an antique gramophone

Music and memories under the samovar: Fanny Gordon and the songs of Eastern Europe between the wars9 min read

When she first practiced it on a child’s piano, little would the Polish-Russian composer Fanny Gordon have known that Pod Samowarem (Under the Samovar), one of her earliest hits, would eventually echo from radio and gramophone speakers across Eastern Europe, ultimately to be imprinted on the cultural memory of several nations.

This song from 1929, a foxtrot which swings into life with an unapologetic fanfare-like melody, became a tour de force of Eastern European modernity – in all of its diverse forms. There’s no escaping – and no mistaking – the song’s vivacious, almost feverish beat, even from its opening bars; composed at the height of Eastern European musical advances and international collaboration in the interwar period, it now stands as the epitome of a truly multicultural age.

There’s a saying about Eastern Europe: that one could be born in one country, grow up in another, die in a third, and yet never leave one’s town – and it is this idea of a wider, more international sense of locale which comes across most fervently in Pod Samowarem. Nowhere was the mutability of national borders more tangible than in music, and particularly in the interwar period. Though the restoration of independence in many Slavic states carved up Eastern Europe into distinct units following the end of World War I, music poured through every inch of those boundaries, and defied established geography.

Like Pod Samowarem, which was originally titled Morze (The Sea), culture – especially music – was buoyant and animated and fluid, dispersing borders in place of a lively blend of proliferous translation, infused with dialect and local motif.

Indeed, as nations were recognised as separate states back in 1918 – with many centenaries of independence celebrated in recent months – they all possessed the same focus on modernising music. Recording companies blossomed, novel techniques and practices were employed, and artists from every disparate corner of the region were united on cabaret stages and screens. Signatures of jazz and tango permeated through the nascent landscape, reaching a fever pitch in Poland, which quickly realised a mature musical output with its investments in recording technology; but also having a dynamic impact on the musical topographies of other Eastern European nations.  Even today, in original takes on patois, instrumentation and genre, many musicians draw on the cosmopolitan styles of interwar music in their works, such as – in Poland alone – Noam Zylberberg, Olga Mieleszczuk and Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki. They are continuing and sustaining a trend which began around 100 years ago.

Pod Samowarem is such a lavish example because of its timeless, ubiquitous imagery: injected with Klezmer and a traditional Eastern European irregularity of metre, it spoke to the multi-ethnic identities of the interwar region, defying borders and the political tensions which were undeniably prevalent in the era. The Polish lyrics, written by the “King of Trash” Andrzej Włast, croon Ja jedno wiem (I know one thing): the simple and iconic image of a samovar. It was this that allowed it to transform into a universal Eastern European melody of the age. The protagonists in the song are under the samovar but, really, they could be anywhere.

Fanny Gordon, who composed the song, was the only female composer of light music in interwar Poland; a country to which she – among many other interwar musical celebrities in Poland – had emigrated in the early 20th Century. She was Polish, Russian, and Jewish, forever steeping her music in international iconography whilst retaining a uniquely Eastern European flavour. The entrancing rising and falling crescendo of the refrain for Pod Samowarem, with its undertones of that typical yearning Slavic melancholy, was a case in point. It was first released on Parlophon in Warsaw in 1929, and then produced as a record for acclaimed Polish recording company Syrena-Electro in 1931 – between which came its premiere on the Polish stage, at the Morskie Oko cabaret in Warsaw, as part of the revue show Podróż na księżyc (Journey To The Moon). In April 1931, the show was reviewed in newspaper Nasz Przegląd in an article which drew attention to the most memorable images of the revue – which included a camel dancing the tango – but also noted that “in Russia, under the murmuring samovar, we find [Polish cabaret stars] Zula Pogorzelska and Tadeusz Olsza singing an original song.”

The striking cosmopolitanism of Pod Samowarem meant it rapidly gained popularity, especially outside Poland: one of the pioneers of Lithuanian and Russian popular music, Danielius Dolskis, recorded a new rendition, Palangos Jūroj, in 1931. In fact, his version recalled Gordon’s original title of Morze – the Lithuanian copy, retaining Gordon’s memorable melody, was a love song for the sea of Palanga, the Baltic Sea. Though this initial translation veered away from Gordon’s simplistic image of the samovar, at the suggestion of Polydor Records a Russian version was produced, which was more in keeping with the Polish original. Gordon herself translated the lyrics, with the recording released in 1933 on Grammophon in Riga, one of the centres of Russian emigration – the refrain was sung in Russian by the singer Arpalin Numma, who was based in the Latvian city at the time.

The Russian jazz singer Leonid Utyosov was also captivated by the song when he acquired the Riga copy, recording his version in 1934. His rendition, however, failed to specify Gordon as the musician – an omission which persisted until 1979, when, at the request of Gordon herself, her name was re-added to the record.

Meanwhile, the “King of Russian tango”, Pyotr Leshchenko, recorded the song for Columbia in 1933, adding two further stanzas. Leshchenko was as cosmopolitan as the song itself: born to a Ukrainian peasant family, he first rose to fame in Latvia, before performing music from across Eastern Europe in Ukrainian and Russian whilst living in Bucharest in Romania. With his broad grin and warm, dark eyes, he serenaded his way through the region, dabbling in the colourful melodies of Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, and Romani music – as well as that pervasive Polish sound. One of his favourite composers was the Polish musical heavyweight Jerzy Petersburski.

Leshchenko – and Pod Samowarem – were instances of music breaching established borders and boundaries, but, in some cases, musical cooperation in the budding landscape of interwar Eastern Europe was on a more localised scale. The Polish version of Pod Samowarem released on Syrena-Electro was performed by Tadeusz Faliszewski, an exuberant Polish singer from Lviv, whose recitals always echoed the diversity contained in this far-flung corner of Poland. And quite literally: his pronunciation of “miłość” in Pod Samowarem disgorges the pronunciation of “ł” as “l”; a example of the prevalent Lvovian dialect in interwar culture at the time. This was a patois from the east which merged elements of Ukrainian pronunciation with Polish, and you can hear its smirking intonation so clearly in all of Faliszewski’s renditions.

Lvovians – Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and other minorities – mainly danced under the melodies of Polish music in the early interwar period, but there was still an aching chasm in place of a more diverse sound to reflect Lviv’s multi-ethnic population, where only 60 percent of residents were Poles. One of the leading solutions was provided by the Ukrainian jazz band Yabtso, established in 1934 as a proponent of modern musical styles, who also brought a distinctly Ukrainian and countryside flavour to interwar musical production. Consisting of Leonid Yablonsky, whose name formed the name of the band, Yabtso also included composer Bogdan Vesolovsky, Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky, and Stepan Guminilovich. They are said to have first played on borrowed instruments, but soon became one of the most prominent Ukrainian bands playing popular songs, satisfying the need for a more diverse light music. Their concerts, which played tango, foxtrot and waltz alongside local dances, sometimes ran for nine hours, and though they were most famous for their tangos, they also adapted folk songs with more modern rhythms. Just like the Poles mainly operating out of Warsaw, Yabtso possessed the same youthful energy and ability to churn out popular melodies time and time again, achieving success not only in Lviv, but also in Ukraine and Poland – such as their charming Прийде ще час (The Time Will Come Again).

In 1936, the band were joined by a new soloist: the delicate Irena Yarossevich – whose first love was Bohdan Vesolovsky. Her exquisite and tender rednitions of his Ukrainian tangos demonstrate an impeccable vocal control, and she would later perform under the pseudonym Renata Bogdańska in Polish. After the Second World War, she married the Polish General Władysław Anders, becoming Irena Anders, and cementing her legacy as an icon of Polish culture.

But between Yabtso and post-war Eastern Europe, Yarossevich also performed in Lviv. During the early days of the Second World War, the Polish “King of Jazz” Henryk Wars established a Tea-Jazz Orchestra in the city, recruiting some of the greatest names in interwar Polish celebrity culture to work in the city and thereby escape the German invasion in the west.

Alongside Yarossevich – whose career blossomed in the Tea-Jazz Orchestra – was the effervescent Polish singer Eugeniusz Bodo, and one of his performances for the Tea-Jazz Orchestra was a rendition of Henryk Wars’s song Tylko We Lwowie (Only in Lviv).

This song had been written for the 1939 Polish film Włóczęgi (The Vagabonds), and was performed by Lvovian comedians Szczepko and Tońko – or Kazimierz Wajda and Henryk Vogelfänger. In the film, as the opening chords of Tylko We Lwowie tiptoe towards exuberant blaze of melody, into a bobbing sea of headscarves skip the pair; drawling a Lvovian pronunciation which is in fact so prevalent throughout the picture.

Though Bodo’s version came next – sung in Russian – in the following decades the song would be released repeatedly in Ukrainian and Polish, each rendition rejoicing in the unique landscape of that multicultural, multi-ethnic, Lviv.

Just as generations from Poland, Ukraine and Russia have been united in the countryside verve of Tylko We Lwowie, a folk song which now is pride of place as the anthem for Lviv, Pod Samowarem too occupies cult status in Poland and Russia. Borders are never truly fixed where music can be found.

The surest sign is in the opening stanza to Pod Samowarem: “It’s the same again…I’ll pour over there…”. For 100 years, Eastern Europe, and everywhere within it, has been drowning in a delicious sound which only keeps on giving.

Juliette Bretan studies English Literature at the University of Cambridge and also works as a freelance journalist, specialising in Eastern European culture and current affairs. Her blog, Visions of the Vistula, researches specific cultural pieces from Polish history.