The valse lente was very fashionable in the early 20th century. It was a slow, sentimental waltz, also called a Boston waltz. I am still confused over the precise technical moves of the valse lente or Boston Waltz. What makes it so ‘lente’ or ‘Boston’, still eludes me, though I’ve read more than a few instruction texts. I even dared a few hesitating steps in my boudoir.
I also tried hard, but found no reliable explanation for its name or origin. Different Western regions or continents claim to be the cradle of this wildly popular dance. Some say the Boston waltz is an American, slower and gliding variant of the traditional Viennese waltz. The oldest reference that I could find is a composition by Marie Félicie Clémence de Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval. She composed Prélude et Valse Lente in 1885.
According to the composer Clifton Worsley it was he who coined the term Boston waltz.
Clifton Worsley is the pseudonym of the Catalan musician Pere Astort i Ribas. A trained pianist, Pere Astort started working as a clerk at a popular sheet music shop located on the most emblematic street, La Rambla, in Barcelona. This shop then called Can Guàrdia still exists as Casa Beethoven.
In the sheet music shop Pere Astort worked as a song demonstrator (or song plugger) to help sell the sheet music. Patrons could select a title of a song for him to play on the piano, thus getting a first listen before buying.
The story goes that while Astort was playing one of his own compositions, an American musician walked into the shop. Stunned by Astort’s song the visitor told him that the music reminded him of fashionable waltzes from his home town, Boston. The American also suggested to adopt a pseudonym with a more ‘artistic‘ and international resonance. Pere Astort went for the dignified sounding Clifton Worsley nom de plume.
Clifton Worsley had a rival in Theodor Pinet who also claimed to be the Bostonkungen or the Boston King. Pinet was a Swedish composer, with a Belgian father, who used to play at the royal court of Sweden. He introduced the Boston waltz in Sweden around 1902. Clifton Worsley had then already composed his first Boston walz in the late 1890’s. Anyway, Theodor Pinet became a big name in Sweden thanks to the Boston Walz. In 1910 he launched his own music hall: the Boston Palace! According to Sweden’s state archives, the rush to Pinet’s Boston Palace was huge: “Ladies in exquisite toilets, gentlemen in coats and tuxedos, students, little shop girls in blouses and skirts, jacket-clad office workers and demi-mondaines in rustling silk with or without cavalier, all bitten by the Boston fly […]”
In 1900 the French Roi de la Valse Rodolphe Berger composed a valse très lente (a very slow waltz), the hugely successful Amoureuse.
And after Massenet also having written a Valse très lente, Debussy created La plus que lente or ‘the even slower waltz’ in 1910. It was his tongue-in-cheek riposte to the the countless lightweight valses lentes that were so successful in the Parisian salons and dance halls. La plus que lente is a charming sentimental waltz with a lot of rubato written for solo piano and arranged for strings.
Debussy mentioned in an interview that he had written La plus que lente for the Hungarian violinist/leader of a gypsy orchestra. He had discovered the ensemble in the newly opened Parisian Carlton Hotel where he regularly went with his wife and friends for the afternoon tea. Who better then, than the Hungarian Antal Zalai to perform La plus que lente …
Alexandra Chava Seymann wrote us from Vienna about her grandfather, the composer of Valse Tabromik. Otto Heitzmann (1885-1955) was born in Linz, Austria. His parents continued the prestigious Viennese piano company founded by his grandfather Johann Heitzmann in 1839.
But as Alexandra Seymann tells us “Otto M. Heitzmann turned out to be more interested in actually creating and making music than in manufacturing pianos. He became a composer, conductor and music director. He worked in Poland, Denmark, Iceland, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. He was married three times, first in Poland, then in Denmark (where he left two children), finally in Austria (where my mother was born). Unfortunately, due to his vagrant life, two world wars, and also family conflicts (his third wife was not exactly happy with his artist’s life and cut ties with him), there is close to nothing left of his portfolio.”
Otto Heitzmann composed the Tabromik walz while working in Poland in the early Twenties. The sheet music is used to promote Tabromik, a vodka and liquor factory in Poznán and Gniezno, Poland. The brand took its name from the first letters of the factory owner’s name, Tadeusz Bronislaw Mikołajczyk (1895-1933).
Mikołajczyk was an ambitious businessman who had only completed elementary school. He taught himself marketing and advertising and founded Tabromik in 1920. It is not clear where he got the funds for the company’s development but after a year it is said he already employed 250 people. He also started other successful projects but got involved in speculative and shady business and ended up bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, he died young as the result of an accident.
The illustration of the sheet music was created by Wilhelm Ludwik Rudy (1888-1940). The same year Rudy also designed a set of air mail stamps. They were issued by Aerotarg, the first Polish airline, in agreement with the Polish Post. Attached to each stamp was an advertising label, inscribed T.A.B.R.O.M.I.K. These stamps had to be bought for airmail in addition to the normal postage rate.
The short-lived Aerotarg was founded in Poznań in 1921 in order to serve visitors of the first Poznań Industrial trade fair. The organizers of the fair financed the venture. Aerotarg leased six Junkers F 13 aircrafts and the first regular Poznań-Warsaw and Poznan-Danzig flights were set up.
Between May and June the newly created airline transported around 100 passengers and 3 tons of parcels. The venture turned out to be unprofitable and ceased operation less than a month after its start-up. The fair committee lost its venture capital.
In the copyright statement of Valse Tabromik Mikołajczyk proudly mentions Tabromik’s ‘Publishing and Advertising Department‘, giving it a prestigious cachet . Compared to other Polish sheet music from the time though, it looks to us a rather clumsy publication. It is printed in black and white on thin, cheap paper with the notes shining through. The typography is uninspired. In an attempt to brighten up the cover Wilhelm Rudy drew a slightly bizarre couple: he grins idiotically at his waltzing partner while she —oblivious to her fraying hat— stiffly tries to ignore an upcoming nipple gate.
Apart from the few air stamps above, I could find almost nothing about the life and work of this illustrator, although there is the horrendous fact that Wilhelm Rudy died in the Katyn massacre in April 1940.
To conclude, Alexandra Seymann explains how so few things have remained from her grandfather’s musical opus: “Otto Heitzman died in 1955 in Waidhofen an der Thaya (Lower Austria), Austria, at the age of 70; my mother was merely 11 at the time, and I never got to know my grandfather as I was only born more than two decades later; the children from his second marriage died before I could get in touch with them. The Heitzmann family is now dispersed all over the globe, but there is very little information and very few documents left of Otto. I try to piece together whatever I can find in archives, old newspapers, official records. Finding a complete composition is a beautiful and touching moment!“
The colourful cover for Alexandre Duval‘s The Golliwogg’s Dance (1906) was drawn by illustrator, cartoonist and comedian Maurice Boyer, aka Moriss (1874 – 1963). The music and cover clearly wanted to build on the success of the series of children’s picture book illustrated by Florence Upton.
This series around a ‘Golliwogg‘ character started in 1895 when the American-born English illustrator Florence Kate Upton drew the pictures for The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. Her mother Bertha wrote the verse. The two ‘dutch dolls’ referred to in the story’s title were peg wooden dolls, that thanked their name to their Dutch and German toymakers. These inexpensive and very popular dolls were sold undressed. Children would use scraps of fabric to make their clothing. For the third doll, the striking Golliwog, Florence sought inspiration from an old rag doll from her childhood.
Unluckily, Florence and Bertha did not trademark the Golliwog and soon, following the success of the children’s books, all kinds of doll manufacturers began producing Golliwog dolls. They were stuffed black figures, with a friendly look but having a bad hair day, wearing red pants and a bow tie. In England during the first half of the twentieth century, the Golliwog became almost as popular as the Teddy Bear.
In France the Golliwog inspired Claude Debussy. Golliwog’s Cakewalk is the sixth and final piece in his piano solo suite Children’s Corner (1908). Debussy dedicated this suite, about toys coming to life, to his much beloved daughter Emma, nicknamed Chouchou. The cover with a small elephant holding a gigantic Golliwog balloon is rather surrealistic, and was drawn by Debussy himself. The Golliwog’s cakewalk is clearly influenced by Afro-American ragtime and jazz.
The doll created by Florence Upton had everything of the blackface minstrel tradition: black skin, big mouth, frizzy hair, a festive dress with bow tie and tailcoat jacket. In 1913, the always wayward ballet dancer Alexander Sacharoff made his own ‘white’ interpretation of Debussy’s Golliwog. In it he patently declared his love for outrageous costumes and wigs.
While Florence’s original Golliwog character was jovial and friendly some later specimens were sinister or menacing. This is also true in Marcel L’Herbier’s short phantasy film from 1936. A little girl, together with her toys, watch the fearful dance of a Gollywog-Jack-in-the-box. The world-famous Alfred Cortot is at the piano, playing three pieces from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. The Golliwog’s Cakewalk starts at 5:32. That scene is preceded by a message —now considered overtly racist— warning the audience to certainly applaud the ‘terrible nègre‘ who can otherwise become very mean.
Even the famous Enid Blyton also incorporated a rather evil Golliwog in her books. But it was later banished from revised editions.The popularity of the Golliwog contributed to the spread of the blackface iconography in Europe. Unaffected by a few fearsome embodiments, European children adored their doll. Like their parents they were racially insensitive and not aware that the blackface itself represents a demeaning image of black people. The prolific illustrator Clérice even paired a gentle ‘Gollyvog‘ (yes, the difficult double-U for the French ) with his characteristic cupid.
And of course the Golliwog was also used for marketing other things than sheet music.
De Vigny created a spicy, floral, oriental perfume for ladies. The fragrance was launched in France in 1919 as ‘Golliwogg’. Its bottle was designed by Michel de Brunhoff, who worked for Vogue France. He was the brother of Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar. The top of the stopper was fitted with real seal fur. These flasks were sold until the late 1960s. Robertson & Sons, a British manufacturer of jams and preserves, began using the Golliwog —or Gollie as the British lovingly called him— as the company’s mascot in 1910.
The advert above was distributed as late as 1984 when it became muddled by protests, indignation and outcry against its racism.
The Golliwog was also known as a classic contortionist act. A sketch by the Florida Trio from the early fifties gives an idea of the torturous feat. An extremely double-jointed figure in a golliwog costume is doing amazing foldings and bendings. Don’t try this at home!
Let’s end with a quiz question. Into what name did the Golliwogs change their name in 1967, the year in which they recorded their single Tell Me? Not too difficult, if you ask me. Just listen to the first two singing notes and you’ll know the answer.