The Life of Mischa Spoliansky

We recently released a collection of piano compositions by Mischa Spoliansky, best known for scoring movies like Sanders of the River, King Solomon’s Mines, The Ghost Goes West, North West Frontier, Trouble In Store, Wanted For Murder, The Happiest Days of Your Life and Saint Joan. He also wrote "Love Is Lyrical (Whisper Sweet Little Nothing to Me)", performed by Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock's film Stage Fright.

Spoliansky had a fascinating life, which you can read about in a short biography below. You can download sheet music for many of his wonderful songs, like "A Serenade of the Night" on Sheet Music Direct.

Mischa Spoliansky (1898-1985) – A Biography

Born in Białystok, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), Mischa Spoliansky came from a family of professional musicians. His father was an opera singer, his brother a cellist and his sister a pianist. His mother passed away when Spoliansky was very young and his family moved to Dresden, Germany. From an early age he dedicated himself to learning piano, violin and cello. Mischa astonished audiences as early as the age of 10, where, making his public debut as a pianist in Dresden, he performed a Mozart piano sonata. Forgetting part of the piece, he skilfully improvised his way through the music until he remembered his place. This was done with such subtlety and innate musicianship that the audience failed to notice.

Only a year after this concert, Spoliansky’s father tragically died. The young musician moved in with his brother in Berlin and enrolled at the Stern’sches Konservatorium, a renowned private music school, studying piano and composition. He joined his brother’s trio, playing violin at the renowned Café Schön, as well as playing piano in other cafés in the evenings to pay for his tuition. Spoliansky soon found work performing piano for silent films with the renowned UFA-Filmtheaterorchester. It was here that, for the first time, his own compositions were performed.

Spoliansky with Muir Matheson
On one occasion when Spoliansky was playing in a café, he was heard by Victor Hollaender and Werner Richard Heymann, both notable musicians. Through this coincidental meeting, he became acquaintances of the two men. Hollaender’s son, Friedrich, was one of the founders of the newly revived notorious political-literary cabaret, Schall und Rauch. Unusually located in a cellar under Max Reinhardt’s vast Großes Schauspielhaus, Friedrich invited Spoliansky to take on the role of house composer and pianist in the cabaret.

Sadly, the cabaret was short-lived as audiences demanded lighter entertainment than the radical, politically charged shows. Meeting this demand, Spoliansky wrote ‘Morphium’ (Morphine) – a waltz that was performed to by infamous erotic dancer Anita Berber that became and remained a notable hit over the next five years. Also suitably cutting edge was his composition ‘Das Lila Lied’ (The Lilac Song), written under the pseudonym Arno Billing and dedicated to Magnus Hirschfield (an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities), which became an anthem for the gay and lesbian communities of the time.

Spoliansky played in other cabarets in Berlin, along the way notably meeting bourgeoning lyricist Marcellus Schiffer, with whom he would form a long collaborative partnership and friendship. Drawing interest from local jazz and dance band music, Mischa gathered experience in what the Nazis called Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music). The Nazis may not have liked it, but many other Germans did!

Spolinasky with Eddy and daughter (Spoli)
In 1922 Spoliansky married dancer Elspeth Reinwald, a marriage which would last for 62 years. A year later, the first of their three daughters, Irmgard (who hated her name and later preferred to be called ‘Spoli’) was born. Broadening his musical horizons once again, he accompanied Richard Tauber in a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to critical acclaim and performed the revue Es liegt der Luft (It’s in the Air), written by Schiffer. In the cast was young actress Marlene Dietrich, who was auditioned in a remarkable fashion by Spoliansky. She recorded the occasion in a letter:

The pianist [Spoliansky] gave me the key… The pitch was much too high for me. “Stop! Next!” the director shouted. At this point, Spoliansky stood up and said “Try it once more, only this time an octave lower.” …We began at a lower pitch. Mischa Spoliansky kept changing the key until suddenly – to my infinite surprise – harmonious sounds seemed to fill the theatre. Spoliansky made a note of the key… The role was mine!

The show was an overnight success and propelled Dietrich to fame, premiering on May 15, 1928. This led to an enduring friendship and collaboration between Spoliansky and Dietrich, including Spoliansky playing piano on her first recording as well as an impressive performance from Dietrich starring in Spoliansky’s Zwei Krawatten (Two Bow Ties), winning her a role in the first major German sound film, The Blue Angel.

As sound film came into fruition, the already versatile Spoliansky gained another facet to his musical skillset: film composition. Many of his cabaret and revue compositions were adapted to film and some of his songs sung by early film stars. In particular, Jan Kiepura, the renowned romantic tenor, sung his song ‘Heute Nacht oder nie’ (Tell Me Tonight), winning Spoliansky international acclaim.

1932 was a great year for Spoliansky and Schiffer’s working relationship, collaborating on more shows, notably including Sie Herrn Plim! (Call Mr. Plim!), a witty, satirical work that parodied the working environment of a department store. The music included a trio which contained the lyrics “Sie kommt, sie naht!” (She comes, she’s getting nearer). However, due to clever placement of musical accents by Spoliansky, the lyrics could be heard as “Sie naht, sie kommt” – exactly how the word ‘nazi’ is pronounced. In the very same year, Schiffer tragically died from an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 42. As Spoliansky was a Jew, he was forced to leave Germany when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, choosing to settle with his family in London.

Spoliansky arrived in England at the height of the British film industry, with over half of the population of the UK attending the cinema each week. He rapidly found work there, as well as obtaining British citizenship.

It was here that he composed some of his most notable film scores, which total over 50. These included Sanders of the River, King Solomon’s Mines, both of which starred Paul Robeson, The Ghost Goes West, North West Frontier, Trouble In Store starring Norman Wisdom, Wanted For Murder, The Happiest Days of Your Life and Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan.

Extraordinarily, Spoliansky combined writing film music with going to war himself – he composed music for the BBC, working on broadcasts sent out to Germany made with a team of other ex-Berliners.

Spolinasky with Rassano Brazzi
Spoliansky continued his prolific film composition career after the war, as well as writing various musicals and revues that were performed in the UK and Germany. Highlights included a revue in 1948 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, Four, Fix, Six, with Binnie Hale and Bobby Howes, a musical version of Carl Zuckmayer’s Katharina Knie in 1957 and Wie lernt man Liebe (How One Learns to Love) in 1967.

In 1977, Spoliansky was invited to appear at a gala in Berlin at the Renaissance Theatre and the following year, just prior to turning 80 years old, he returned to Berlin to play his songs together with Marcellus Schiffer’s wife, Margo Lion. The performance was so well received he was invited back again in 1979 – what was to be his final performance.

Spoliansky passed away at home in London in 1985 aged 86, leaving behind a substantial legacy: his works have been performed in theatres in the UK and Germany, with many noteworthy performances taking place well into the current day, bringing his music to an ever-widening audience.

An accomplished musician and composer, Spoliansky was also known to be a warm, charming, modest and funny character. When Spoliansky’s daughter, Spoli, died, her obituary in The Independent contained a touching story that illuminates the endearing personality of her father:

…she was returning home and found her eccentric father standing, rather sheepishly, in the subway at Hyde Park Corner. On the ground beside him was a flat cap containing a few coins. When she asked what he thought he was doing, he explained that the harmonica player who usually stood there had gone for a drink and he was keeping an eye on the pitch. “But why you?” his daughter pressed.

"He's a fellow musician," her father replied.


Mischa Spoliansky – A Brief History

Music Sales Classical – Mischa Spoliansky Biography

Mischa Spoliansky – Wikipedia

The Independent, April 7, 2004.

Marlene Dietrich, My Life, 1989.

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