Dark eyes

A beautiful song from the Golden Age of Argentine Tango with a storied past from the Golden Age of Russian Romance… A tango classic recorded in Buenos Aires by the prolific Francisco Canaro in 1935 is revealed to be a Spanish-German remix of a Russian song arranged by a Dane for a Romani choir, setting a verse of a Ukrainian poet to a Polish-Lithuanian waltz which successfully masqueraded as French. In other words, a vintage Rio Wang material.

Manuel Salina y Florian Rey

Ojos negros que fascinan
ojos negros que dominan
ojos negros, dulces ojos
son tan crueles y tan piadosos

Ojos negros que arrebatan
ojos negros que me matan
ojos negros, dulces ojos,
triste vida de mi corazón

Voy pasando por mi vida atormentada
bajo el fuego abrasador de tu mirada,
voy cruzando por la vida
como una pobre sombra perdida.

En el fondo de mi alma ya no brilla
más que el fuego abrasador de tu pupila
en el fondo de mi alma,
donde siempre tu amor vivirá.
Translation by Alejandro Sasha Vicente-Grabovetsky, creator of Tango Translation Database

Dark eyes that enchant
Dark eyes that dominate;
dark eyes, sweet eyes;
they are so cruel and so kind.

Dark eyes that captivate;
dark eyes that kill me;
dark eyes, sweet eyes;
sad life of my heart.

I pass through my tormented life
under the scorching fire of your gaze,
I walk across life
like a poor, lost shadow.

In the bottom of my soul now shines
but the scorching fire of your pupil
in the bottom of my soul
where your love will always live

I spent years trying to solve the riddles and mysteries surrounding Dark Eyes, a song about fatal love and perdition which almost prophetically touched most of the talents who ever touched it, making them vanish from history. The project is nearly complete. Let’s unravel this convoluted story thread, starting from near its end, from 1935. We’ll end up time-traveling a full century back in time before it’s over.

Odeon’s 1935 disk 4939-B describes Canaro’s “tango con estribillo” (tango with a short vocal section) as Ojos negros que fascinan, authored by Manuel Salina and Florian Rey. But peculiarly, no such song can be found in the SADAIC database. As it turns out, the song was first recorded a year earlier, under a completely different title. It was called simply Romanza rusa (Ojos negros), sobre un motivo popular ruso (“Russian romance (Dark eyes), inspired by a Russian folk motif”). This “Russian romance in Spanish” wasn’t issued on a disk. Instead, the recording came out in the revolutionary format of a “1934 Youtube”, a short standalone movie clip, one of the earliest “talkies” in Spanish language. Famous Spanish movie director Florian Rey cast his lead actress (and fiancee) Imperio Argentine in this film clip. Rey (born Antonio Martínez del Castillo) was a great fan of Russian culture (and a sworn enemy of the Left), who soon moved to Germany on Hitler’s personal invitation. But when the Führer started making advances at his beautiful Argentine wife, it ended up in a divorce and a low-key return of the director to oblivion in his home country.

Manuel Salina y Florian Rey: Ojos negros, performed by Imperio Argentina in the clip of 1934, which we, however, could not find and link here

Imperio Argentina, born Magdalena Nile del Rio and known to her friends as Malena, specialized in folkloric song and dance on stage and on screen. She proudly declared herself the only woman who ever sung together with Carlos Gardel, the iconic symbol of Argentine tango. (They performed together in a Spanish-language talkie made in Paris in 1935, Melodia de arrabal). She wrote that, although Gardel was rumored to be gay, his problem with female singers stemmed from simple dislike of their voices… but even Gardel couldn’t resist the feminine magic of his beautiful dark-eyed compatriot.

It was after the Parisian adventure that Florian Rey decided to cast her in a short movie with a Russian-Spanish folk song stylized as Argentine tango. The original Russian romance already reverberate across the world after Feodor Chaliapin’s tours. The legendary opera bass is said to have added several new stanzas, in adoration of his dark-eyed Italian wife Iola Tornagi. For Iperio Argentina’s Dark Eyes, the song was arranged by Manuel “Paco” Salina, a Spanish songwriter and composer of German extraction, whose birth name was Günther Ehrenfried Salinger. Salina was well known by his adaptation of other composers’ music to popular styles. With their only foray into tango, Salina and Rey have made quite a remarkable job. Of course, being true to the Argentine tradition of his day, Francisco Canaro has retained just one bridge-estribillo in his recording, completely skipping the verse stanzas.

Time to travel deeper into the past now. From this point on, the poems we’ll encounter will all be in Russian. We are going to 1928, to Paris and Riga! Or, for that matter, let’s head straight into 1893, to Dvinsk (presently Daugavpils in Latvia), then a county seat of Russia’s Vitebsk Gubernia. On the 17th of the month of Tevet, year 5653 of the Jewish calendar, the youngest son is born into a big family of a musician Dovid bar Morduch Strok. Little Osher will in time become Oscar Davidovich Strok, the King of Russian Tango.

Dvinsk was a garrison town with a giant fortress and army, and Dovid Strok moved there for a job of military musicians, but by the time of Oscar’s birth, his father and his older brother worked in a theater orchestra.

The Russian 1897 Census sheets were supposed to be destroyed, but the sheet enumerating the Stroks of Dvinsk has miraculously survived. Osher, age 4, is on line 8.

“Rigas Tango Karalis”: A memorial plaque honoring the King of Tango Oscar Strok is unveiled in Riga in 2013
Oscar Strok followed the footsteps of his musical clan, but he only wrote his first (and, in my opinion, the best) tango at the age of 35. It was Dark Eyes, a different tango drawing on the same Russian song.

A hot romance with a secretary of his Riga-based magazine, Leni Libman, lead Oscar to abandon his family and to escape to Paris with his dark-eyed girlfriend. That’s where he fell under the spell of tango. That’s where he composed his Dark Eyes, complete with an extensive musical quote from the classic Russian romance.

The love to the dark eyes, as every superstitious Eastern European knows, couldn’t portend any good. All what it gave Strok was a wounded heart, a pile of debts… and this one unforgettable tango, with the lyrics completed by Oscar’s friend and fellow Riga entertainer, a Cossack Yesaul (chieftain) Aleksandr Perfilyev, a heir to a famed line of Siberian explorers.

Оскар Строк, Александр Перфильев

Был день осенний,
и листья гpустно опадали
В последних астpах
Печаль хpустальная жила
Гpусти тогда с тобою мы не знали
Ведь мы любили и для нас весна цвела.

Ах, эти чеpные глаза меня пленили,
Их позабыть нигде нельзя,
Они гоpят пеpедо мной.
Ах, эти чеpные глаза меня любили
Куда же вы скpылись бы тепеpь,
Кто близок вам дpугой.

Ах, эти чеpные глаза меня погубят,
Их позабыть нигде нельзя
Они гоpят пеpедо мной.
Ах, эти чеpные глаза, кто вас полюбит,
Тот потеpяет навсегда
И сеpдце и покой.

Очи чёрные, очи страстные,
Очи милые и прекрасные!
Как люблю я вас, как боюсь я вас!
Знать, увидел вас в недобрый час!

…Ах, эти чеpные глаза, кто вас полюбит,
Тот потеpяет навсегда
И сеpдце и покой.
Oscar Strok, Alexander Perfilyev
Dark Eyes tango

It was an autumn day
With leaves falling, dejectedly,
And in the last chrysanthemums
Lurked a sad sparkle of frost
But the two of us didn’t know sadness yet
For we were in love, and our spring was abloom

Oh the dark eyes that captivated me,
One can’t forget them anywhere;
They are ablaze before me.
The dark eyes which once loved me,
Where are you hiding now?
Who else is close to you?

Oh, the dark eyes will spell my doom,
One can’t forget them anywhere;
They are ablaze before me.
Whoever falls in love with the dark eyes
Shall lose forever
One’s heart and one’s peace

Dark eyes, eyes of passion,
Dear and beautiful eyes!
How I love you, how I fear you!
I think I met you in an ill-fated hour!

…Whoever falls in love with the dark eyes
Shall lose forever
One’s heart and one’s peace

Piotr Leschenko, a Russian singer from Romania, also drawn to Riga by a potent cocktail of love and tango, made the most famous recording of this song in Austria, with Frank Fox – born Franz Fux in today’s Czech Republic, then Moravia – who conducted an orchestra and composed music for dancing and for movies in Vienna.

Piotr Leschenko’s bootleg records were immensely popular – albeit technically illegal – in Russia, but he only set foot there under most tragic circumstances, as a Romanian conscript in the Nazi-allied occupation forces in WWII. Despite this stain of being a collaborationist, Leschenko was offered forgiveness and a clean slate in the Soviet Union after the end of the war. But at his farewell party, the singer confessed his love to Romania too eloquently. A snitch denounced him, and the Russians withdrew the invitation at the last moment. Instead, Leschenko has been sent to the Romanian labor camps. He died in a prison hospital, and his case remains classified even now. In a recent Russian bio-pic, Piotr Leschenko is pictured as a proud defender of Russian culture under the Nazi yoke, and Konstantin Khabensky re-enacts his Dark Eyes for the movie. Here he is still hot in love with his first wife, Zinaida Zakit from Riga, whom he would leave during the occupation of Odessa for the new singer of his cabaret, Vera Belousova.

Decades later, Strok’s Dark Eyes made it all the way to Argentina as well, in a powerful instrumental cover by Florindo Sassone’s orchestra:

Oscar Strok was once erased from the official history of the Russian song as well, when in the late Stalin’s years he was blacklisted and forbidden from composing as a punishment for his “bourgeois degraded music of tango”, and forced to earn living by private piano lessons. The very word “tango” was proscribed, replaced by a euphemistic “slow dance”. Still, now we know Strok’s biography in great detail. But after the next leg of our time travel, we are going to make do with lots of guesswork about all characters of the story.

Let’s hire a troika and order the coachman to race up Tverskaya Street! We are in the 1880s Moscow and we’re heading to the famous suburban restaurant, the “Yard”. We leave the old city boundaries, and the restrictions of the municipal ordinances, behind, once we pass the New Triumphal Gate Square. As a different folk song about the Yard wishes, “May the raven-black horses fly me away to the place where the girls are mischievous and the nights are full of fire”. The Yard, once extolled by Pushkin for its truffles, has by now become most famous for its Romani singing. It’s partly due to the discriminatory laws of the 1850s which essentially made concert performances off limits for the Gypsy entertainers, confining them to taverns for three long decades. Even the revered Sokolov Gypsy Choir, once the darlings of the illustrious 18th-century Count Orloff, had to settle on singing in a restaurant (although the most classy of them all, the Yard). It was the musical directors of the Yard’s Choir, prolific songwriters Sergey (Sofus) Herdahl (Gerdal) and Yakov Prigozhiy, who made Dark Eyes an exemplary Gypsy romance song.

In 1884, Sofus Gerdal publishes his “Gypsy romance for voice and piano”, Dark Eyes, Passionate Eyes, crediting long-deceased Evgeny Grebenka for the lyrics, and using the music of Florian Hermann’s Valse Hommage. The same year, Yakov Prigozhiy publishes a different arrangement of the same music as “a waltz for voice with piano accompaniment”, titled You’re My Heaven on Earth (Ты мой рай земной). The lyrics ought to be different in Prigozhiy’s waltz, but we’d need to go to the Russian National Library, which has the published score, to figure out if any of its lyrics were retained in the countless later covers of Dark Eyes. And there is one more Dark Eyes song by Sofus Gerdal, published a bit earlier, in 1881, “for choir and piano”, which doesn’t credit either Evgeny Grebenka or Florian Hermann, but attributes the lyrics to a female author known only by her initials. We don’t know yet if the 1881 score is essentially the same song or something entirely different; only a trip to the Russian National Library may sort it out. At least it’s clear that Gerdal was the first in styling the song as a Gypsy romance, and that the lyrics started changing very early on, perhaps in Gerdal’s own arrangements, perhaps in Prigozhiy’s. Only the immortal opening stanza of Grebenka’s lyrics remained a constant in all of the song’s versions.

Evgeny Grebenka (Yevhen Hrebinka)

Очи чёрные, очи страстные,
Очи жгучие и прекрасные!
Как люблю я вас, как боюсь я вас!
Знать, увидел вас я в недобрый час!

Ох, недаром вы глубины темней!
Вижу траур в вас по душе моей,
Вижу пламя в вас я победное:
Сожжено на нём сердце бедное.

Но не грустен я, не печален я,
Утешительна мне судьба моя:
Всё, что лучшего в жизни Бог дал нам,
В жертву отдал я огневым глазам!
Dark Eyes
Metrical translation by Stefan Bogdanov

Oh you dark black eyes, full-of-passion-eyes
Oh you burning eyes, how you hypnotize
Now I love you so, but I fear you though
Since you glanced at me not so long ago.

Oh I see you now, you are dark and deep
I see grief and feel that my soul will weep
I see now in you a winning burning glow
In my poor heart will a fire grow.

I’m not sorrowful, I’m not repenting
I accept all that my fate’s presenting
All the best in life, God has given us-
this I sacrifice, to you dark black eyes.

But any semblance of clarity disappears once we turn to the published biographic info about the arrangers, Gerdal and Prigozhiy, and the composer Hermann.

The 1884 music sheet of Gerdal’s “Gypsy Romance” Dark Eyes, Passionate Eyes, from a livejournal entry of a Russian researcher

Sofus Gerdal published Gypsy romances in Moscow in the 1880s, and worked at the Yard restaurant, but who he was and from where? An Internet legend, which started out as an innocent joke, is now repeated all across the Russian Internet as a “true discovery”. The pianist sometimes russified his name as “Sergey”, and a few later editions misspelled his surname as “Gerdel”. And so once, a search engine showed that Sergey Gerdel was alive and well (a contemporary entrepreneur with exactly this name lives and works in Berdichev in Ukraine). A classic Russian meme is the joke that “all the imported goods were actually made in Jewish Odessa”. Likewise, a blogger who made the 2011 “Gerdel discovery” exclaimed, “What if all the classic Gypsy songs were, likewise, actually made in Jewish Berdichev?” Alas, a harmless internet joke, repeated and reposted over and over again, began to sound like truth. In reality though, there is no such Jewish surname as Gerdal, nor a Jewish personal name like Sofus (a rare Ashkenazi surname “Gerdel” does exist, but its area of origin was quite far from Berdichev, in Czarist Russia’s Taurida Governorate). Sofus or Sophus is a male name in Scandinavia, Germany, and Belgium, a masculine version of the name Sophie. Gerdal (Гердаль) is a regular Russian alphabet rendition of a common Scandinavian surname “Herdahl”, literally “Hay Valley”. In the Danish town of Maribo, there is even a record of a different Sofus Herdahl, a 19th-century barber. But whether our Gypsy pianist Sofus Herdahl was a Dane, or possibly a Swede, we cannot yet tell.

Yakov Fedorovich Prigozhiy (1840-1920, Moscow) – this is how encyclopedias define the author and arranger of countless Russian and Gypsy romances, another one of which (My campfire glows in the mist – Мой костер в тумане светит) also got a second life in Argentine tango music. Better than nothing, although who he was, where he came from and grew up, remains a riddle. A little is also known about Yakov’s relatives. His musician brother Adolf Prigozhiy was, at the peak of his fame, even better known than Yakov. All Russia danced to Adolf’s waltzes, he toured the provinces, at one time owned an operetta theater in Vilna, and was married to an operetta star Serafima Beletskaya (who, after Adolf’s untimely death in St Petersburg, remarried to a famous operetta actor, nobleman Gabel-Rodon). Adolf’s son, Georgy Prigozhiy clerked in the National Bank in St. Petersburg in 1899-1900. With these name / marriage / occupation tidbits we may conclude that Prigozhiy (which means “Handsome” in Russian) was their actual surname rather than a theatrical pseudonym, that they weren’t ethnic Romani, and that they were Christians. A surname “Prigozhiy” did exist in Czarist Russia, mostly in Eastern Belorussia, home to many other “Good / Nice / Pretty” names (Among my own relatives in that region, one of the surnames was “Neplokh”, literally Good-Enough). As with many other regional Slavic surnames, Prigozhiy was used both by Belorussians and Jews. The former mostly in Vitebsk Governorate, the latter mostly in Mogilev Governorate. Personal names Adolf, Yakov, and Fedor and especially Georgy weren’t yet used by the Jewish residents of Russia at the time, but could have been used by Christian converts. The name Adolf was traditionally Polish but perhaps occasionally used by educated Belorussians, emulating their Polish landlord class. All this said, we still don’t know the native community of the Prigozhiy family (and since the genealogical documents were kept by a parish, we don’t have a clear idea where to look for Yakov’s childhood, education, and personal life).

But there is an Internet legend about the origins of Yakov Prigozhiy, too, and a beautiful one. It is said that the Karaims of Crimea consider him one of their own, a scion of the Evpatoria Karaim community!

At a first glance, the Evpatoria hypothesis shows an intriguing similarity with the facts. In the city of Evpatoria, there was indeed a Jewish Prigozhiy family, even one Yakov Prigozhiy among them (albeit from a different generation). Yakov Prigozhiy the songwriter collaborated with musicians from Crimea. And the regional Gypsy, Tatar, and Jewish folk music was a nearly indivisible phenomenon, because Crimean Tatar Gypsy musicians – called the Dauldzhi, from the name of the traditional large double-headed drum known as daul or davul – performed all these ethnic styles. Whosoever celebrate a wedding, would get one’s folk music from the same band of Dauldzhis. “Same musicians, slightly different results”.

A band of Dauldzhi, Crimean Romani musicians

But the putative Evpatoria Prigozhiy connection failed a reality check. This family moved to Evpatoria much later, and they were Ashkenazi Jewish rather than Karaim. They came from Bryansk and Mglin counties, at the boundaries of the same Mogilev Governorate (with Yakov making the move to Evpatoria only after WWII, while his sisters stayed in Bryansk region). And no such surname ever existed among the Karaim.

Plaques with Hebrew inscriptions in the Marble Courtyard of the Grand Evpatoria Kenasa

But the Evpatoria hypothesis refuses to die. According to Karaim amateur historians, the Grand Kenasa (Karaim synagogue) of Evpatoria has a memorial plaque honoring a donation made by Yakov Prigozhiy the musician “to the community of his parents, may their memory be blessed”. However, the family name is said to be spelled differently on the plaque. It is Yefet rather than Prigozhiy. Yefet (יֶפֶת) is of course Japheth, the Biblical son of Noah and the mythical ancestor of Tatars, Armenians, Greeks and pretty much all the ethnic groups of old Crimea. Yefet was also the name of one of the most revered medieval Karaim scholars. And the male name Yefet was quite popular among the Crimean Karaim. But the surname Yefet appeared in Evpatoria only in the late 1830s, brought by a family of a repatriant from Istanbul, r. Yufuda Yefet Kosdini. Reb Yufuda, a.k.a. Yehuda Qustini Yefet, was an Istanbuli Karaim wise man of Crimean origin and a close associate of Avraham “Eru” Firkovich, a Lutsk Karaim pilgrim, historian and reformer of their belief system. Qustini or Kosdini was a Greko-Karaim for “Konstantinopoli”, that is, Istanbul. In fact, Firkovich spent the first half of the 1830s in Istanbul, then the prime center of Karaim learning, but his reform zeal eventually caused him and his followers to be expelled. They moved to Crimea, and, in 1837, made Evpatoria the center of Karaim religious autonomous community. That’s when the Grand Kenasa was built, too. Now, is it possible that the first sons of the religious zealot repatriants have become operetta and night club musicians? Before you tell me that I’m totally nuts, I shall ask you to travel to Crimea and to send me a picture of the יֶפֶת stone. And then, to your valid question, how could “Yefet” ever become “Prigozhiy”, the Karaim informants have a ready answer. Both words mean “Handsome”, the first one in Hebrew, the second one in Russian.

From the glossary of Karaim surnames from the 1913 volume of “Jewish antiquities” (Еврейская старина). It does mark “Yefet” as “handsome”, albeit with a question mark. The more recent sources just mark it as a surname derived from the male personal name Yefet in Istanbul.

In the end it’s the same story with Prigozhiy as with Gerdal… a cool legend finds no support, and we have no clue who they were.

If the scale of myth-making surrounding Sofus Gerdal and Yakov Prigozhiy surprises you, then just wait until you listen to the tall tales about Florian (or Feodor) Hermann, whose Valse Hommage has been arranged into a romance song by the Yard’s pianists!

Most often, we are told that Hermann was French, and came to Russia with Napoleon’s Grand Army. Sometimes we hear that his Valse Hommage started as a march of the advancing French troops in 1812. But sometimes, that it mourns the French army losses as it forded the icy Berezina river on retreat from Moscow. We even hear that Florian Hermann visited the home estate of Evgeny Grebenka, the author of the lyrics of the future song, during the Napoleonic Wars! But sometimes Florian Hermann turns out to be a German rather than Frenchman. We are even told that the lived in Strasbourg. One has to note that Valse Hommage is always titled in French in the international score catalogs, while some of the other Hermann’s compositions are titled in German. However, my research shows that Florian Hermann was a Russian patriot from the Wilno strip area of Poland / Lithuania, and that he composed some of his most popular pieces in 1870s through 1890s. And very recently, I was able to find out a few details about his youth and his family in Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania).

The numbered lists of works of Florian Hermann are known from the sheet music publishers. Some of these compositions have obvious connections to historical events and geographical locations. For example, March over the Balkans and Totleben March (Забалканскiй Маршъ & Тодлебенъ-Маршъ) – Florian Hermann op. 37 & 39, resp. – are clearly linked to the Balkan Campaign of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, when the nation rose up in the wave of Pan-Slavic patriotism, the Czar’s army crossed the Balkan Mountains, and general Totleben gloriously defended Plevna). The March of Russian volunteers also glorifies the liberator warriors who saved the Balkan Slavs from the Turkish yoke. One of the latest compositions of Hermann honors the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896.

The scores of Hermann were being printed by the Moscow publishing house of Gutheil, which also issued the works of Gerdal and Prigozhiy. But the best source on Floriann Hermann is the St. Petersburg publishing house of Buttner, which in 1879 merged with D. Rahter Publishers of Hamburg. As a result, their catalogs were printed in Hamburg, and survived the ravages of time much better than the Russian rarities. We don't see any new works of Hermann after 1900.

Op. 60 – 2nd Lithuanian Quadrille – was inspired by the vocal polonaises of Stanisław Moniuszko, the leading composer of Polish Nationalist Romanticism, whose folkloric operas were all the rage in the 1860s. Op. 56, Evening Chant, has a dedication to Moniuszko as well. Stanisław Moniuszko died in 1872 and attained an even higher post-mortal glory as the Polish creator of the Pan-Slavic music. It’s easy to see that the same musical ideology attracted Florian Hermann as well. In addition to patriotic an Pan-Slavic marches and Western European themes, his list of compositions is thick with Lithuanian, Ukrainian/Belorussian, Polish and Russian folkloric-romantic themes. Polonaises, mazurkas, polkas… Op. 30 and 52 are “Little Russian polkas”. Op. 61 is dedicated to Rubno (a manor of the Dauksza family, now called Kirtimai, on the outskirts of Vilnius). The most remarkable edition of Florian Hermann’s music came out in 1881 from the famous Wilno publishing house of Eliza Orzeszkowa, a Polish freedom fighter (who barely avoided prison for her role in the Uprising of 1863), author, and an ideologist of positivism, a school of Polish nationalist thought which insisted that the future of Poland depended on its cultural growth and fostering cultural ties between its ethnic groups, rather than on continuing armed uprisings. Eliza Orzeszkowa’s publishing house was quickly shut down by the Czarist government, but not before they issued a beautiful booklet of Hermann’s “salon dances”, entitled “Wilno Carnival”, with a panoramic view of the city on its jacket, and 6 patriotic compositions inside: Lithuanian countradance, Fiery mazurka, two dances for the local rivers Vilia and Niemen, and two more glorifying Lithuania’s pre-Christian past (dedicated to a pagan priestess and the thunder-deity Perkun). Florian Hermann’s early compositions are dedicated to Lydia, Yulia, and Sofiya (presumably students of Florian) which makes it likely that the composer worked as a piano teacher in his youth. As to the Hommage Valse (future Dark eyes), Op. 21, it’s undoubtedly composed before the mid 1870s, and it was a very popular composition, judging by a variety of “updated” and orchestral arrangements in Rahter-Buttner catalogs.

The old Vilnius high school courtyard
I was lucky to find the earliest, student’s work of Florian Hermann in the catalog of the former Imperial Library. This is an 1840 polonaise, dedicated (in French) to Ustinov, the principal of Wilno Gymnasia (High Scool) “from his humblest pupil Florian Hermann”, printed at Michal Przybyłski’s lithography shop. („Dédiée du m-r Ustinoff, directeur du Gymnase imperial du gouvernement de Vilna, conseiller de la cour et membre de plusieurs ordres et composée pour le piano-forte par son très humble élève Florian Herrmann – Vilna: lith. de Przybyłski”). Yet is known that Alexandr Ustinov, a painter and an educator, remained the Principal of the 1st Wilno Men’s Gymnasia from 1836 to 1843. There are also other known lithographic sheet music editions by the Przybyłski shop, dated by the 1830s. Therefore it appears that Florian Hermann was the composer’s real name, and that he studied in a high school in Vilnius in the late 1830s. So the years of his life are approximately 1820-1900. Moreover, in the same school, other Hermann students are known from the records. Emilian Hermann (probably Florian’s brother) graduated with a Silver Medal in 1848, and Adam Hermann in 1861. The names are consistent with Polish self-identification of the family. But we can’t yet tell if they were ethnic Poles or Polish Germans, because the surname “Hermann” was shared by several ethnicities in this area. Of note, a leading Polish genealogist Iwona Dakiniewicz spotted this surname in the vital record books of the Catholic Deanery of Wilno as early as in the 1740s, so we can be reasonably sure that the ancestors of Florian Hermann were local Catholics rather than recent migrants or converts. Iwona wrote that their home parishes may have been just north of town, in Giedrojcie or Podbrzezie.

From the list of Nobleman Assembly electors, Wilno, 1834

“The Chase”, old Lithuanian coat of arms, graces the Holy (or Dawn) Gate
Only a privileged family could have sent their sons to a high school in the 1830s-1840s. So, having failed to find the Hermanns in the 19th-c. lists of local officials or merchants, I had to conclude that they must have belonged to the szlachta, the Polish-Lithuanian landed gentry. Indeed, I soon spotted a mention of a local Hermann nobleman in an 1844 Imperial government publication. Then a prominent Lithuanian genealogist Sigita Gasparaviciene told me that in the 19th c., the nobility family of the Hermans lived in Wilno proper. And, finally, at the website of Czeslaw Malewski, a specialist on Lithuania’s szlachta, we see in 1834 list of Nobleman Assembly voters that the former Head of Wilno Gentry, travelling to the assembly from a distant county, stopped at the Hermans’ house at Ostrobramska Street, right in the heart of Wilno’s Old Town, famous for its Holy / Sharp / Dawn Gate as it’s known in various local languages.

Florian Hermann lived here! (Ostrobramska street at the Gate in the 1840s)

Florian Hermann, 14, in his high school class roster

Update: Czeslaw Malewski confirmed that in 1835/36 school year, Florian Hermann, age 14. a Catholic Wilno nobleman, studied in the 4th grade of the Wilno Gymnasium. There were several Hermann families in the vicinity of Wilno. One of them owned properties in and around the village of Rubno in the late 1870s and 1880s, right when Florian Hermann composed his Souvenir de Roubno. It seems that Florian’s family were descendants of Karol Hermann and Antonina née Kozerowski. In this family Jan and Julian were known as government servants in Wilno. Jan, born ca. 1787, finished studies in Dresden and Breslau, and started teaching in Wilno in 1812. Notably, Jan Hermann taught in the only Polish-language high school still allowed in the city after the severe crackdown on Polish education in the wake of the 1831 Uprising. Florian Hermann had another very interesting teacher in his high school, a French expat Antoine Cui, who taught, of course, French. (Just like Florian, Antoine Cui is often said to be an ex-Napoleon Grand Armée soldier, stuck in Russia as the French forces disastrously retreated in 1812. But both stories are false. Antoine Cui actually swore allegiance to the Czar a year earlier). The oldest Cui children, Napoleon and Alexander, were Florian’s classmates, and the youngest, Cesar Cui, has become young Hermann’s piano student (and when Cesar developed a gift of composition, Stanisław Moniuszko started teaching the kid free of charge). Starting from the 1860s, this ex-student of Hermann and Moniuszko will become one of “The Five”, an innovating group of composers out to create truly Russian style of music, steeped in the folkloric styles. In so doing, Cesar Cui planted the seeds of his Polish teachers on Russian soil with the most profound effects on the nation’s musical heritage!

Rubno Manor and Rubno village on a 1933 Polish topo. “Las Rubionkowski”, the Rubno Woods, is now a suburban ornithology preserve, with the residential blocks of Vilnius rising right behind out. Inset: from Czeslaw Malewski’s book on Wilno area nobility

Now that our Tango Time Machine has covered a whole century, and transferred us from the 1930s to the 1830s, we no longer need to travel deeper into the past. The creators of the original Dark Eyes, Evgeny Grebenka and Nicholas DeVitte, are both alive and full of creative energy in this time period. And both of them are relatively well studied by the historians (although it doesn’t mean that the history of Dark Eyes has any fewer riddles or improbable twists).

Evgeny Grebenka, 1812-1848
Evgeny Grebenka (or Evhen Hrebinka, according to Ukrainian spelling of his name) is a classic of Ukrainian literature, an author of wonderful fables, folkloric poems, always funny but often touched by sadness, and historical novels in the style of National Romanticism. Grebenka published a handful of poems in Russian too, like a classic folkloric song about a village matron recognizing a heartthrob of her youth in a visiting gray-mustached general, and getting laid at last. In the corpus of Grebenka’s work, Dark eyes does not fit at all. No folksiness, no humor, but a burning sorrowful prescience of a well-deserved perdition. But love is capable of transforming poets in unpredictable ways… When the poem was published in January 1843, Grebenka was 31. His fiancee Maria Rostenberg, marooned at her father’s estate many provinces away, was 15. A year and a half later, they married, and she joined Evgeny in St Petersburg. Maria was a daughter of a Courlander German, a Russian army officer who received a Ukrainian estate not far from Grebenka’s family nest as a dowry when he married Maria’s mother. Alas, Mrs. Rostenberg died soon after Maria was born. Maria is said to have been on good terms with her stepmother and 9 half-siblings, but still, the money was an issue. The Grebenkas just couldn’t get any cut from the Rostenberg assets, and Evgeny Grebenka literally sacrificed his health on the family altar, working extra jobs and skipping vacations, to provide for his young wife’s luxurious live in the nation’s capital. At 36, Grebenka died of tuberculosis. The prophecy of Dark Eyes may be said to have come true, as he really died for his beloved woman.

Nicholas DeVitte, 1811-1844

Prominent historians of Russian romance song, Elena and Valery Ukolovs, are adamant that Dark Eyes could not have come from the pen of Grebenka. They note that barely a month after publication of the poem, the government censors were already reviewing a song with its lyrics, composed by a talented and mysterious poet and musician, Nicholas DeVitte. Both the subject and the choices of words of the poem were very typical for DeVitte, a bard of fatal, impossible, forbidden love, and suffering and death. The Ukolovs note that DeVitte was fond for literary mystification, both hiding behind nom-de-plumes and publishing under friends’ names, and hypothesize that he gifted the verse to Grebenka, too. A grandson of a Dutchman who went to serve the Russian Empire, Nicholas DeVitte created many timeless romance song, and was an unsurpassed harp virtuoso. An age-mate of Grebenka’s, DeVitte also died very young, at 32, only a year after publishing his score of Dark Eyes. The fire of the fatal eyes immolated everyone…

Regardless of the true authorship of the 1843 poem, we must note that DeVitte’s score of Dark Eyes has nothing in common with the classic romance we love. Nicholas DeVitte composed a mazurka, with a very different emotional tine, expressing a kind of fatalistic contentedness rather than a fateful prescient sadness of the Gypsy song. The Ukolovs note that Dark Eyes has been first mentioned as a Gypsy song in an 1859 book, decades before Gerdal’s arrangement. One may suspect that the Romani singers already relied on their emotional intuition to rework the music of “the Eyes”, long before Sofus Gerdal formalized the results. There are known precedents of this, such as another DeVitte’s romance What can I do, my heart, with you (Что делать, сердце, мне с тобою) which retained the lyrics but dramatically changed the music once it became a part of the Gypsy choirs repertoire. Perhaps Dark Eyes really owed its sound of an anguished and cruel waltz to the Gypsy musicians, even before the music of Hermann got connected with the old verse. But this a riddle which noone can ever solve…

3 comentarios:

Alexander Anichkin dijo...

Fascinating stuff!
On Totleben: he was besieging Plevna, not defending.

MOCKBA dijo...

... and Totleben lived and worked in Vilnius before and after the 1877-1878 Turkish War, adding another connection I missed. But I also got TONS more detail on Florian Herman ... in the process of rewriting already ))

Alexander Anichkin dijo...

Excellent! Wonderful chasse au trésor!