Titan of tango – and of Polish interwar music as a whole – Petersburski composed many of the hit songs of the era, which went on to achieve success across the world.
Born into a musical family in 1895, the son of Jakub and Paulina (née Melodysta – a famous klezmer family), Jerzy Petersburski was brought up on a wave of talent. Both his mother, sister and brother Stanisław were pianists, whilst his brother Józef was a violinist.
He was also a cousin to the Gold brothers, musical talents Henryk and Artur, through his mother and her sister Helena.
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Petersburski began studying at the Conservatoire in Warsaw under Aleksander Michałowski, graduating in 1916. As a student, he accompanied acts at one of the earliest cabaret-variety theatres in Poland, Miraż – which was directed by pipe-smoking journalist-cum-powerhouse of popular song, Jerzy Boczkowski, who later went on to co-found the legendary Qui Pro Quo Theatre.
Allegedly, Petersburski’s first song was Wielka Teodora (Great Theodora), composed to words by poet Julian Tuwim and performed at the Czarny Kot cabaret. The composer, however, left to improve his musical education in Vienna in 1920, where he studied with Artur Schnabel. Though he initially pursued a career as a virtuoso pianist, fellow musicians told him of the lucrative light music industry – which was beginning to take hold in Europe following the end of World War I – and Petersburski began to compose more popular hits. One was the early waltz W Grinzingu Przy Winie (In Grinzing With Wine), which was re-released – with probably updated lyrics by Zenon Friedwald – in the 1930s.
Hit after hit
Petersburski later returned to Poland, with a short detour from his career in the Polish-Soviet war – and went back to the now burgeoning Polish cabarets. Even in the early years, his lyricist partner-in-crime was often the ‘King of Trash’ Andrzej Włast, whose hackneyed rhymes and sentimental witticisms proved an irresistible complement to Petersburski’s polished compositions.
Some of their hits from the mid-1920s included Ja Się Boję Sama Spać (I’m Afraid to Sleep Alone), Nie Namawiaj, Bo Ulegnę (Don’t Persuade Me, Because I’ll Give In) and Pani Mi Się Śniła (I Dreamed About You), co-composed with his cousin Artur. Though a little demure, all boasted flavours of frippery and frivolity of newly-independent Poland’s 1920s flapper age.
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It was with Artur Gold that Petersburski truly shot to fame. In 1926, the pair formed a salon orchestra built on the new modern sounds from the west. At first, the band played ragtime, but went on to dabble in tangos, jazz and foxtrots, garnering quite the following. The Petersburski and Gold Orchestra played the circuit of leading Polish establishments, from Qui Pro Quo to Morskie Oko, and were later employed to accompany rising stars like Eugeniusz Bodo, Adam Aston and Mieczysław Fogg on Syrena Records.
They even had a song written about the band (composed by Artur): Gdy Petersburski Razem z Goldem Gra (When Petersburski and Gold Play Together).
When Petersburski and Gold play,
You won’t sleep until the break of day…
In 1929 came Petersburski’s best-loved hit, Tango Milonga, which would go on to storm the world. The song debuted in the spectacle-heavy revue theatre Morskie Oko – which was run by Andrzej Włast, and modelled closely on the Folies-Bergère, with Włast even travelling regularly to France for inspiration. After its Polish premiere, Petersburski then took the song to Vienna, where he sold it for 3000 shillings to be translated into English as Oh Donna Clara. From there, it was sung across the globe by stars including Al Jolson and Edith Piaf.
Though continuing to compose for Polish artists, Petersburski also did stints of work in Vienna, Berlin, Prague and Paris. He also began composing for the budding Polish film industry.
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Petersburski’s songs were also favourites of other global artists, with the King of Russian Tango, Pyotr Leshchenko, often singing Russian versions of his hits. This included the poignant 1935 tango, To Ostatnia Niedziela (The Last Sunday), now seen as one of the classic songs of the era. The following year, Petersburski was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit as the first Polish songwriter of world renown – in total, historians estimate he composed over 250 light musical compositions during the Interwar period.
Up to September 1939, he allegedly worked with Artur Gold on a revised form of Eugen d’Albert’s pastorally themed opera Tiefland (The Lowlands), written to a German libretto by Rudolph Lothar, and based on the 1896 Catalan-language play Terra Baixa, by Àngel Guimerà.
Music in the war
When war broke out, Petersburski was assigned to the 1st Air Regiment as a sergeant, although he later ended up in Białystok, and went on to tour Belarussian cities with the Miniatur Theatre in Białystok. When the theatre closed, he fled to Lviv, joining Henryk Wars’s Tea-Jazz Orchestra, and later leaving for Russia. Historians have argued that because Petersburski was such a treasured composer in Russia already, he was spared harsher treatment.
He worked alongside leading Russian artists – one song composed in this era, and now a Russian classic, is Синий платочек (The Blue Handkerchief), which became a popular Soviet song, titled The 22 June Song, after the date of the bombing of Kyiv.
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Petersburski later joined up with Polish military theatres moving across the Middle East with the Anders Army, working with his cousin Henryk Gold, and Fred Melodysta. In Cairo, he conducted radio programmes for soldiers.
During the war, he also met one of Poland’s biggest interwar stars.
I met our beloved Hanka Ordonówna, but unfortunately she was already so weak, so sick – but she still had a concert with me, I accompanied her in Jerusalem in 1943.
A new life
After the end of the war, Peterburski left for Brazil. But it was in South America that he was also able to reconnect with other stars who had survived the war.
At first, he performed in a duet with Alfred Schütz, with his song Cafeterio achieving renown. He later moved to Argentina, and continued his career as a tango powerhouse by working with leading Argentine tango artists – like Astor Piazzola – as well as with the El Mondo radio, which adopted as its jingle a brief musical phrase from his song All Roads Lead to Buenos Aires.
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Later, he worked with Kazimierz Krukowski – who had once played the haggard Lopek in Qui Pro Quo – to run the El National Theatre, and stage musicals. His pre-war songs – especially tangos – gathered new fans in Argentina. However, Petersburski maintained that Polish tangos were never quite as good as the original:
We thought we were writing tango. No, tangos are Argentine. It’s like our folklore: can some other nation write a kujawiak like ours?
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After his wife Maria died in the catastrophic 1967 earthquake, Peterburski moved to Venuzuela, composing a song in her memory entitled Płaczące Pianino (Weeping Piano).
The following year, he moved back to Poland where he composed further hits and married Sylwia Klejdysz, an opera singer, who gave birth to his son, Jerzy Petersburski Jr., in 1969.
He died in 1979, and is buried in Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery.
Sources: http://www.jerzypetersburski.pl/uk_otacie.html https://bibliotekapiosenki.pl/osoby/Petersburski_Jerzy https://www.polskieradio.pl/39/156/Artykul/1423281,Jerzy-Petersburski-Tango-Milonga-grali-nawet-na-Broadwayu