharmonic and the Grand Theatre, Warsaw’s biggest and best pre-war concert halls, were destroyed in September 1939, but rebuilt many years later. The Grand Theatre was reopened in 1949. Meanwhile, the Roma Theatre became the biggest concert hall of post-war Warsaw. It was located in the city centre, on Emilia Plater Street, where it served as a makeshift Philharmonic. The actual Philharmonic was reopened as late as 1955 – which means that the fourth Chopin Piano Competition, usually associated with the Philharmonic, actually took place at the Roma.
Other important concert halls opened in 1945 include the Musical and Opera Stage on Marszałkowska Street (although it did not allow for actual opera performances) and the stage of the Karol Kurpiński Music School. Many concerts took place in theatres, such as the Polish Theatre, the first nationalised theatre in Warsaw.
Until the end of 1949, Warsaw concert halls and theatres could accommodate up to 9,000 people. There were many problems with these venues – after all, most events were produced in a hurry and the conditions were often dangerous. Most of these places were actually supposed to be closed.
Warsaw post-war orchestras were far from perfect. According to the reviews, the musicians were, at best, above average. But orchestras from other places, such as Silesia or Kraków, were described in a completely different way. The situation had not been much better before the war. In December 1945, Jerzy Waldorff described the arrival of musicians of the Kraków Philharmonic in Ruch Muzyczny:
If we compare the group from Kraków with the old Warsaw Philharmonic, we must admit that the abilities of the musicians from Kraków exceed those of musicians from Warsaw, both in their sound quality (especially the quintet) and clarity (the quality of instruments!).
The described concert took place at the Roma, which housed many performances of musicians visiting Warsaw. One of them was Henryk Sztompka, who was often compared to Józef Hoffman. Waldorff described his concert as follows:
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While the Roma was filled to the brim during the Kraków concerts, it nearly exploded from an excess of audience during Sztompka's recital. Although the event was hardly well-advertised, Warsaw did not her favourite artist, despite the six-year nightmare.
On 10th March 1946, the headmasters of the Kurpiński Music School organised the Concert of American Folk Music. The songs were performed by Olga Łada, a permanent soloist of the Warsaw Radio, accompanied by Władysław Szpilman. The performance was preceded by a presentation by Zofia Lissa, considered the first lady of Polish musicology. The program was performed again several times in the following months.
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What did music education in Warsaw look like after the war? The building of the Conservatory of Music at 2 Okólnik Street (today's Fryderyk Chopin University of Music) was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. The university was temporarily moved to two mansions located near Ujazdowskie Avenue (39 Górnośląska Street and 6 Profesorska Street).
In 1946, Jerzy Waldorff described the situation in Ruch Muzyczny:
The Conservatory still has some great instruments, and various remains of memorabilia were found in the ruins.
Those instruments included Bechstein, Steinway, Blüthner and Pleyel pianos. Interestingly, the people who lived in the villas before the war were eventually evicted from their homes, as they ‘disturbed the musicians’:
This struggle with the intruders could have even resulted in the marriage of one of the professors with a beautiful daughter of the intruders, were it not for the fact that the said intruders are occupying three rooms and that because of them, the library and the archive of the Conservatory (27 bookcases, music books and manuscripts) are slowly rotting in the old building on Okólnik Street, as there is nowhere to transport them.
The Fryderyk Chopin University of Music flourished in Praga. It had 200 students, who were mainly peasants from nearby towns. Most of them were sent there by the local National Council, and they usually attended singing classes.
Karol Kurpiński’s school was another important educational centre. It had as many as four branches and a kindergarten. The branch on Wiejska Street housed a concert hall, which was regularly visited by
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picky music lovers from Śródmieście, who went there to listen to music which was too difficult to be presented in large halls for a mass audience.
‘Ruch Muzyczny’ no. 5 / 1945, trans. AJ
It was not a huge concert hall, mainly presenting recitals of songs and piano pieces, especially those by Polish and Russian composers.
Charity or propaganda?
After the war, many great artists from around the world, including Poles living abroad, came to play in Warsaw and other parts of Poland. These included Artur Rodziński, Artur Rubinstein, Arturo Toscanini, Bronisław Huberman and Leopold Stokowski. From 1947 on, due to the growing diplomatic conflicts of the Eastern Bloc with the rest of the world, such concerts were less frequent than before.
ii wojna światowa
Almost immediately after the war, the new authorities began to organise charity concerts in order to boost their popularity. This trend continued throughout the entire period of the communist regime in Poland.
In Warsaw, on 24th March 1946, repatriated soldiers were honoured during a concert performed by Professor Margerita Trombini-Kazuro (a juror of the Chopin Piano Competitions) and the singers Olga Orleńska, H. Łaniewska and Michał Szopski. They presented pieces by Chopin and well-known opera arias.
Igor Moiseyev’s dance ensemble raised a million złoty for the reconstruction of Warsaw during one of their performances. In the video below, their performance begins around the sixth minute.
From the 1950s, many propaganda concerts were organised in various spots in the capital. For example, ceremonial academies were held on the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution under the now non-existent Brotherhood of Arms Memorial on Wileński Square in Praga.
The concert life of post-war Warsaw was provisional, but at the same time, it was truly vibrant and diverse. Perhaps the capital didn’t host a huge event similar to the Kraków Festival of Polish Music, where many Polish composers, including Grażyna Bacewicz, presented their works. But this was not the most important thing in those days. Even the most fussy critics of the period focussed little on the mistakes made by Warsaw’s musicians – for the first time since 1939, people could actually go to concerts of their choice.
Sources: ‘Warszawa w Latach 1944-1949. Odbudowa’ by Jan Górski; ‘Drugie Narodziny Miasta: Warszawa 1945’ by Jan Górski; ‘Czerny-Stefańska. Epizody z Życia’ by Stanisław Dybowski; ‘Jan Ekier’ by Aneta Teichman; ‘Teoria Wyzwolenia: Warszawska Praga’ by Anna Straszyńska; ‘100 lat Filharmonii w Warszawie, 1901-2001: Studia’, ed. by Maria Bychawska and Henryk Schiller; ‘Teatr Wśród Ruin Warszawy’ by Stanisława Mrozińska; ‘Ruch Muzyczny’ (1945–1946).
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Originally written in Polish 17 January 2019; translated by AJ, 25 Mar 2019; edited by LD, Aug 2019