The Tango King of Riga

  • 2015-09-03
  • By Michael Mustillo

Locked in a room of a mental asylum, in the closing scene of the epic film ‘’Amadeus’’ by  Academy Award winner and Czech film director Milos Forman, a somewhat perplexed baby-faced priest listens patiently to the bitter, straggling gray-haired, and insane Italian composer, Salieri. A composer who had once been Vienna’s most illustrious composers. He recounts his tale of how his musical arch rival, the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, newly arrived to Vienna from Salzburg, was to quickly overshadow him. Salieri whistles one of his own melodies to the priest, who, with an apologetic demeanor, indicates he has no knowledge of who composed it. Salieri then proceeds to whistle a melody of Mozart’s, which the priest instantly recognizes and becomes exuberant, believing he had finally recognized one of Salieri’s melodies. It was a reaction which was anticipated by Salieri, as it was, in fact, one of Mozart’s famous melodies the priest had recognized.

The life of the Jewish-Latvian conductor, composer, arranger and pianist, Oskar Davydovich Strok, crowned during his life with the regal musical title of The Tango King, resonates with a similar paradox. While Strok’s melodies may have remained mostly recognizable to tango aficionados and diehard admirers of his music, his name has largely slipped into the graveyard of musical oblivion. If not completely erased from Latvia’s musical memory, where efforts have been made to commemorate Strok’s memory, and keep both his music and legacy alive, then from the memory of the world, where the mere mention of Oskar Strok’s name or the name of his composition may bring about a reaction of somewhat blank faces.
The Ukrainian-born Aleksey Scherbak, considered one of Europe’s most exciting new playwrights, who resides in Riga, has offered multiple perspectives of Oskar Strok in his  fantasy musical story ‘’Tango With Oskar Strok.’’  Premiered at the Riga Russian Theatre in 2012 and directed by Igor Konyaev, it is a piece that portrays the amazing city of Riga, a city rich in history, full of legends and traditions. The life story of Oskar Strok, “the King of Tango”, is one of the legends of Old Riga.

Oskar Strok was born into a musical family in Dvinsk, then part of Russia, now Daugavpils, Latvia, on 24 December 1892. The youngest of eight children, his talent was apparent at an early age. Considered somewhat of a musical wunderkind at the age of ten, Strok enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he was to study in the piano department. By age 11, a St Petersburg publishing house published two of Strok’s romances, which he had composed at age 10. St. Petersburg also gave him the opportunity to develop his musical composition skills, while working in the city’s silent movie houses.

Though Strok had lived in Paris, Berlin, Harbin, Alma-Ata and Moscow, it was Riga where he was to spend the majority of his creative life.
During the 1920-1930s, after his return to Latvia, Strok became active as a conductor and pianist, and performed in a variety of Latvian dance bands. These years before the outbreak of the Second World War saw Strok at his most prolific. It was in Riga where his creativity began to bloom, composing romances, waltzes, and works of jazz.   It was during this period that Strok’s dance music was to ascend to the height of its popularity. In Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, and throughout Europe, in China and Japan, Strok’s music was performed extensively, whether in concert halls, in dance halls, restaurants or taverns, or in the comfort of one’s home. It was a period where The Tango King’s music reigned. It was also a period that saw Strok’s gramophone recordings begin to flood the European music market, further making his name, and his tangos, household names.

At the start of the 20th century, tango’s trajectory in conquering the world was rather rapid. Such was also the flight of Oskar Strok’s music and particularly his tangos. Strok’s path saw his name and music becoming well-known names both within Europe, and around the world. However, unlike the popularity of tango which has endured, Strok’s receded. Strok’s misfortune could be blamed on the historical events that occurred in Latvia after the Second World War. The Soviet regime deemed the tango ‘the music of impotents’, and considered it to be counter-revolutionary, along with the Viennese waltzes. The foxtrot was declared a ‘dance of slaves, and Western pop music ‘the song and dance of the period of the catastrophe of capitalism.’

Oskar Strok’s music had previously been performed by great orchestras. But a decision made, based on what the authorities considered to be music lacking creativity and originality of musical concepts and ideas, saw an active professional composer who had composed over three hundred tangos, excluded from the Union of Composers of Latvia. It was only during the early 1970s that recordings of Strok’s songs and instrumental music compositions began to be released, mainly throughout the Soviet Union, which, however, did not filter into the West.

In 1928, Strok composed one of his most enchanting Tangos, ‘’Oh, These Brown Eyes!’’, a work written after falling madly in love with Lenny, his deep brown eyed enchanting secretary. Strok, in love head-over-heels, almost saw the breakup of his marriage and him abandoning his two young children due to this relationship with his mistress. Strok even attempted to relocate the editorial department of the magazine where he worked to Paris and establish his life with Lenny there, but she eventually married another man.

‘’Oh, These Brown Eyes,’’ became an instant tango sensation and a popular tune.  Some of Strok’s other famous tangos include works such as Ojos Negros (Black Eyes), Cuando vuelva la primavera (When Spring Comes Again), No te vayas (Do not Leave), Rapsodia Lunar (Moon Rhapsody), Dime por que (Tell me, why), Musenka, Duerme mi pobre corazon (Sleep, my poor heart), Ojos Azules (Blue Eyes).  

Keeping The Tango King’s legacy alive
It has been Raimond Pauls, distinguished composer of Latvian popular music and pianist, who has done much in present-day Latvia to promote a revival of Strok’s music. Pauls has kept both the memory of Strok’s personality and The Tango King’s music alive. Pauls stated that he has deep respect for the outstanding work that the Riga Russian Theatre has undertaken through Scherbak’s  story ‘’Tango With Oskar Strok’’. When asked whether Oskar Strok receives enough attention and his due commemoration, Pauls stated that, ‘’compared to other artists, especially artists not alive anymore, Strok does receive quite a lot of public attention.’’ Which Pauls considers rather rare.

Scherbak, however, doesn’t consider Strok to be a legend, but certainly does consider that his music is.  “It’s hard to explain why his music is legendary. You could compare this with the tango-like song “Besame Mucho”— people love it, people sing and hum it. It’s very melodic,” said Scherbak

 “I think the title of the play explains everything pretty well. [There is word play in the title – when translated to Russian, ‘Tango between the lines’ turns into Танго между строк; строк=Строк]. I think I also wanted to show that this person could have done and achieved a lot more than he did – not that anyone, including myself can judge him. I personally think Strok was focusing on too many things, which could have resulted in wasting his own potential. He was occupied with so many things –  magazines, restaurants, shops, a publishing house. Many times he would start something, be it a business or an opera, and then he would leave it half-finished. Of course we have to consider the circumstances of the Soviet times as well; it’s not like they didn’t give him any opportunities to work, but no one was helping him.”

Sporadic yet significant efforts have been made to commemorate The Tango King. In 2013, the city where Strok was born, Daugavpils, celebrated the 120th anniversary of his birth. The city staged a concert program and a competition titled “Tango Above the City”, which concluded the city’s music festival. Due to the lack of financial resources by the Daugavpils municipality cultural department, no similar event took place the following year. Local residents had hoped that “Tango Above the City’’ could have become a permanent fixture on the cultural calendar of Daugavpils.

The Latvian Cultural Centre in Daugavpils stated that even though it can be hard to organize major events due to lack of sponsors, and the financial resources required to stage such cultural events ‘’we always come back to Oskar Strok in one way or another, with Strok being a talented and most famous composer coming from our city’’.
Riga has also commemorated Strok’s life.  If one walks down the trendy Terbates street, on house number 50 there is a plaque affixed to the exterior of the building, which commemorates the building that Oskar Strok called home.
Contemporary Latvian Tangos

Latvian composers have composed some magnificent tangos, whether for motion pictures, theatre productions, chamber music programs, etc. Ināra Jakubone, director of the Latvian Music Centre (LMIC), points to composer Imants Zemzaris, who has not only arranged different Latvian tangos (including Oskars Strok’s “Sleep, my sad heart”, and numerous tangos by Raimonds Pauls, Jānis Ivanovs, Ivars Vīgners, Romualds Kalsons, Aleksandrs Okolo-Kulaks, Alfrēds Vinters, Marģers Zariņs), but also wrote an essay “The Latvian Tango Lad visits the Argentinean Tango King” in which Zemzaris, in his very typical subtle ironical manner, speaks on the specifics of Latvian tango.  ‘’Imants Zemzaris has himself written two fantastic tangos,’’ Jakubone said of Zemzaris’ Crazy Love and Love’s Craziness. ‘’As these titles suggest, they don’t miss Zemzaris’ particular humor once again, and in music this is the best you might have –  to have humor.’’

Latvian composer Arturs Maskats has himself composed a Tango for symphonic orchestra in 2002, which was performed in London at the final of the 3rd international symphonic composition ‘’Masterprize’’ competition in 2003, as well as renown orchestras, such as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Though Maskats has not particularly studied or showed a deeper interest in Oskar Strok’s music, he has stated for City Paper that ‘’Oskar Strok is one of the greatest authors of tango music. With his very strong expressiveness he has marked his own path in the Latvian and also European music context, with his extreme vividness and talent.’’

During Maskats’ youth growing up under Soviet rule, ‘’Oskar Strok was considered an ‘’undesirable’’ composer,’’ said Maskats.  ‘’Today, however, we can see a new renaissance of Strok’s music.’’
Oskar Strok was a flurry of musical activity until the final days of his life. At the age of 80, he was still composing, and would regularly place himself behind a piano and thunder out beautiful compositions.

Strok died in Riga, on 22 June 1975. He lies buried at the Riga New Jewish cemetery in Smerlis. It has been stated that, at Strok’s funeral, the world-acclaimed violinist, Gidon Kremer, performed. Kremer is also instrumental in keeping Strok’s memory alive and, in 2001, asked the Latvian composer Georgs Pelēcis to compose “Astor Piazzolla, Oskar Strok and me” (“Buena Riga”) for violin and string orchestra, which was premiered by the Kremerata Baltica orchestra and Gidon Kremer. “That was the time when Riga celebrated its 800th anniversary, the world was enchanted by Piazzolla’s music, and Strok’s centenary advanced. I decided to combine all these elements. It should be noted, however, that both tango masters differ essentially. Strok’s music belongs to the world of entertainment, of restaurants. Piazolla in his music expresses a true drama, a confession. I tried to put them both on a pedestal,” said Pelēcis.

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