A City of Song: the Music of Interwar Warsaw

Eugenia Jacenty

Guest contributor: Eugenia Jacenty.

Interwar Poland was a landscape of innovation, with the spirits of west and east merging into a nation eager to carve a fresh, modern nature for itself. Independence had just been achieved, and in the years between 1918 and 1939 the country bloomed rejuvenation – but it was music, in particular, that took Poland by storm. The new sounds of the twentieth century were the foundation on which Poland rebuilt itself; forging a new culture full of vibrancy and light and amusement which heralded an eternal prosperity and strength.
Warsaw was at the very heart of this. The city developed massively in the interbellum and was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ for its beauty and dynamic feel – with its musical scene integral to this image. It was in Warsaw that many of the Polish interwar music stars lived; and contained the core musical hubs of the day, like Polish Radio, and Syrena Rekord. It also held cabarets, theatres, and cafés where the new sounds of the country could be developed. The popular styles of the period chirped endlessly from its buildings, whilst its streets were brimming with up-and-coming artists – like…

Eugeniusz Bodo

The charismatic Eugeniusz Bodo is probably the most well-known figure from the time. He was an enhanced Polish Charlie Chaplin – with a sparkling career in both the interwar film industry and the music field. Bodo acted in Warsaw-based theatres and cabarets (such as Morskie Oko and Qui Pro Quo) at first, then moved onto film and then last, but certainly not least, making a name for himself in song, with the charming pieces he sung in his films becoming national hits. The gorgeous ‘Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą’ (‘I have a date with her at nine’) (1937) is now a classic, whilst the jovial ‘Już taki jestem zimny drań’ (‘I am already a cold bastard’) (1934) and ‘Sex Appeal’ (1937) are snapshots of the carefree Polish life of the interwar period.

If you want to get closer, visit the site of:

  • Morskie Oko cabaret, located at the corner of Jasna 3 and Sienkiewicza 7

Morskie Oko was one of the key establishments of the pre-war Warsaw culture. It aimed to cultivate a Parisian style of performance, and so was appropriately dubbed ‘The Warsaw Casino of Paris’, with its classic exteriors lit up with a modern neon name sign. It attracted audiences from all walks of life, though closed in 1933, following the financial crash.

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  • Café Bodo, Ulica Pierackiego 17 (now Foksal 17)

Café Bodo was established by Bodo in March 1939 on the ground floor of the apartment at which he rented. The four-story building had a modest feel, with simple interiors and the exterior decorated only with Doric columns and a balcony coated in masks. However, during its single year of existence, it became a place in which many renowned artists, such as Mieczysław Fogg, performed. Many waiters in the café were actors and actresses of Warsaw’s theatres, giving the whole establishment a fantastical feel. The establishment perished in the war and was rebuilt with the loss of two of its stories.

Hanka Ordonówna

Hanka Ordonówna was the smoldering female star of the period, who made her debut age 16 in the theatres and cabarets of Warsaw, including Qui Pro Quo. Her career quickly blossomed, with gorgeous theatre and film performances in the early 1930s. Her breakout hit, the sensual ‘Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy’ (‘Love will forgive you everything’) (1933) enjoyed success through this decade, whilst ‘Na pierwszy znak’ (‘As a first sign’) (1933) showcased her musical talent.

If you want to get closer, visit the site of:

  • Qui Pro Quo theatre, the underground of Luxenburg Gallery at Ulica Senatorska 29

Qui Pro Quo was one of the most significant institutions of the interbellum for Polish music. Established in 1919, it was led by the great figures of Julian Tuwim and Marian Hemar, and over its history held performances by renowned artists like Bodo, Fogg, Mira Zimińska, Zula Pogorzelska, Adolf Dymsza and Hanka Ordonówna; competing with Morskie Oko to recruit the best artists for shows.  It was housed in the magnificent Luxenburg Gallery, the first true Warsaw arcade, which gleamed glamour with its glass roof, and innovative architecture; and which also contained cafes, restaurants, a cinema and shops. It also closed in 1933, with the arcade destroyed in 1944 – but it would now occupy the area between Senatorska and Niecała streets.

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Henryk Wars

Henryk Wars was another key player in the interbellum musical scene, having a pivotal role in the creation of the popular hits of the time. He conducted the orchestra in Morskie Oko, composed a wealth of pieces for the most renowned artists (including Bodo and Ordonówna), and was the long-standing music director for Syrena Rekord, the main Polish record company of the period.

If you want to get closer, visit the site of:

  • The Syrena Rekord Factory, Ulica Piękna 33 and Ulica Chmielna 66

Syrena Rekord was the central medium by which the music of the 1930s reached its audience. The company was founded by Juliusz Feigenbaum in 1904 and had already experienced a wealth of success in the early 1910s, moving its headquarters to a building in Chmielna Street in 1911, where it remained until 1939. With a discography over around 14000 titles, and production of 2.5 million records a year, Syrena was the core of the interbellum music scene in Poland; especially after it invested in innovative technology in 1929 to create a crisper, richer sound (which prompted a name change to Syrena Electro). The streets of the factories have been rebuilt since the war, and the changing map of Warsaw means that the Chmielna factory’s position would now be by the Palace of Culture and Science.

Władysław Szpilman (the Pianist)

Władysław Szpilman was a pivotal composer of the 1930s, writing the music for multiple films of the era along with his brother Henryk, who wrote the lyrics; and also performing on Polish Radio, where he played the last live broadcast before the start of WWII. He composed for many stars of the period and was facing a dazzling future when his life was interrupted by the war. The horrific events he faced during the war have now been immortalised in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. After the war, he returned to the musical occupation he had begun in the interbellum.

If you want to get closer, visit the site of:

  • Polish Radio, Ulica Kredytowa 1 and Ulica Zielna 25

Polish Radio was, in the 1920 and 30s, the place for artists to make their names as key players in the nation’s musical history. The first station was opened in 1926 on Ulica Kredytowa 1, in the 19th Century building which currently houses the National Museum of Ethnography. However, growing issues with size constraints prompted the station to move to Ulica Zielna 25 in 1929, in a wider building which included five studios. Tadeusz Bochenski, a spokesman of the Radio, remembered this studio in his memoirs “On Zielna Street” published in issue 41 of the weekly magazine “Stolica” of October 14, 1962:

“Mattress-sealed windows faced the street, and if the noise did not penetrate to the inside, it’s probably only because Zielna was not a great thoroughfare, and without tram and other noisy means of transport, a quiet side street… The great music studio had a magnificent crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling at least half the height of the hall. I suppose that this chandelier was acutely unintentional due to the large amount of glass moving parts that it was making, so it was after some time  replaced with a simpler and more modern source of light.”

The studio quickly became a hub for renowned musicians to work from; providing a repertoire of classical, popular and ambitious broadcasts to a wide range of listeners. Sadly, the building was destroyed in the war, and would now be positioned around the area of Świętokrzyski Park.

Artur Gold

Artur Gold, along with his brother Henryk, established the Gold Orchestra in 1925 in Café Bodega in Warsaw, bringing the new sounds of tango, cabaret, and jazz to Polish audiences for the first time. Work with their cousin Jerzy Petersburski followed – and soon their orchestra was playing in one of the most significant venues of the era, the Adria. Artur Gold also composed for the biggest names of the era, like Bodo, writing songs like the impassioned ‘Opjum’ (1933).

If you want to get closer, visit the site of:

  • Adria, Ulica Moniuszki 10 (today Ulica Moniuszki 8)

The Adria was one of Warsaw’s most glamorous restaurant/dance halls of the interbellum, located in the ground-floor and basement of the building of the Italian insurance company Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà (a name shortened to Adria). Designed with sleek glass walls, water fountains, rosewood inlays, marble interiors, a hidden garden under the glass roof, a coffee house, an American bar and patio-like décor, with space for 800 people, the building allegedly cost about one million złoty at that time (in comparison, the President of the Second Polish Republic earned about 5 thousand a month in the period); but it was quickly popular, with around two and a half million visitors between 1931 and 1933 alone. Many remarked on the success of rubber flooring to prevent dancers slipping; the highly effective air-conditioning; and the gold ornaments which surrounded the rotating dance floor in the basement; whilst others praised the three orchestras, including that of Jerzy Petersburski, which played there. The building still exists today: it was struck by a missile during the Uprising but survived the extensive damage to its ceilings and parquet floor. It is now occupied by another insurance company, PZU, though the exterior remains similar to the days of the 1930s.

Conclusion

The pre-war musical scene found its home in Warsaw: a city bursting with different styles, cultures, and individuals. The above figures, along with many, many others, created the sparking Polish interbellum culture from the epicenter in Warsaw. It may have been 80 years ago, but if you listen closely there, you might just be able to still hear the whispers of melodies stolen by history…

By | 2017-11-28T20:39:49+00:00 November 28th, 2017|Attractions, Other|0 Comments

About the Author:

Eugenia Jacenty

Guest contributor.
Current student studying at the University of Cambridge with a love for all things related to Warsaw!

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