One of a handful of female composers during the interwar period, and the only female light-music composer in the era. Renowned for the cosmopolitan and multicultural touch to her schlagers, her operetta work and her association with the leading lights of interwar Poland, including Andrzej Włast. Wrote in Polish and Russian. Born on 23 December 1904/1914 in Yalta, died 9 July 1991 in Leningrad.
Gordon was born Faina Markowna Joffe in the early 1900s in Yalta – some sources suggest she was born in 1914, although in all likelihood she was born in 1904. Her step-father was a Polish national – after the October Revolution in 1917, her family emigrated to Poland, settling in Warsaw. After emigrating, she became known by the first name Fanny, and – as many other interwar artists were doing at the time – took a more simplistic name as her surname; in her case, Gordon, her step-father’s name.
Gordon’s first success came with her international hit Pod Samowarem (Under the Samovar, trans. JB), which was recorded on Parlophon in 1929. According to rumour, the tune had originally been titled Morze (The Sea) – Andrzej Włast heard Gordon playing it on a child’s piano, and immediately considered including it in a cabaret piece; it was he who would write the lyrics to the song under its new title.
At the suggestion of Polydor Records, Gordon rewrote the lyrics into Russian, with the first international recording also released in 1929 on Grammophon in Riga. The refrain was sung in Russian by the Polish singer Arpalin Numma, who was based in the Latvian city at the time. Its European 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, then recorded the song for Columbia in 1933, adding two further stanzas to Gordon’s own Russian lyrics.
Russian jazz singer Leonid Utyosov then acquired the Riga copy of Pod Samowarem, recording his copy in 1934. His, however, failed to specify Gordon as the musician – an omission which continued until 1979, when, at the request of Gordon herself, her name was re-added to the record. This was despite an alleged meeting between Gordon and Utyosov in 1949 concerning the issue – it has been suggested that Utyosov did not take Gordon seriously.
Meanwhile in Poland, Pod Samowarem was presented in the revue show Podróż na księżyc (Journey To The Moon) at Morskie Oko in Warsaw, which premiered 11 April 1931. On the 18 April, the show was reviewed in newspaper Nasz Przegląd, which recommended its innovative character:
A trip to the moon is a great excuse to present to the public a dozen or so images characteristic of countries that favor re-enaction in dance. Krukowski and Stanisława Karlińska have decided to travel to the moon because it becomes increasingly difficult to live on our planet. In search of money for the construction of the rocket, they visit Algiers where to welcome them – and in addition to the girls and boys in eastern clothing – a hilarious camel arrives, perfectly dancing the tango. In Russia, under the murmuring samovar, they find Zula Pogorzelska and Tadeusz Olsza singing an original song. In Japan, a geisha greets them.
In 1931, Pod Samowarem was released on Syrena Record, and was described as a Russian foxtrot. A separate Syrena recording of the song under its subtitle Nowe Bubliczki would also be released.
A Short History of Immigrants and the Polish Music Scene
In the early 1930s, it is recorded that Gordon travelled to the United States, where she taught singing at the Chicago Conservatory of Music; she was also said to have given private lessons in New York. Around the same time, her career in Poland was growing: in 1931, she wrote music for the Wesoly Wieczór and Nowy Ananas theatres – including the famed songs Buddha and Piraci (Pirates) – and in 1932 wrote for the Kameleon theatre. She also wrote Skrwawione serce (Bleeding Heart) in 1932, a song which would be performed by Mieczysław Fogg, Adam Aston and Tadeusz Faliszewski, on Columbia, Odeon, Parlophon and Syrena Record, and which would become a well-renowned hit.
In the same year, she also penned Abduł Bey – a song fascinated with the relations across similar cultural divides to those Gordon was spanning.
On 3 December 1932, she competed with the likes of Loda Halama and Ludwik Sempoliński, when she featured on the front page of Trubadur Warszawy, a weekly artistic and cabaret magazine. Under her photograph, the magazine described her as: "a talented and appreciated Polish composer, known for popular hits".
Yet, by the mid-1930s Gordon was setting her sights on new musical directions: in 1933, she composed the operetta Jacht Miłości (The Yacht of Love), along with composer Władysław Eiger, who would go on to write music with Konrad Tom and Zenon Friedwald. Sempoliński alleged that the collaboration between Eiger and Gordon for Jacht Miłości …was in fact because Gordon did not have any musical background and apparently she did not even know the notes.
The operetta regularly opened to crowded audiences, particularly for the premiere in October of that year at the 8:30 theatre in Warsaw on the 30th anniversary of the career of operetta of Julian Krzewiński, who was performing in the role of Mahandura. Experiencing rave reviews in the capital, the operetta was soon performed in Antwerp and Brussels, where, as a copy of Świat from 1935 testifies, it was translated into French.
The operetta also toured across Poland: in Bydgoszcz and Toruń, the Dziennik Bydgoski reported in 1936 on its continual popularity:
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Yacht of Love. The melodious operetta by Fanny Gordon, which celebrated enthusiastic performances on the first two days, Yacht of Love will be repeated next Wednesday and Thursday. Upbeat tango melodies, colorful decorations, perfectly chosen cast of individual roles, ballet and libretto, full of humor – it forms a whole that prompts delight in everyone. The password of the day for Toruń should become: Everyone on the Yacht of Love.
The songs from the operetta also achieved renown themselves, produced on records and in note-music form. The most popular was Indje and New York Baby, the latter of which – according to Trubadur Warszawy – was performed over 150 times in the 8:30 Theatre, and was popular abroad.
The operetta was also a success for other artists: the career of acclaimed actress Helena Grossówna was kick-started by her role in the performance.
Tango with a Polish Twist: The International Roots of Interwar Music
20th century composers
polish art of the interwar period
By 1933, Gordon was listed as a member of ZAIKS Association of Authors and Stage Composers, and her original take on popular music was ever-admired. In 1934 came one of her biggest hits: Bal u Starego Joska (A Ball at Old Josek’s), a song still regularly sung today on the streets of Warsaw. Inspired by a real-life restaurant run by a real-life Old Josek on Warsaw’s now non-existent Gnojna Street, the song was an insight into the lifestyle of the city’s underworld, and its enthrallingly horrific behaviour. Gnojna was known as a veritable hub of Warsaw’s market district, and at its very heart was Josek’s Eatery, where criminals rubbed shoulders with politicians, and those who administered the law could in fact often find themselves on its darker side. Indeed, Gordon’s song referenced the celebrities of the Polish underworld, like Bloody Feluś, King of the Thieves of Warsaw, and hangman Maciejowski.
The song was based on the French Les Apaches culture of Paris during the Belle Époque, which was characterised by a frenzied dance style reminiscent of tango – though Bal u Starego Joska instead was an intensely hypnotic waltz, it is still known as one of the first Polish ‘apasz’ (or underworld folk) songs.
In 1935, Gordon continued her focus on the unusual with the Russian foxtrot Siemieczki (Sunflower Seeds), which again reflected a uniquely Russian or cosmopolitan tinge to her style. Then, in 1938, she wrote the tango ‘Conchinella’, evidently inspired by South American themes with its call for castanets. Overall, her music referenced places as far away as China and America, Russia and Spain, the Middle East and Germany.
With an interwar career marked by unusual and diverse musical inspiration, Gordon achieved success infusing an increased cosmopolitanism into Polish music. She also worked alongside multiple interwar artists, from Włast, to Emanuel Schlecter, to Jerzy Ryba. Eventually, she would marry in Poland, gaining the surname Kwiatkowska.
When war broke out, Gordon’s husband was killed, and Gordon and her mother escaped to Wilno and then to Leningrad. Her mother died during the war, allegedly of hunger during the Siege of Leningrad.
After the war, Gordon never returned to Poland, instead writing music and stage arrangements in Russian. She died in Petersburg in 1991, and is buried in the Jewish Cemetery under a Russian name: Феофания Марковна Квятковская. Her influence on popular Polish music and encouragement of cultural internationalism, however, still remains today: in 2004, historian Tomasz Lerski declared that she was:
The Rise & Fall of Polish Song
Certainly one of the most interesting figures in pre-war Warsaw, with a rich artistic biography; her position in the spheres of light music creators was exceptional.