Boulanger - A Romanian Mantovani

listen to Georges Boulanger playing Gypsy Serenade

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At the beginning of the 20th century, the Danube Delta was a cradle of violinists born in the towns on the land (Sulina, Tulcea) that the great river crosses just before opening its arms, as if exhausted by its long journey through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania, and flowing into a string of reed-girdled lakes preparing for its ultimate encounter with the (Black) Sea. Documents that the archives have preserved mention a long list of famous fiddlers – some of them were Gypsies, others were farmers or fishermen from Dobruja, the best-known names being Dimitrie Pavel Pârcălab, Constantin Tecui, Gheorghiţă Lăutarul (the Fiddler) and Vasile Pantazi. The latter delighted mostly the sailors and tourists that came from Sulina to get on board of the boats bound for the magical Delta. He led a band of virtuosi that the writer Jean Bart described with a lot of talent and humor in his novel Europolis (1933): "They have arrived… Boulanger (his true name was Pantazi), a true Gypsy, a fiddler from Tulcea had his beard cut like the famous French general. He was always dressed in black. In summer he would wear a jacket that had turned green, while in winter he put on a short Jean-Birboc overcoat. The dark bent dulcimer player, his eyes closed, his moustache flattened mechanically struck with the little hammers the strings that he mastered with his long thin fingers. The flute player (probably the Panpipe player, our note) was fat and his cheeks were swollen, his white eyes were terrifying." This is what old Boulanger's band looked like. The fiddler was nicknamed after the French general Georges Boulanger (1837-1891), who apparently stopped over in the Danube Delta while he was inspecting the area on a French battleship. The people told Pantazi: "Listen here, you Gypsy, you are a lord of music and your beard looks exactly like that of the French lord. From now on, you will be called Boulanger instead of Pantazi." This is how the nickname of the fiddler of Dobruja was born before 1891. But the world renown of his name was due to his son, George. George was born in Tulcea, on April 15, 1893, at 11, Prudenţei Street, as the youngest son of fiddler Vasile Pantazi who had been born in Călăraşi but had settled in Tulcea and married Stanca Ciobanu. He took classes in violin and musical theory with Anton and Fritz Prohaska. The war caught brothers Traian and George Boulanger on a tour in Russia. During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Traian died far from his motherland. His father died in London 13 years later. Taking advantage of a contract he had in Odessa, George Boulanger enrolled at the Conservatory to complete his education, but was forced to return to his country after the Revolution. Back in Tulcea, however, he discovered that he had been declared a deserter from the Romanian army while he was in Russia. Fearing the consequences, he left the town where he gave concerts every night at the restaurant in Alexandrovskaia Street and wandered for a number of years giving performances in Chişinău, Bălţi, Cernăuţi, Bazargic, Brăila. After 1922, he started a number of tours in Central and Northern Europe in several countries where he got contracts as a musician: Germany, Estonia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England. In the French Capital, Boulanger composed the serenade Avant de mourir that brought him international fame and gave him the courage to continue as a composer. After 1930 he settled in Berlin where he alternatively played at the Femina and Hotel Adlon, also giving lunch performances at the Romanian Casina, where Romanian students came to enjoy his masterful command of the bow. It was in Germany that he knew happiness (as he had there hundreds of records made by Telefunken, Vox, Odeon, Kristall), but also the utmost misery: the Nazi authorities asked him to prove by official papers that he was not a Jew! He urgently demanded the registrar's office of the Tulcea municipality and his admirers of Sulina to give evidence that he had been born a Gypsy and a Christian. In a letter he addressed pharmacist Emil Popp – in which he gives his detailed biography – the fiddler remarked with bitter irony: "In fact I'm not even a Gypsy, as my father was a Greek, he was the one who brought dishonor on our family and became a musician. If daddy had not become a musician, maybe I would be selling lemons and eels even today or I would have a boat in Sulina and I would be called Captain Gheorghe". He managed to get away with his papers that came from Tulcea and satisfy the Nazis that he was not a Jew, but the devastating allied bombings of 1944 made him flee Germany on a boat that took him as far as South America. Gone were the famous "Paganini des 5-tes Uhr Tees" (Paganini of the 5 o'clock tea) performances of Berlin. He now lived in Buenos Aires, where he eventually died on June 3, 1958. He had been collecting dozens of café compositions and Romanian fantasias that he had recorded on hundreds of records that established his international reputation. The sound of his violin was soft, velvety, even in all the registers of the instrument; he played holding his bow "stuck" to the strings to obtain unforeseen effects, staccatos of great finesse, a superb richness of tone. The famous virtuoso, whose genius made the music of the Danube Delta fiddlers famous all over the world, has a statue on the alley of personalities in the central park of Tulcea.

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)