Saturday 30 April 1994


The following article is an overview of the career of French pianist, composer, and arranger Alain Goraguer. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Goraguer, conducted by Bas Tukker in Paris, May 2011. The article, a rewritten version created in January 2023, is subdivided in two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Alain Goraguer's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2011 & 2023

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Alain Goraguer
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: August 20th, 1931, Rosny-sous-Bois, Greater Paris (France)
Died: February 13th, 2023, Paris (France)
Nationality: French

French arranger Alain Goraguer has a quite peculiar Eurovision record, having conducted five entries for three different countries, spanning a staggering 29 years (1965-94). His first involvement came in 1965, when his arrangement to Serge Gainsbourg's composition ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ helped France Gall win the contest for Luxembourg. Subsequently, Goraguer led the orchestra for songs performed by Tereza Kesovija (Monaco 1966), Isabelle Aubret (France 1968), Joël Prévost (France 1978), and Nina Morato (France 1994). Moreover, he penned the arrangements to six more entries in the 1960s and 1970s, for which the orchestra was placed under the baton of other conductors.


Alain Goraguer was born in a Parisian suburb, but his youth was spent in places as far apart as Boulogne-sur-Mer, Lyons, and Nice. This was due to his father’s work for France’s National Police service.

“He was an officier de gendarmerie,” Goraguer explains, “and he was regularly moved from one post to another. This was common practice in the police services. My mother, who originated from Corsica, was an artistically minded woman. She was a good amateur pianist and singer. One day, when I was about ten years old, my parents took me to a concert in which a little girl performed a violin solo. This was while we were living in Lyons. The girl must have been about my age; she was absolutely beautiful and her violin playing was marvellous. The audience loved her, and so did I. Until that time, I hadn’t been particularly interested in music, but that one concert changed that. “I want to learn to play the violin as well,” I told my parents; and I insisted.”

“They then sent me to a violin teacher, and simultaneously my mother helped me on my way playing the piano. There was a piano in our house – and thanks to those violin lessons, I knew how to read notes. I just sat down and played a bit. Somehow, I was attracted to playing jazz; of course, during the war, jazz music wasn’t really acceptable, but that was no real problem for me, because I didn’t perform. All of this took place within the walls of our house; and only during the weekends, because my parents decided to send me to boarding school, which I wasn’t really happy with. Otherwise, I didn’t really suffer too much during the war years.”

Alain in his early 20s

“Slowly, I was less and less attracted to the violin; and more and more to the piano. Annoyed that I neglected the violin, my mother told the teacher about it. She was surprised to find that he hadn’t noticed a thing. “He’s an excellent student and I’m very happy about his progress.” This means that I must have had a bit of talent, because I hardly practised at all. As mother wasn’t keen to spend money on lessons I didn’t put much energy in, she told me I had to choose between the violin and the piano – and of course I chose the piano. I started taking piano lessons with a very good local teacher whose background was purely classical. As for the violin, je ne le touchais plus – I’ve never played it again for the rest of my life.”

“By the end of the war, my father had reached the pensionable age – and he decided he wanted to spend the remainder of his years on the French Riviera. We moved to Nice (which had just become French territory again after being occupied by Mussolini in 1940 – BT). After the liberation of that part of France, there were American seamen who regularly went ashore in the evenings to visit the local nightclubs and cafés. There were plenty of those in the port district. With some friends, I formed a little jazz group and we played in these cafés to entertain the Americans. Apart from the odd piano recital I had done at school, it was the first time I performed for an audience."

"It struck me that every American sailor was able to sing just about all jazz standards. Mind you, these aren’t easy songs to sing, but these guys were really very good at it. Somehow, the Americans are a musically gifted nation. With my friends, I played in all those clubs. The café owners didn’t pay us, but we didn’t really mind, because we loved playing; and besides, each night we went home with our pockets filled with tips the American guys had given us.”

“In Nice, I had the good fortune of meeting Jack Diéval, who was one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation; really a grande vedette. I must have been 15 or 16, when my best friend had heard that Diéval was performing at various venues on the French Riviera at the time – and because this friend of mine was from a rich family, he managed to persuade his father to invite Diéval to their house for a lavish dinner! I was at the table as well, and this friend of mine introduced me to Diéval; “Monsieur Diéval, I would like you to meet Alain Goraguer. He is a friend of mine and he plays some great jazz piano.” Diéval was interested and asked me to play some pieces at the piano; and his reaction was absolutely wonderful. He said that I showed much promise; and he advised me to come to Paris, where he would introduce me to a piano teacher who could help me. This was great, because by that time I knew I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted music and nothing else! Fortunately, my parents didn’t object – and so I moved to Paris. That was in 1949.”

'Go-Go' with Boris Vian

“In Paris, Diéval introduced me to a classical piano teacher called Raoul Gola. He became my private teacher. In parallel, I also took music theory lessons with Julien Falk – studying fugue, counterpoint, and harmony. Both Gola and Falk were excellent teachers with an open eye to jazz. I owe Jack Diéval a lot for bringing me in touch with them. For the next four years, I was absorbed by my studies. I didn’t perform in groups or in jazz clubs – nothing of the sort. My parents supported me all the way, paying for all my expenses. This allowed me to live full board at a lodging-house.”

“For all those four years, I was a private student. I never studied at the conservatoire – although I spent one day at the Conservatoire de Paris. Julien Falk had recommended me to a piano teacher at the academy. There I was in her class, surrounded by boys who were about half my age, who performed all kinds of virtuoso exercises on the piano; I thought of myself as quite a good pianist, but I couldn’t keep up with them at all. After the lesson, the teacher asked me what my goals were. When I told her I wanted to become a professional musician, she exclaimed, “But you don’t have the required level at all!” When I explained her that I was mainly interested in playing jazz, she told me, “Well, in that case you won’t need me!” I always knew I didn’t want to be a concert pianist. At the time, the music which Gola put in front of me was quite complicated – and I loved those classical pieces, but jazz always was my passion. From that one day at the conservatoire onwards, I knew that I should forget about classical music and focus on jazz if I wanted to earn myself a living as a musician.”

“In 1953, I performed as a music professional for the first time. It was with a lady singer, Simone Alma. She sang French repertoire, but it included lots of jazz pieces which had been translated from English to French. Simone adored jazz. She didn’t perform that much – and when she performed, it wasn’t always in Paris. I became the piano-accompanist for her Parisian performances. She didn’t have a group of accompanying musicians; I was alone. Actually, I never performed as a musician in an orchestra. Why? Well, the opportunity never arose, but I don’t know if I would have been that keen. The atmosphere among jazz musicians usually wasn’t very good; people were jealous and hated each other. I didn’t like the jazz scene in Paris – and it is my impression that nothing much has changed ever since. The only time ever I performed solo as a jazz musician was around the time I met Simone Alma. I took part in a jazz piano contest and finished second – behind a young man called René Urtreger, who went on to have a fantastic career as a pianist. He even got to perform with Miles Davis.”

“Simone was always on the look-out for good new repertoire; songs which were a bit jazzy. One day she said, “Come with me to Boris Vian to see if he has got some songs for me.” Boris Vian was very much part of Paris’ literary scene and he wrote poems – but had started composing songs as well. At Boris’ house, I accompanied Simone at the piano while she was trying out songs he had in mind for her. Boris and I were immediately drawn to each other. He was a jazz man like me and we found we had a similar sense of humour. We exchanged phone numbers, and before long he called me back. By that time, Boris was performing as a singer himself with pianist Jimmy Walter, but Jimmy was also much in demand as a session musician. He wasn’t always available to work with Boris. Boris wondered if I would like to replace Jimmy now and again. After about a year, Jimmy Walter decided to focus exclusively on his studio work – and from that moment on, I became Boris’ regular piano-accompanist.” 

During a recording session with Magali Noël and Boris Vian (mid-1950s)

“In his lyrics, Boris was an anti-establishment figure through and through. Jacques Canetti, the boss of record label Philips, allowed him to do whatever he liked. The lyrics of his chansons were never discussed; and I think Canetti pretty well understood that Boris wouldn’t have tolerated any interference. You shouldn’t think of Boris Vian as a politically engaged person; he was an anarchist, and by nature all anarchists are anti-political. Not even ‘Le déserteur’ (Vian’s best-known title, in which he vehemently critisises France’s involvement in colonial warfare – BT) is about politics – it’s an anti-war song."

"When Boris did a tour de chant, this was the only song which could be problematic. One night, while we were performing in Brittany, the Mayor of Dinard took offence at the lyrics and climbed on stage to drag Boris off. For a moment, it looked as if it would turn into a brawl, because Boris clenched his fists while still continuing his performance – and he sang ‘Le déserteur’ until the last line while this angry mayor was standing threateningly close to him. It was a sorry affair and I was happy to get away unscathed from the stage. Boris was braver than me, but at some point he stopped touring altogether. He was always someone with terrible stage-fright – and because he was suffering from heart problems, his doctors dissuaded him from working on stage.”

“My involvement with Boris continued, though, because we wrote quite a lot of songs together, some of which were recorded by Boris himself. I had never written songs before getting together with Boris, but he gave me the inspiration. Most of the time, I wrote a melody first which I brought to his attention – and then he usually came up with an idea for the lyrics very quickly. You may have heard of ‘La java des bombes atomiques’, which among the songs I wrote for Boris is probably the one which is best remembered today. We were also asked by others to write chansons for them, but first and foremost we composed because we liked to – and really to have a good time. There was always something unorganised and makeshift about my collaboration with Boris – it wasn’t my kind of approach to think along commercial lines, nor was it Boris’; and perhaps it was because this wasn’t the way of thinking of that age, if I may say so.”

“At the time, I wasn’t an arranger yet – and when Boris’ songs were recorded, he worked with Claude Bolling, Jimmy Walter, or André Popp. There’s one exception though, which is the song ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’, which Boris and I wrote for Magali Noël, a great girl really and a gifted singer. It was an early attempt at rock ‘n’ roll and there wasn’t really much need to have a large orchestra backing her up; so I wrote a small arrangement as well as playing the piano. Boris himself made up part of the backing vocals on the spot, while we were already recording. It just goes to show how much we loved what we were doing.”

Goraguer released an instrumental solo record using the (female) pseudonym Laura Fontaine (1958)

“After he stopped performing, Boris became a producer at Philips – and he gave me the opportunity to record an instrumental album of American standards. It wasn’t recorded with an orchestra, but with me playing the piano backed up by bass and drums – simply a jazz trio. Boris came up with the idea of giving the record the title ‘Go-go-Goraguer’. From that time on, I was nicknamed Go-Go by many colleagues. One or two years later, I did another jazz album using the pseudonym Laura Fontaine. This was an idea which one of my friends at the Fontana record label came up with. The record company wanted to market the record as having been recorded in London by a lady-pianist – in those days, everything fashionable in music came from England. Of course, it was a marketing trick, because everything was recorded in Paris and the pianist was simply me. The record sold pretty well, until the imbecile who called himself artistic director at Fontana dropped the message in the press that Laura Fontaine was a fiction and that in reality she was a French pianist by the name of Alain Goraguer – and you know what, the record sales plummeted from that moment on. It was unfortunate to say the least.”

“By the time of Boris’ death in 1959, we didn’t really see each other very often, not because we had fallen out, but because I had become heavily involved in all kinds of studio work for Philips, which took up much of my time. The last thing I did was writing the music to the film J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (marketed in America as ‘I Spit On Your Graves’ – BT), which was based on a novel by Boris – but the film was produced without his involvement. Unfortunately it was very bad and didn’t have any success; and although Boris had told me how delighted he was with my jazzy soundtrack, he naturally was unhappy about the film itself; and in fact, at the premiere he had a heart-attack which caused his death.”

“Not counting those few rock recordings with Magali Noël, the start of my arranging career was with Serge Gainsbourg. I first got to work with him in 1958 when he had just signed his first record deal with Philips. Like with Boris Vian, I got on well with him straightaway – and we quickly became friends. For his first album, which included the song ‘Du jazz dans le ravin’, I created an atmosphere as if he was performing in a nightclub accompanied by a small combo. This surely was an innovation in terms of record arrangements in this country – adding a jazz feel to chansons. No other arranger had ever tried this. I did several more records with Serge, and the approach to the arrangements always remained more or less the same. At his request, I also composed the odd song for him.”

“When Serge was commissioned to write the music to the film L’eau à la bouche, he asked me to help. In reality, we composed the music together. Because the commission had been given to Serge, the two of us made an agreement to sign the music together as far as publishing rights were concerned, but to allow Serge to only have his name mentioned in the credits shown on screen. It was very important for Serge’s career as a film composer and, being his friend, I was happy to help him on the way. After L’eau à la bouche, we wrote the soundtracks to two more films on the same basis, but in the end we clashed. At the avant-première of our third film Strip-Tease (in 1963 – BT), Serge spoke to an audience of journalists and other professionals about his work as the film’s composer without mentioning my name – and not even crediting me for arranging or conducting the soundtrack. I was hurt. The following morning, I called him; in the end, he apologised, but I told him I had had enough. He couldn’t believe it, but I just couldn’t take being treated so disdainfully.”

Goraguer (second from left) in the recording studio surrounded by three other greats of French music - Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, and Michel Legrand (1960)

“Because there was a contractual obligation which had to be honoured, I did one more studio album with him, but from that moment on we only worked together indirectly, when he composed a song for an artist for whom I did the arrangements, like France Gall and Isabelle Aubret. Before breaking up with Serge, I advised him to consider choosing Michel Colombier as his new working partner. Colombier was a promising young pianist and arranger who was at ease as a record arranger as well as in film music – and he took my advice. For the next few years, he worked with Colombier on practically all his projects. In spite of what had happened, every time I met Serge after our break-up, it was as if we had never parted. Our friendship didn’t really suffer.”

“In 1960, Gérard Meys introduced me to Jean Ferrat. Gérard was Jean’s publisher and he invited the both of us to his office for a first meeting. Jean was a young singer-songwriter looking for an arranger. From that first encounter onwards, we got on extremely well. Probably because I was staff arranger at Philips at the time, I used the pseudonym Milton Lewis for the first record I did with Jean – because Jean was under contract with Decca! When I turned freelance some years later, those problems evaporated and I signed all subsequent arrangements using my own name. I found that Jean wrote excellent songs… ‘Nuit et brouillard’ perhaps being my favourite, although ‘Potemkine’ and ‘La montagne’ are masterpieces as well. As for my arrangements, I think I prefer ‘Raconte-moi la mer’, which isn’t among the best-known songs in Jean’s repertoire… but that is a score that could work independently as an instrumental piece as well. I’m rather proud of that one.”

“Although Jean Ferrat had a feeling for melody which was excellent, he wasn’t an accomplished musician on a technical level. He never studied music. Jean’s compositions weren’t finished products. He recorded me demos on which he accompanied himself playing the guitar, but he wasn’t able to bring about the tone shifts between the various parts of a given song. It was my job to more or less finish his compositions myself based on Jean’s template. In many of Jean’s songs, I added counter-melodies which became an integral part of the composition. Each time we started working on a new album, the two of us would meet at Gérard Meys’ office; together, we discussed what we had in mind for the songs – but there was little discussion, as Jean put complete trust in me. If I called him about some idea which hadn’t been on the table before, he just said, “You do as you want!” The recording sessions were easy; I don’t recall there was ever a problem.”

All in all, the partnership between Jean Ferrat and Alain Goraguer lasted for a staggering 35 (!) years (1960-95), in which Ferrat recorded 17 albums with Goraguer’s arrangements. Excluding some film compositions, for which Ferrat worked with other arrangers because Goraguer refused the commissions after his negative experiences with Serge Gainsbourg, the singer-songwriter always remained faithful to him. Throughout his life, Jean Ferrat made no secret of his political views, always remaining a staunch supporter of the ideals of communism. 

One of countless Jean Ferrat releases arranged and conducted by Alain Goraguer, the 1964 EP 'C'est beau la vie'

When asked if he took offence at Ferrat’s extreme standpoints, Goraguer explains, “Well, admittedly, I would say I’m on the moderate right of the political spectrum, so I never really sympathised with Jean’s opinions, but there’s one important thing which should be explained when speaking about Ferrat’s communism – he never actually joined the French Communist Party. This allowed him to remain free and independent on an artistic level."

"I remember one song of his in which he expressed heavy criticism of the leader of the party, Georges Marchais (the song is ‘Le Bilan’ from 1980, in which Ferrat denounces Marchais’ loyalty to the Soviet regime in spite of the many crimes it committed – BT). For this I respected him. Having said that, we never discussed politics. Our conversation was always about music and music alone. Character-wise, Jean was a most charming man. I respected him; and the respect was mutual. Throughout these many years of working together, personal relations between us always remained excellent. This is one of the explanations for this unique partnership between an artist and a conductor; I for one have never heard of a track record in the world of music which comes even close to ours.”

“After having worked with Vian and Gainsbourg, I never had to go looking for new commissions. The successful records with Jean Ferrat made things even easier. I wouldn’t dare to say that my work from then on bore a stamp of quality, but at least it was written by someone who had a reputation in the business. For the next 15 years or so, I wrote arrangements for dozens and dozens of artists (in fact, Serge Elhaïk’s bible of French arrangers includes an – incomplete – list of 176 (!) artists who recorded their work with Alain Goraguer’s orchestra – BT). Because I was so sought-after as an arranger, there was little time to compose my own music. In the early days, I composed a couple of songs here and there, but I had to completely stop doing that, simply because there are no more than 24 hours in a day!”

“Asking me how long it took me on average to write a song arrangement is really an impossible question to answer. Sometimes, I have the inspiration to write the chart on the spot, but on some other occasions it’s hard work finding the correct approach. Each arranger has his own way of working; mine has always been to make drafts, writing down some ideas here and there, crossing out some of those after a second look, before finding a synthesis – it’s like writing the final version of a letter after having made notes on a scrap paper to order your thoughts. It also makes a big difference if you’re working with a songwriter who brings a written score, like Michel Legrand, an accomplished musician in his own right – if you were willing to examine it  closely, the arrangement was already in it, so to speak… but in the case of many others, I had to work from demo tapes, which took more time and effort.”

Goraguer (second from left) in Studio Barclay-Hoche with (from left) sound engineer Claude Achallé, Marielle Braun (assistant manager at this Parisian recording studio), Jean Ferrat, and a second sound engineer, Philippe Omnès (mid-1970s)

“Hits? You’re asking me if I remember hit songs I arranged? Well, there must have been some successes here and there, because I wrote thousands of arrangements! Yes, I recall ‘Le métèque’ for Georges Moustaki, but that was just some strings which had to be added at the back… personally, I prefer a song like ‘Cent mille chansons’ for Frida Boccara. I adore it. I like to think that I gave it a distinct colour with a classically oriented string arrangement; but even for such a ballad, I’ve always loved adding some rhythmic elements, which perhaps is typical of my style of writing.”

“This classical cross-over approach also worked well for Nana Mouskouri. I worked with her for many years. She’s also one of the few artists with whom I also performed on stage. When the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Canada celebrated its 50th anniversary (in 1980 – BT), Nana was invited to do a programme with them. I didn’t conduct the concert, but played the piano in the orchestra. It was a wonderful occasion and we were very well received. On stage, I also worked with Adamo at the Olympia and with Jean Ferrat in the Palais des Sports. I never went on tour with any artist. It wouldn’t have been possible. The studio work was simply too important to stay away from Paris for too long.” 

“In the second half of the 1970s and beyond, I continued to work with artists like Isabelle Aubret, Nana Mouskouri, and of course with Ferrat, but by this time my main field of work had become writing film soundtracks. After J’irai cracher sur vos tombes and the films with Serge Gainsbourg, I became more and more in demand as a film composer. Producers were aware that I knew how to write film music. The fact that I had arranged music for artists in all imaginable different styles and genres helped me a lot as a film composer. Just an example… when there is a movie scene which takes place in a circus, you have to know how to write circus music. You have to be versatile and able to adapt to any given atmosphere. For a musician, working on films is definitely more interesting than arranging pop songs. As a studio arranger, your possibilities to write are limited by the lyrics and the vocal possibilities of the artist you’re working with. Film music gives you more freedom – the freedom to use an orchestra in any given way. There’s more creativity involved.”

From the late 1950s onwards, Alain Goraguer wrote the soundtracks to just under 100 films. Among the best-known titles are the comedy Perched On A Tree with Louis de Funès (1971), the crime drama The Dominici Affair with Jean Gabin (1973), and René Laloux’s animated science-fiction film Fantastic Planet (1973), which won several film prizes in France and abroad. Using his pseudonym Paul Vernon, Goraguer also wrote the music to erotic movies. In the world of television, he made his mark in the 1980s by composing the jingles and incidental music for various broadcasts, most notably the successful fitness programme Gym Tonic and the long-running German drama series Ein Heim für Tiere (ZDF). In 2006, the intro music for Gym Tonic was re-used for a TV commercial by a French telephone company – and the song was also remixed by various DJs.

Goraguer with lyricist and friend Claude Lemesle at the premiere of their musical 'Mademoiselle bonsoir' (2009)

When asked about the evolution of the studio business, Goraguer comments, “Pop music has seen an evolution which I think is sad. Electronic instruments took over the place of studio orchestras; and, even before that, opportunities to write orchestrations with a distinct character became fewer and fewer, simply because it wasn’t what producers were looking for any longer. Today, artists record their songs in home studios. Fortunately I always had my soundtracks to work on. There was never a question of being out of work. Of course I don’t take on as much workload as in the old days, but I’ve never stopped writing.”

“Recently (in 2008 – BT), I wrote the music to a film, Love Me No More, for which the director asked me because he loved my arrangement to ‘Le temps qui reste’, which was one of the last songs recorded by Serge Reggiani before he passed away. This director wanted me to write a soundtrack based on the harmonies in that song. I composed it working with my son Patrick, who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The following year, the two of us teamed up again to compose a musical based on a script which Boris Vian wrote but never managed to finish because of his untimely death. The lyrics were done by my old friend Claude Lemesle. Its title was ‘Mademoiselle bonsoir’. That was another honourable commission.”

“A project which I enjoyed working on was the album ‘Dante’ with a hiphop artist, Abd Al Malik (also in 2008 – BT). I was contacted about this project by Malik’s producer. As it turned out, he had five songs for his new album written by Gérard Jouannest, who used to be Jacques Brel’s accordionist. When we met, I was surprised to find that Malik had detailed knowledge of me and my work in the world of French chanson. At his request, I wrote the arrangements to those five pieces by Gérard. As there was a considerable budget available, I worked with a large string orchestra – and it worked wonderfully well. Everything was recorded completely live; something which is rarely ever done in the world of studio music these days. One of the titles on that album, ‘Roméo et Juliette’, was recorded as a duet between Malik and Gérard’s wife Juliette Gréco. After the recording sessions were over, Malik told me, “I dreamt of this; it was exactly what I had in mind!” 

Reflecting on his remarkable career as a studio arranger, Goraguer concludes, “I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s impossible to teach someone to write arrangements. I was never educated to arrange. Of course I studied harmony and counterpoint, which I would say are the grammar and orthography in language… in other words, a solid base from which you can work to learn your craft. From that moment on, if it turns out you’re able to write arrangements, I think of that as a gift from above. Some will never learn it, others find they have a talent for it. I’ve been fortunate enough that I possess that one gift. One time, a colleague in the business told me he had been asked by a record company to write the strings in the way that Goraguer did. When I took the time to think of those words, I realised that I could hardly think of a better compliment than that!”

With the man who stood at the cradle of his career, jazz pianist Jack Diéval (2009)


In the Eurovision Song Contest, Alain Goraguer conducted five entries for three different countries between 1965 and 1994. His debut involvement was with the song representing Luxembourg at the contest held in Naples in 1965, which won first prize and has become one of the trademark melodies in festival history; ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’. It was composed by Serge Gainsbourg and performed by 17-year-old France Gall. Not least owing to Goraguer’s striking arrangement of string and percussion, this song stood out from the crowd. When asked about this involvement, Goraguer just shrugs his shoulders. 

“Writing the arrangement to this thing did not take me long; as so often, I sat at the piano and the idea came to me within a couple of minutes. The intro I wrote was based on a classical theme, which was quite innovative – not that I was consciously writing modern arrangements… it is just a part of my character to explore new ways. Musically speaking, I try to avoid trodden paths. With hindsight, the way in which I treated the strings, but actually the entire arrangement of ‘Poupée de cire’, was somewhat revolutionary. The loud percussion gave it a lot of dynamism. It was a totally different approach than the usual Eurovision orchestrations as Franck Pourcel and others used to write them in those days. Gainsbourg had had no input in the arrangement. It was thought up by me and me alone."

"I already knew France Gall long before the contest – actually, I met her before I first met Serge Gainsbourg in 1958! She was the daughter of Robert Gall, an important songwriter and music publisher. He was one of the big beasts in the business here in France; did you know he wrote the lyrics to ‘La Mamma’ for Charles Aznavour? France Gall started recording when she was fifteen – and I was her arranger from the beginning. Because everything coming from England was deemed fashionable at the time, I signed the arrangements for her using the English pseudonym Milton Lewis. France was a fantastic girl with a heart of gold; and she was a talented singer. Working with her was always a pleasure.” 

“The rehearsals with the orchestra in Italy were fine. Especially the rhythm section did a good job. They gave us exactly what we were looking for. I don’t remember those days in Naples in detail, but I certainly wasn’t nervous to conduct the orchestra in Eurovision. I can’t remember ever being nervous in front of a group of musicians. I never took any conducting classes, but somehow I always managed without problems. It’s not that difficult actually. You require a minimum of technique – how to count in an orchestra, things like that… but from that point on, each conductor develops his own style, no matter if he works in the field of classical music or in entertainment."

France Gall during her winning Eurovision performance in Naples (1965)

"Like most of my colleagues, I began my learning process by watching other conductors at work in the recording studio. Once I started recording my own arrangements, I simply stood up and did it. Musicians have always told me that my movements and gestures are clear; there was never any problem. In fact, I’ve always loved conducting, especially when I was working with a string orchestra. When they’re playing well, a group of string players more or less becomes one musician with just one instrument; as if one person is playing it.”

“When we won the festival in Naples, Serge Gainsbourg was beside himself with joy. He had had to struggle for years for recognition in France. His first solo albums didn’t sell well at all. There were moments he was feeling desperate. Having such a major success in mainstream music on an international podium was great for him. It was the biggest triumph in his career up to that point. In those first difficult years of his career, I had been Serge’s arranger, but by the time of the contest in Naples, we hadn’t worked together regularly for some time. The Eurovision commission came my way because I was France Gall’s regular arranger. I had had my issues with Serge in the past, but in those moments of intense joy, everything from the past was forgotten. After we won it, Serge told me how happy he was that I had written the orchestration. For me personally, the 1965 contest was an important moment as well. Your name is mentioned a second time for the reprise of the song. First and foremost, it meant recognition for your work; not just in your own country, but Europe-wide recognition.”

“Commercially, it was a good moment as well, because France Gall had a big international hit with her Eurovision song. In those years, I composed some jazzy tunes for her. One of those (‘Le cœur qui jazze’ – BT) was released on the EP of ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ – and as copies were on sale across Europe, it earned me a considerable amount of revenues. I was never in the business to earn lots of money, but of course I didn’t walk away from it once it came my way. I continued to work with France Gall for some more years until she chose a different career path with songs composed by Michel Berger, which I thought were really good too. The last time I worked with her was for a children’s record entitled ‘Sacré Charlemagne’” (in 1976 – BT)

Luxembourg's winning Eurovision team proudly sporting their winner medals - Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, and Alain Goraguer

In 1966, when the contest was held in Luxembourg as a result of France Gall’s win the year before, Alain Goraguer conducted the Monegasque entry, ‘Bien plus fort’, composed by Gérard Bourgeois and Jean Max Rivière; and interpreted by Croatian songstress Tereza Kesovija, who was trying to build an international career. In a complete reversal of fortune for Goraguer, the song did not receive a single point and finished at the bottom of the scoreboard. 

“Of course, it was never a pleasant experience when a song you had worked on as an arranger and conductor did badly in the voting,” Goraguer readily admits, “but, frankly speaking, a conductor had little to lose; from personal experience, I can say that, while winning the Eurovision Song Contest had a positive impact on your career, a bad result hardly affected it at all. For a singer, this is a totally different story. Tereza sang well; the problem was her song. It didn’t suit her vocal abilities at all. Putting it mildly, I would say it doesn’t rank among the better songs written by Bourgeois and Rivière.”

In the 1966 contest, Goraguer had a second iron in the fire, given that the Swiss entry, ‘Ne vois-tu pas’, performed by Madeleine Pascal, was also arranged by him. Oddly, in the contest itself, the song wasn’t conducted by Goraguer, but by Luxembourg’s resident conductor Jean Roderes.

“Yes, that’s quite odd, because I was there to conduct the orchestra for Tereza. Did I really arrange that song? I don’t remember it, but from my mouth those words don’t count for much. In the mid-1960s, I was overburdened with arranging work; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of scores, for dozens of artists. You cannot expect me to remember all of them, can you? Probably Swiss television decided they wanted to use the home conductor in Luxembourg. Perhaps they didn’t want to pay me for conducting their entry on television? Who knows. I’m afraid I can’t solve this mystery for you.”
Croatian songstress Tereza Kesovija performing 'Bien plus fort' as Monaco's representative in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg

In the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, held in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the exact same situation occurred as two years before. Goraguer himself was present to conduct the French entry, performed by Isabelle Aubret. One of her fellow-competitors was Czech crooner Karel Gott, who represented Austria with ‘Tausend Fenster’, a song also arranged by Goraguer. This song, composed by Udo Jürgens, was recorded in Vienna, though, with the studio orchestra conducted by Robert Opratko, who also accompanied Gott on the festival stage in London. Although Goraguer himself didn’t remember this involvement, it seems logical that he was asked to work on the arrangement at the request of Udo Jürgens himself. In 1968, the year of the contest, Jürgens released a solo album co-arranged by Opratko and Goraguer. The first meeting between Goraguer and Jürgens might have taken place in Luxembourg two years previously, when the Austrian singer won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Merci chérie’.

When asked about ‘Tausend Fenster’, Austrian conductor Robert Opratko recalls, “I was asked by Udo Jürgens to conduct the song. The arrangement was ready and done – I only had to conduct it. Udo organised all of that. My contribution was just to conduct it in the studio and on the festival stage in London. It was the first time I got to work with Karel Gott, with whom I’ve remained friends all my life. It was unfortunate we finished near the bottom, but fortunately it didn’t really harm Karel’s career.”

The fact that Goraguer got to conduct the French entry is noteworthy, given that France’s conductor in the previous ten – and the following four – editions of the festival had always been Franck Pourcel, irrespective who the arranger of the song was. In London, Isabelle Aubret, who had won the 1962 contest with ‘Un premier amour’, finished third with the wonderfully understated and slightly folk-oriented ballad ‘La source’. When asked about the involvement of Goraguer as a conductor in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, Isabelle Aubret’s husband and manager Gérard Meys confirmed, “Because Alain had written the arrangements to ‘La source’, Isabelle and I wished to have him accompanying her for the contest in London as well.”

“Yes, in those days artists going to Eurovision for France were more or less obliged to work with Pourcel,” Goraguer comments. “Gérard and Isabel must really have pressed TV authorities about the matter, but I wasn’t involved in that myself. Gérard and I knew each other well due to our mutual involvement with Jean Ferrat. In parallel with Jean Ferrat, I wrote arrangements for Isabelle too. The Eurovision Song Contest wasn’t my first involvement with her. I was her regular arranger at the time – and we had a close working relationship which lasted for many years. She was a very artistic and pleasant person and, more importantly, a really good singer. ‘La source’ was brilliant in its simplicity, with great lyrics done by Henri Djian and Guy Bonnet. I decided to keep the arrangement sober, simply following the music."

"I remember the contest with Isabelle quite well. The Royal Albert Hall was a magnificent theatre. The English are very good at organising such an event. I distinctly remember one of the other delegations arriving late for their rehearsal. They arrived five minutes before the end of the rehearsing time allotted to them; and they were told that there was nothing that could be done about it. The artists apologised, but were indignant too. They tried to talk the show’s producer into giving them some extra time, but he said he could not change the schedule just for them. He was right in doing so and I really liked his attitude. In fact I recall being rather amused.”

Isabelle Aubret rehearsing her performance of 'La source' on the Eurovision stage in London's Royal Albert Hall with Alain Goraguer (in light blazer, left from middle) conducting the orchestra

“I didn’t really try to meet other participants in the contest. Usually, at such an event, you simply stuck with your own delegation. I remember being really happy with the performance of the English musicians. As you would expect from the English, they had assembled a fine orchestra. When we came third, Isabelle was bitterly disappointed. Because she had won the contest before and as she was a true winner by character, she was reduced to tears after the voting.”

Goraguer also penned the score to the French entry the following year, Frida Boccara’s Eurovision winner ‘Un jour, un enfant’ (1969), but this time he had to cede his place to the perennial Franck Pourcel. Even all those years later, Goraguer cannot hide his irritation when talking about Pourcel’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest. 

“The truth is this; artists, who represented France, were obliged to have Pourcel as their conductor in those years. It was French television which wanted it that way. People in the business weren’t happy with Pourcel – and when I say ‘people in the business’, that includes myself. For the Eurovision Song Contest, he took the original orchestration which was written by me or another studio arranger, changed two or three notes and signed his name under it, claiming the arrangement as his. While my personal relationship with him was quite good, I thought his behaviour was shocking and scandalous. No, I never told him. It would have served no purpose, because he didn’t care what others thought of him. The man knew exactly what he was doing. It was very cynical, because it was only about money."

"‘Un jour, un enfant’ is a prime example. For the studio version, I wrote an arrangement of rhythm and strings only, in a style reminiscent of Frida’s hit ‘Cent mille chansons’. Then Franck Pourcel came along and added some brass elements. It was ridiculous, because these didn’t fit the song at all. Having made that tiny adaptation, he was paid all the money for the television performance; and I received nothing! I for one would have loved to do Eurovision with Frida Boccara, who was one of the artists I liked most on a personal level. The first time I worked with her, she invited me over to her place to discuss the songs and the arrangements. With her entire family, who were Jews from Northern Africa, she lived in two apartments in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. Her mother and all the others were extremely friendly. The atmosphere there was wonderful. I feel privileged having worked with Frida for some years; she was a great singer.”

Frida Boccara performing her Eurovision winner 'Un jour, un enfant' on the festival stage in Madrid (1969)

With ‘Un jour, un enfant’, Goraguer had his second involvement in a Eurovision win, though the events left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. Perhaps Pourcel did take notice, though, because for the 1970 and 1972 French entries, ‘Marie Blanche’ by Guy Bonnet and ‘Comé-comédie’ by Betty Mars, both arranged by Alain Goraguer again, he seems to have left the original arrangement unchanged. Goraguer also had a hand in the Belgian entry in 1970, ‘Viens l’oublier’, which was performed by Jean Vallée – and conducted by RTB’s musical director at the time, Jack Say.

“Jean Vallée was a great artist,” Goraguer comments. “He sang really well. Betty Mars is another artist who I would have loved to go to Eurovision with. I also arranged her first hit, ‘Monsieur l’étranger’. Her songwriter was Frédéric Botton, a guy who wrote a lot of music – I recorded dozens of his compositions. The outstanding memory I have of Betty is that she behaved like a tomboy; and that her entourage was a bit on the wild side. She was a really beautiful girl with a remarkable voice. It’s sad that she died so young.”

Excluding his involvement as an arranger and conductor in the 1976 French Eurovision pre-selection with Isabelle Aubret and ‘Je te connais déjà’ (composed for her by Jean Ferrat), Alain Goraguer’s next participation in the festival came in 1978, when the contest was held in Paris and he conducted the French entry, a somewhat pompous ballad, ‘Il y aura toujours des violons’, performed by Joël Prévost. The song managed to pick up 119 points and finished third in a field of 20 competing entries. 

“Joël was quite a talented guy,” Goraguer recalls. “Unfortunately, he never really used his talent to the full. Having a tendency to be overconfident, he usually prepared his performances in a way which I thought was a bit amateurish. He could have had a better career. Having said that, we were happy to finish third; it was a good result.”

“My outstanding memory of the contest in Paris is how chaotic the organisation was. The contests abroad which I took part in, were always organised to perfection. In Paris, even the orchestra (led by French television’s musical director François Rauber – BT) wasn’t very good. It also struck me how little respect was shown to the participants. There was an air of disinterest over the contest. As a conductor, I was left to my own devices. I wasn’t really surprised, because people in France have no respect whatsoever for conductors. I did studio sessions in England with Nana Mouskouri and in Belgium with Adamo. In Germany, I recorded music for television series. In Canada, where I performed with Nana Mouskouri, I was treated with the same amount of respect as Nana herself. When I came down the airplane ladder, people started asking me for autographs. They were able to name a whole range of records I had worked on. Wherever you go, be it in Europe or in America, they know who you are – but once you arrive home in France, you go back to being a nobody.”

In 1981, Alain Goraguer conducted two songs in the French Eurovision pre-selection; ‘Les yeux fermés’, a chanson composed by none other than Jean Ferrat and interpreted by Evelyne Geller; and ‘Voilà comment je t’aime’, penned by Eddy Marnay and Michel Jourdan, interpreted by Frida Boccara, but neither of these songs came close to winning the ticket to the international contest, which was awarded to Tahitian singer Jean Gabilou.

Thirteen years later, at the age of 62, Goraguer made a surprise return to the Eurovision Song Contest when he orchestrated and conducted the French entry in the 1994 festival held in Dublin, ‘Je suis un vrai garçon’. This unusual effort was composed by Bruno Maman and interpreted by Nina Morato. In Dublin, Morato finished seventh in a field of 25 competitors. 

When asked how he became involved in a song of which both the composer and the performer are of a much younger generation, Goraguer explains, “Bruno Maman is about as old as my son Patrick. They were friends from their early childhood and both became professional musicians. In the 1990s, they worked together very often. Nina Morato was a mutual friend of theirs. Patrick gave Bruno the idea of asking me to write the strings to his song, which by then had been selected for Eurovision by French TV.”

Nina Morato representing France at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin with 'Je suis un vrai garçon'

“I thought the song itself was rigolo, very funny. I liked the fact that it was impossible to put a label on it. Nina’s choice of clothes and stage performance were special as well. Unfortunately, she was perhaps a bit too crazy to have a good career, but it was undeniable that she had talent. The same could be said of Bruno Maman. Years later, I arranged two solo albums of his (in 2005 and 2008 – BT), but they didn’t sell well at all, which I thought was a real pity. They deserved more attention than they actually got.”

"In Ireland, I wasn't really involved in the contest, apart from conducting the rehearsals and the concert. By character, I'm not that interested in socialising anyway, but in Dublin I simply didn’t have the the time to come along with the others even if I had wanted to. Apart from the hotel where we were staying, I saw nothing of the city. Two weeks after the contest, I was due to record a new studio album with Jean Ferrat with poems by Aragon (‘Ferrat 95’, incidentally also Jean Ferrat’s last album – BT). When I left for Dublin, the orchestrations weren't ready yet. I couldn’t afford interrupting my work on them for a whole week. The deadline was too sharp for that. I spent every possible moment in Ireland in my hotel room, writing scores. I was brought to the auditorium by taxi to conduct the rehearsals with the orchestra, did my job there, and got back into the taxi as fast as I could to be rushed back to the hotel. Of course the orchestra was fine, so there was never an issue."

"I do remember the broadcast, with Ireland winning with a simple, beautiful song by two guys with a piano and a guitar (Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’ – BT). It was a brilliant piece of music – very artistic and intricate yet straightforward at the same time. The Irish have a way of writing those excellent ballads, because they won with equally beautiful songs in the two years before, didn’t they? Unfortunately, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed since those days. It doesn’t even resemble the event in which I took part in my time. I don’t think beautiful ballads like that could win the contest nowadays.” 


So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists who worked with Alain Goraguer.

With Jean Ferrat (1994)


Country – Luxembourg
Song title – "Poupée de cire, poupée de son"
Rendition – France Gall
Lyrics – Serge Gainsbourg
Composition – Serge Gainsbourg
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Alain Goraguer
Score – 1st place (32 votes)

Country – Switzerland
Song title – "Ne vois-tu pas"
Rendition – Madeleine Pascal
Lyrics – Roland Schweizer
Composition – Pierre Brenner
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Jean Roderes (MD)
Score – 6th place (12 votes)

Country – Monaco
Song title – "Bien plus fort"
Rendition – Tereza Kesovija
Lyrics – Jean Max Rivière
Composition – Gérard Bourgeois
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Alain Goraguer
Score – 17th place (0 votes)

Country – Austria
Song title – “Tausend Fenster”
Rendition – Karel Gott
Lyrics – Walter Brandin
Composition – Udo Jürgen Bockelmann (Udo Jürgens)
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Robert Opratko)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Robert Opratko
Score – 13th place (2 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "La source"
Rendition – Isabelle Aubret 
Lyrics – Guy Bonnet / Henri Djian
Composition – Daniel Faure
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Alain Goraguer
Score – 3rd place (20 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "Un jour, un enfant"
Rendition – Frida Boccara
Lyrics – Eddie Marnay
Composition – Emile Stern
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer / Franck Pourcel
Conductor – Franck Pourcel
Score – 1st place (18 votes)

Country – Belgium
Song title – "Viens l’oublier"
Rendition – Jean Vallée 
Lyrics – Jean Vallée
Composition – Jean Vallée
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Jack Say 
Score – 8th place (5 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "Marie Blanche"
Rendition – Guy Bonnet
Lyrics – Pierre-André Dousset
Composition – Guy Bonnet
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Franck Pourcel
Score – 4th place (8 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "Comé-comédie"
Rendition – Betty Mars 
Lyrics – Frédéric Botton
Composition – Frédéric Botton
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Franck Pourcel
Score – 11th place (81 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "Il y aura toujours des violons"
Rendition – Joël Prévost 
Lyrics – Didier Barbelivien
Composition – Gérard Stern
Studio arrangement – Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Alain Goraguer
Score – 3rd place (119 votes)

Country – France
Song title – "Je suis un vrai garçon"
Rendition – Nina Morato 
Lyrics – Nina Morato
Composition – Bruno Maman
Studio arrangement – Bruno Maman / Jam’Ba (= Jean M'Ba) / Alain Goraguer
(studio orchestra conducted by Alain Goraguer)
Live orchestration – Alain Goraguer
Conductor – Alain Goraguer
Score – 7th place (74 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed Alain Goraguer in Paris, August 2011; the interview as published above is a new, rewritten version from 2023
  • Serge Elhaïk did an interview with Alain Goraguer as well for his magnificent and highly recommended book "Les arrangeurs de la chanson française", ed. Textuel: Paris 2018, pg. 963-976
  • Thanks to Robert Opratko for his additional comments
  • An impression of Alain Goraguer's music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube playlist
  • Photos courtesy of Alain Goraguer & Ferry van der Zant
  • Thanks to Mark Coupar for proofreading the manuscript

LEV ZEMLINSKI (Лев Земли́нский)

The following article is an overview of the career of Russian pianist, composer, and arranger Lev Zemlinski (Лев Земли́нский). The main source of information is an interview with Mr Langslet, conducted by Bas Tukker in April 2021. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Lev Zemlinski's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2021

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Lev Zemlinski
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: March 8th, 1958, Moscow, Russia (Soviet Union)
Nationality: Russian

Lev Ilyich Zemlinski (Лев Ильич Земли́нский) was the songwriter, arranger, and conductor for Russia’s first-ever Eurovision entry, ‘Vechni strannik’. Performed by Youddiph (stage name of Maria ‘Masha’ Katz), this song finished 9th in a field of 25 competitors in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.


Born in Moscow in 1958, Lev Zemlinski is the son of a father from the Ukrainian Black Sea coast and a mother who grew up in the countryside in the heart of Russia. Both of his parents were well educated. “My father was an engineer, who had earned a Ph.D. in electronics. He worked for the army, but I never found out exactly what his job was! He was born in Odessa, but when he was 8 years old, the Germans invaded Ukraine and the family escaped on the last ship to Russia. My grandfather was an engineer too, so my dad followed in his footsteps."

"If my father’s family gave me my brains, mother gave me a strong will to achieve something in life. She ended up being a doctor of medicine, which was a miracle really because her grandfather had been branded an enemy of the people in the days of Stalin. He was a Christian priest in a small village – and, by the way, he also was Georgi Zhukov’s first teacher! In 1930, he was arrested and shot in the Solovki Prison Camp. As family members of someone deemed a traitor by Stalin’s regime, his children were barred from getting a proper education. Somehow, my mother managed to hide her origins and embarked on a medical study in 1953, the last year of Stalin’s life.”

“Even though neither of my parents were musicians, they were both very talented in this respect. My father had studied the cello at Odessa’s music school as a child for a short while before the war broke out. He played the balalaika, and very well too! Mother was quite a good guitarist. Every time friends came to visit, folk tunes were being sung. It’s fair to say that music was an integral part of our household. When I entered primary school at the age of seven, my parents wanted me to study music as well, but after my sense of rhythm had been tested, I was refused. Teachers said I had no good ear! The following year, I finally got in and I studied the piano until I was twelve. The lessons were exclusively classical, however, and extremely boring. After finishing primary school, I just wanted to forget about the piano. Perhaps I could have been a good classical musician, who knows, but in order to achieve that, the learning process shouldn’t be interrupted. Once I gave up on it, you could say I was lost to that world.”

Lev’s parents Silva and Ilya

“As a teenager, I was progressively drawn to rock ‘n’ roll. At first, this type of music was forbidden in the USSR. Slowly, however, records from the West trickled in. They were brought back mostly by diplomats who travelled abroad. Their children taped them. Those tapes were exchanged on an underground market. At some point, a radio DJ started playing The Beatles – and slowly, their music became some sort of acceptable. I remember the first recording from the West I could lay my hands on. It wasn’t even a vinyl, but a blue film attached to the last page of a magazine with a printed record of four Beatles songs; ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Da’, ‘Girl’, and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’."

"In the early 1970s, the first Russian rock bands appeared on the scene; most notably Time Machine and Resurrection. Just like practically all the boys of my age, I wanted to play the guitar. I actually put together my first guitar myself. I played it in school bands. By the time we were 16, 17, we were much in awe of hard rock from the West, Deep Purple and Nazareth. That type of music was unacceptable to communist authorities. It was very hard to come by their records.”

After completing his secondary education, Lev enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Telecommunication, studying electronic engineering (1975-80). “I would have preferred studying music, but my family was strictly against a career in music. My parents reckoned I wasn’t talented enough to make it. To me, studying engineering at the Radio and TV Faculty of the Institute of Telecommunication was the second-best choice. It was the way to satisfy my parents and stay near the world of music at the same time. I thought about becoming a professional sound engineer for television. As a student, I was taught how to record large orchestras for television broadcasts. I studied the equipment as well as the recording process itself.”

The aspiring musician, early 1980s

“During my student days, I spent many evenings at the recreation centre of the Moscow Institute of Physics. In Soviet days, every factory, scientific institute, school, etcetera, had its own recreation centre where employees or students could relax, attend performances, or follow courses. The recreation centre of the Institute of Physics was the only place in Moscow, and probably in the whole of the Soviet Union, where jazz music was being taught and where musicians who were interested in jazz music gathered. It was a nucleus of musicians and aspiring musicians. We called it the Experimental Jazz Studio and it really was a small island of freedom in the sea of Soviet musical totalitarianism. At this recreation centre, I followed various courses. I was also the pianist of a four-piece bebop ensemble. This was the time when jazz rock was the talk of the town in the West. We were heavily influenced by the group Weather Report – and later also by Chick Corea, of course. I was never exclusively a jazz man, though… my interests were always in between rock-‘n’-roll and jazz.”

“At some point, I began to play as a pianist in several bands, accompanying pop artists. I obtained an official certificate from Russia’s state concert organisation, allowing me to get a certain rate for each gig. That was great, but by that time I also wanted to become a student at an official music college. There was a college in Moscow which had a part-time jazz piano course which lasted five years, but only people who had a fixed job as a musician were allowed to enrol. I did some performances here and there, but I didn’t have an official appointment. The easiest way was to find a job vacancy at a recreation centre of some factory. There were opportunities to work there for musicians, choreographers, and other creative people.”

“After some time, a fellow student told me there was an institution on the far side of Moscow who were looking for a bandleader. After an initial telephone call I was invited over to sign a contract with the manager. The job interview was very pleasant. He offered me a contract to teach and lead two music groups. As I was about to leave, he suddenly asked, “Do you actually know what kind of an institution we are?” I actually couldn’t care less, as long as the job would help me get into the music academy. “Just look through that window,” he laughed. There, I saw a small courtyard where people all wearing the same grey suits were walking about… this was a prison! I got myself a job in a prison! The prisoners had a blues band, while the guards’ ensemble played pop music. It was an interesting experience, but I didn’t stay longer than strictly necessary. After about half a year, I had enough references to enter the academy.”

On a state concert tour somewhere in the USSR (1987)

While studying jazz piano at the Moscow Music College (1979-84), Lev Zemlinski obtained his engineering diploma. Subsequently, he worked as a technical specialist with Russian State Television for three years (1980-83). 

“Due to my obligations as a student at the music academy during daytime, I worked mostly during night hours. Now, the Soviet Union was a big country with 8 time zones. At midnight in Moscow, the TV programme for the Far Eastern areas began – and for that reason, technicians had to be on hand 24/7, even when there wasn’t much to do. The Ostankino Television Tower also had a channel to Western European countries, allowing us to clandestinely watch a film broadcast in England or France; and even entertainment shows! I remember watching the Eurovision Song Contest long before the Iron Curtain came down. Eventually, along with my fellow-technicians, I had collected an illegal library of large 2,5" video tapes, all from the West, just for our own entertainment during those nightly hours!”

“As an engineer, I had to work on all kinds of different programmes, including music programmes of course. I remember one particular instance of the International Tchaikovsky Competition for young and aspiring pianists. In the end, the jury awarded two first prizes, one to a Russian and one to an American pianist. The American gave a spectacular rendition of Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’. The question, who would be allowed to play last? Because whoever plays last is the real winner. While the programme was interrupted by a news block, we saw the Russian coming on stage first, which meant that the American guy would be allowed to finish the programme. This was a matter of national pride! The director took an immediate decision; he ordered me to make an edit in which the American musician played first and the Russian last. As a dutiful employee, I did what my superior asked of me – and I made an edit in which the order of appearance was reversed... and I was paid money for this!”

Alongside his work in television and his jazz studies, Zemlinski worked as a pianist and keyboard player with various groups and solo artists in and around Moscow. In 1983, he decided to give up his engineering job to become a professional musician. 

With a colleague discussing a keyboard part (c. 1988)

“It was a natural development. I was asked by more and more artists to work with them. Once I got rid of my job at the Ostankino Tower, I could join them on tours further away from Moscow as well. There was a state concert system, which sent popular artists and their accompanying musicians to all corners of the country; Central Asia, Kamchatka, and even abroad, to some other socialist countries like Poland and Mongolia. It was certainly interesting to do so much travelling. I saw many of the Soviet Union’s biggest venues, because I worked with some really talented and popular artists, such as Yuri Loza, Xenia Georgiadi, and Olga Zarubina. I started out as a keyboard player, but thanks to my background in the academy, it wasn’t long before I was asked to write arrangements to new song material as well. I had never learnt how to write arrangements, but this type of work can be learned from practice. It wasn’t just live gigs; I also worked in the studio with many of the artists I accompanied on stage.”

“By 1989-90, the whole state concert system had collapsed. This was the time when the Soviet Union started falling apart. I must say I have quite good memories of those years, because I had just married, but all the same, all certainties in our life fell away one after the other. We had to get up very early in the morning to go to the supermarket – there were heavy food shortages in Moscow and people had to stand in line for simple products such as milk. In the music business, some interesting developments were going on, as independent producers started to appear, allowing for a more adventurous approach to music. In general, though, the level of popular music in Russia came crashing down. The going got tough, but I was never out of work.”

“In 1991, while the world around us was crumbling, I received an offer from a Russian producer to join a 5-piece band accompanying a Russian-type circus show in America. This was the time when Cirque du Soleil was beginning to enjoy considerable international success – and other producers were looking to create something similar. This Russian guy had connections with America and got us the gig. After coming over to Maryland for a month of rehearsals, we were taken by bus all the way to Dallas in Texas, where we worked for some weeks, before eventually coming to Broadway in New York. There, we performed for about a month at the Gershwin Theatre.”

The Blues League’s lead singer Nikolai Arutyunov on top of Lev’s piano (1989)

“The musicians I played with were excellent professionals. Because of the lack of work in Russia at the time, this producer had managed to pick the best musicians in the country for his show. Liza Minnelli came to visit and some other famous people, but the show wasn’t really successful. The problem was that the music had been composed by an American jazz drummer who had little rapport with circus (Bobby Previte – BT). After the production came to an end, it was tempting to stay in America to try my luck there, but the music world in New York was very competitive. On top of this, coming to a Western country for the first time was a real culture shock, so I decided to come back to Moscow, where I had a certain reputation as a musician and more opportunities perhaps. In the USA, I was a perfect nobody.”

“Back in Russia, I decided I needed some more theoretical knowledge. Working with the circus show on Broadway had made me think about writing instrumental music. I was particularly eager to try my hand at film composing. I took lessons privately with a professor at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, Leonid Bobylev, a good classical composer in his own right. I studied composition with him for about a year or two. There is really no such discipline as composition. He just gave me tasks, “Write ten pieces in the style of Chopin,” for example. Writing those pieces and discussing them with him helped me a lot. Throughout the 1980s, I had been thinking of composing, but I didn’t really know where to start. Bobylev taught me to stop thinking as a piano player exclusively; writing music means you have to take into account all different instruments.”

“Meanwhile, I made a living as a studio musician, playing keyboards and writing arrangements for different artists; Yuri Loza, Valeri Obodzinski, and quite a few others. I also worked with an excellent musician called Nikolai Arutyunov and his band, the Blues League (Лига Блюза in Russian – BT), performing with them on stage and co-producing their records. Their material was very interesting; a mix of traditional American blues and original songs written by Nikolai himself. The band enjoyed some success, though rather discreetly in the background. The group was a learning school for several young musicians and singers over the years. I had a little background in blues music myself, but it’s fair to say that I didn’t learn how it should be done properly until working with Nikolai. I stayed with the Blues League for two years. The early 1990s were an interesting time. The Yeltsin years in Russia were a bit chaotic, but in spite of all the troubles we had many possibilities that we don’t have nowadays. Let me just say that the country was more open than it is today.”

Zemlinski pictured in 1994

“While I was still studying with Bobylev, I was offered to join Russkaya Troika, a big video and computer graphics company, as a staff composer. My job was mainly to write background music for television commercials. This was never a conscious career move on my part, but just a way to earn an income. Advertisement isn’t an easy business to work in. Most of the clients aren’t very well educated in music and find it hard to explain what kind of composition they want from you. The result is you often end up creating several versions of a jingle, never knowing in advance which sound will satisfy them. After some years with Russkaya Troika, I went freelance, creating my own studio for advertisement music, but I can fortunately say that I stopped working in that corner of the music business long ago. In the 1990s, when there wasn’t that much work available in Russia, I wrote instrumental music for an American stock library, Flying Hands.”

“Also in the early 1990s, I was contacted by circus director and choreographer Valentin Gneushev, whom I had worked with on the Moscow Circus Show on Broadway. He was in the process of creating a new show for the Russian market and he didn’t want to work with that jazz drummer from America again. When he started thinking about the music, I was the first person he turned to. For the first show I composed, I wrote a short arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, done entirely with electronic instruments. Within a short time, composing circus music became one of my professional activities – and it has remained that way ever since.”

“In 1997, I started working with the Russian State Circus Company. Two years later, one of their choreographers, Susanna Rayanova, was hired by a Dutch producer team, Willem and Ilja Smitt. They were looking to create a modern show with Russian circus artists (marketed in the Netherlands as ‘Groot Russisch Staatscircus’ – BT), again following the trend which had been set by Cirque du Soleil. Following Susanna to the Netherlands, I created the music for the entire show and led an 8-piece combo of Russian musicians hand-picked by myself in Moscow. The show we put together was contemporary and attractive. The theme song of the show was interpreted by a Dutch singer, Nelly de la Rosa, who did an excellent job at it. Apart from Holland, we also performed the show in Belgium, Germany, and in Luxembourg where we enjoyed particular success. After that first show, which lasted for two years, we did a second one which lasted for another year. In all, it was a good experience.”

With his wife Olga (2000)

From 2003 onwards, Zemlinski has worked as a composer for the Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, alternatively known as the Nikulin Circus, the most popular circus theatre in Moscow. “When I started writing circus music, I worked mostly with synthesisers, but the Nikulin Circus have their own permanent big band orchestra. They were looking for someone who could write orchestral scores for them. It’s nice to work with a big band, but writing for such a set-up can be challenging. Here, my experience as a jazz musician and pop music arranger has come in useful. Writing music for circus shows requires a special mindset from a composer. A director invites you to the rehearsals to witness the choreography he has created for a certain act, expecting you to create a story in music around it. Some directors just say, “What do you feel when you watch this? Follow your emotions and express them in music!” Fortunately, most of them are able to give instructions which are a little more specific, but this type of work still requires a lot of imagination.”

In 2004, parts of an avantgarde show created by the Nikulin Circus, Demiurge, all with music composed by Lev Zemlinski, were submitted to the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, where they were awarded with third prize. Meanwhile, away from the world of theatrical music, Zemlinski continued his affiliation with pop music, writing the orchestrations for a concert tour by the popular teenager artist Alsou (2003), while, some years before, he had also been invited by classical conductor Yevgeni Svetlanov to take care of the arrangements for the so-called Schlagers of the 20th Century Christmas Symphonic Concerts with vocalists Larisa Dolina and Alexander Gradski.

In 2004, a completely new challenge came Zemlinski’s way when he met Alexander Tatarski (1950-2007), a director of animation films who ran his own studio, Pilot. Commissioned by Tatarski, Zemlinski worked on several animation series, most notably Gora samotsvetov (Pile Of Gems)

Conducting a rehearsal of the Nikulin Circus theatre orchestra – with the orchestra’s chief conductor Petr Dranovski behind him keeping a watchful eye (2017)

“I was lucky to meet Tatarski," Zemlinski comments. "He was a very interesting director. The way our partnership started was rather unusual. When I left him a CD of my work for the Nikulin Circus, I had little hope that he would listen to it. Producers receive piles of CDs from aspiring musicians. The following day, however, he called me back, telling me that he wanted to work with me. I couldn’t believe my ears. As it turned out, Tatarski was childhood friends with Yuri Nikulin’s son Maxim. As he told me, as soon as his eye met the description of the CD and saw that magic word ‘Nikulin’, I was in! Sometimes, you need a bit of luck to succeed in life, don’t you?”

“Sadly, Alexander passed away just a couple of years after we met, but we still managed to make a big bunch of short animations together in the Pile Of Gems series, which was Alexander’s brainchild. It’s a series of animations dedicated to folk tales of different tribes and people living across Russia and the former Soviet Union; Eskimos, Hutsuls, Russian Koreans, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve worked on dozens of episodes, working with different directors – and the series is still running today. The most attractive part of working on Pile Of Gems is the joy of immersing myself in folk traditions of all those different peoples, incorporating elements of their music into the films. Every episode is a completely separate entity, a short film standing on its own – so I don’t make use of a sound library of musical elements recurring in every episode. For each film, I have to start from scratch.”

Over the years, the ‘Pile of Gems’ animation series has enjoyed popularity with youthful audiences as well as meeting critical acclaim, being awarded with two Golden Eagles, Russia’s most important cinematographic award. Meanwhile, Zemlinski has built up an impressive reputation in composing for animated films, including Multirossija and, from 2010 onwards, Fiksiki (The Fixies). In Fiksiki, technical aspects of human life are explained to children.

Lev (squatting, front right) with the whole production team of the popular Russian animation series ‘Fiksiki’

“For example, they explain how a car works, but in a playful way,” Zemlinski explains. “Given the high pace at which those animation films are usually produced, the way a composer is required to work on the music is slightly different than with a regular movie film soundtrack. Whereas, for a feature film, a soundtrack composer is usually given the final edit, I often have to write the music for animations based on animatics, sketch versions. Working with a sequence of images, you have to acquire a feeling of the tempo and the emotions which a director wants to bring across. On the other hand, you have more freedom. The director asks you to compose a song for each character based on images of them – and then the animations are created flowing from the music. Still, it’s not always easy, because there’s always a risk that you don’t understand exactly what a director is looking for.”

In 2007, Zemlinski had the opportunity to write the soundtrack for a full-length feature film in the so-called slasher genre, an American-Russian co-production, Trackman / Putevoy obhodchik. “The film was released in the United States by Columbia Pictures, but didn’t meet with much success. Funnily enough, some 10 years later, I received a telephone call from New York. It was the production assistant of a black comedy series, telling me they wanted to use one of the songs from that soundtrack."

"When composing Trackman, the American producers had asked me to include a scary children’s song in it. In one day, I wrote a piece, simply entitled ‘Lullaby’. My young daughter recorded the vocals, I gave it to the production team, and forgot about it. Given that the film had flopped, I wondered how the creators of this comedy series had found my song. When I asked, the voice on the other end of the line fell silent for a moment. “Don’t you know? That song has a million views on YouTube!” As it turned out, American youngsters had put the tune online. There were some funny remarks in the comments section, claiming that it was a folk song that all Russian parents sing to their children. At first, I didn’t know what to think of this. To me, it was a little element in a film I wasn’t particularly satisfied with. I never imagined that song would have a life of its own afterwards. It just goes to show that you can never tell in advance what will catch on with audiences, and what will not.”

Shooting a video clip of his own music in Cuba (2018)

“For the last 20 years, I’ve been doing the type of work I like most; writing instrumental music. The Nikulin Circus still is amongst my clients. Over the years, they’ve tried working with other composers, but they always returned to me. Last year (in 2020 – BT), when their regular conductor Petr Dranovski suddenly passed away, they even proposed that I take over the musical directorship of their big band, but I don’t want to do that. Being the chief conductor of a 15-piece theatre orchestra also involves a lot of organisational work; finding new musicians, making sure they receive their salaries on time, et cetera. I know how to do this, but I would regret spending less time on composing new music."

"I like sitting in my studio, writing a tune, and then recording it with good performers – though I usually record most of the instruments myself; piano, guitars, bass, even some flutes. For many of my film projects, I have to work with tight budgets but, even though using samples saves time and money, I prefer live instruments. Apart from the satisfaction of playing them myself, real instruments always give a recording more depth and nuance.”

When asked if he is satisfied with the career he has had as a musician so far, Zemlinski smiles ironically. “Well, of course I’m not satisfied... I’m never satisfied. I’m always looking for new possibilities, new challenges. A career always depends largely on where you live, and when. Obviously, I would love to have the opportunity to work in America and write soundtracks to Hollywood films. The possibilities to make it as a Russian composer in such a competitive environment are limited, however. Besides, I wouldn’t like the idea of moving away from Russia. I don’t live in Moscow, but in a garden community of former Soviet-time summer houses just a stone’s throw away from the city. I can see Moscow from the top window of my house. There is a forest within walking distance. I love the life I’m living here with my family. Moreover, I consider myself lucky being able to work with local Russian directors who give me the freedom to express myself as a creative person, because these guys know what I can do. Naturally, my career could have been better, but I don’t have regrets. That’s life!”

At work in his own recording studio (2019)


With six other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, Russia made its Eurovision debut in 1994. The first Russian entry, ‘Vechni strannik’ by Youddiph (stage name for Masha Katz), was composed and arranged by Lev Zemlinski. At the international festival final in Dublin, ‘Vechni strannik’ – a firm favourite with Eurovision followers at the time – picked up 70 votes, finishing 9th in a field of 25 competitors. Zemlinski, 36 years old at the time, conducted the Eurovision orchestra himself. Lev remembers his first and only Eurovision participation in detail.

“It all started back in 1993. A lady singer, who wasn’t very well-known in Russia, asked me to compose some songs for her. She had already found a company, TAU Productions, which agreed to pay for the recording. There was no talk of Eurovision yet; I didn’t even know the Russian broadcaster wanted to take part in the competition. I was studying composition, mainly with the aim to write instrumental music for film, but I was interested in pop music as well. At the time, I worked as a studio arranger for some Russian artists."

"When this singer requested me to write her some pop songs, I thought it was an interesting project. The Russian pop music at the time wasn’t to my liking, but I was given carte blanche. So why not? I was keen to transfer my songwriting ideas to a studio recording; and, first and foremost, I wanted to make music that I could listen to with pleasure myself! As I like epic ballads, I first wrote a song in that style, ‘Magic Word’, with English lyrics written by myself. In the following days, I composed some more songs – we were in the process of perhaps creating an album. After recording some of the pieces, however, the girl singer pulled out! I had to find another vocalist.”

“In those years, I worked extensively with a Russian band called the Blues League and their lead singer Nikolai Arutyunov. If you wanted to learn to play the blues, you had to work with Nikolai – and his group was some sort of school for young musicians who wanted to learn to play the blues. That was why I had joined Nikolai’s band in the first place! In the band, there were usually two or three girls providing background vocals in our concerts. I asked advice from my friend Andrei Shatunovski – an excellent drummer who later joined Alla Pugachova’s band – and after some discussion, we settled on two candidates."

"The first girl, however, just wanted to record her own compositions – and then I turned to Masha. Masha was pretty young, but she sang well. Her style of singing was derived from country music. She had a teacher who taught her some vocal techniques used by American country singers. Masha decided to give it a try and so we set out recording those songs, one by one, the first one being ‘We Can Be Friends’. To my mind, this was the song which she sang best. Naturally, given her inexperience, she sometimes had a hard time during the sessions, but she was willing to learn.”

Youddiph (Masha Katz), in 1994

“When we had recorded all the songs, one of the managers of TAU Productions unexpectedly gave me a call. He told me that Russia would participate in Eurovision and that RTR (Russia’s state broadcaster – BT) were looking for songs for a national final. I was astonished. I remember I had just reached the conclusion that Masha’s versions were good enough to start thinking about releasing an album. I had never thought about entering a competition, let alone Eurovision! The manager put a small budget at our disposal for the Eurovision project. It was an opportunity. There was not much for us to lose. I decided I wanted to submit ‘Magic Word’ but, following the rules of Eurovision, we had to create lyrics in our native language. In just one night, Masha herself translated my lyrics into Russian; and she did a really good job on that. That’s how ‘Magic Word’ became ‘Vechni strannik’, which, in English, means, ‘Eternal Wanderer’. We submitted a cassette – yes, a cassette… it is that long ago! – to the TV editor who was responsible for the Eurovision programme. The following day, we received the news that we had been admitted to the final.”

“When I first saw the list of the other participants, I realised that we were the only entry fit to be sent to Dublin. Any other choice would either have been a disgrace to our country – the leavened patriotism of Vyka Tsyganova, the failed strip act of Alisa Mon, or the pathological group Nogu Svelo – or simply incomprehensible to foreign ears – Andrei Misin, with his thoughtful lyrics about Russia, and the band Megapolis really good guys who I like personally, but they aren’t musically sensitive enough. At least, that’s what I felt."

"One thing I am sure of, however, is that this is perhaps the only time that the Russian Eurovision entry was chosen in a way which was completely fair. There was a professional jury with some really good musicians in it; the composer Yuri Saulsky, for example. We didn’t pay them anything to cast their votes for us. We were also helped by the circumstance that no really popular singer took part in the final. From behind-the-scenes conversations, I found out that some of our so-called pop stars had been offered to go to Eurovision for Russia, but all had refused. Their reasons can only be guessed at. It was only when RTR couldn’t find a high-profile artist that the decision had been taken to have an open selection.”

“As I said, having heard the other entrants, I believed we had the best song on the night… but, given that there is no justice in our human world, I couldn’t be completely sure! Fortunately, the jury voted for us and we won. To myself and Masha, it was quite something! This Russian final was a real hype and we were sure to get lots of press attention as a result. Backstage, in Masha’s dressing room, we uncorked a bottle of champagne, pouring the liquid into plastic cups."

"Suddenly, the door opened and the television producers and a large part of their crew entered the room. They were all looking very depressed. One of them stepped forward and said, “Alright, you won, but now you must somehow find the money to take us all to Dublin!” As it turned out, they had been hoping for Vika Tsyganova or Nogu Svelo to win. They told us the Cossacks (Tsyganova had Cossack forbears on her mother’s side of the family – BT) had promised to pay an amount of 50,000 dollars if Vika won, while Nogu Svelo bandmembers had good connections in the world of television.”

Single release of ‘Magic Word’, the original English studio version of ‘Vechni strannik’

“At first, I was shocked. These people were angry we hadn’t promised them anything in case of a win. In fact, in the following days, I started looking for sponsors, but then I gave up on that, realising that Masha and I would go anyway. “Let them look after themselves,” I thought. In the end, Sergei Krylov (a pop singer and showman, who had watched Masha win the Russian final on television and was impressed by her performance) found some people willing to pay for the expenses of an extended delegation of Russian television tourists to go to Eurovision.”

“Meanwhile, I had other issues to worry about. The song urgently needed an orchestration – contrary to the usual practice in most other countries, our national final had taken place without orchestral accompaniment. The main reason why I was keen to participate in the pre-selection in Moscow when the opportunity arose was the prospect of working with a full orchestra. I think I was one of the few people in Russia who knew what kind of programme the Eurovision Song Contest really was. Back in the early 1980s, I worked as an engineer at the Ostankino Television Tower. Much of our work hours took place during the night, because technicians had to be on hand when broadcasts went out to the time zones in the Far East of the Soviet Union. The tower had a channel to Western European countries, allowing us to clandestinely watch a film broadcast in England or France; and even entertainment shows. I remember watching the Eurovision Song Contest long before the Iron Curtain came down. Eventually, along with my fellow-technicians, I had collected an illegal library of large 2,5" video tapes, all from the West, just for our own entertainment during those nightly hours!”

“Already when watching those Eurovision editions in the early 1980s, I found the orchestra the most interesting part of the show. The level of the songs in the competition varied, but the orchestras always sounded good. As an engineer, I had to work on recordings with big television orchestras regularly back then, which was why I took an interest from a professional viewpoint but, more importantly, I liked listening to such entertainment orchestras. At the time, I couldn’t imagine I would take part in this contest one day!"

"Once I won the Russian final, I started thinking back over my impressions when watching Eurovision in the 1980s. When choosing the song we wanted to submit for the Russian final, I had picked ‘Magic Word’ as the composition with the biggest potential in an orchestral setup. Given my memories of Eurovision being a family show with ‘decent’ orchestral performances, the song needed to be reworked dramatically. The studio version was more rock-‘n’-roll oriented. A rhythm and blues approach wouldn’t have worked in Eurovision, though – and putting electric guitars with amplifiers live on stage wasn’t a good idea either. It would have been impossible to get the sound balance right. Furthermore, the song had to be abridged to fit in with the 3-minute rule of the Eurovision Song Contest, although I had no idea how strictly it would be applied in Dublin.”

“Of course there was the option of using a backing track, but I didn’t want to do that. When using backing tracks, you very often lose the vibe of a performance. When working with the Russian circus orchestra in the USA in 1990, we were expected to play along to a backing track, but in the end I and the other musicians simply refused. With a backing track, our drummer had to follow a click, but a real performance never follows this steady click exactly; and besides, why would you need a pre-recorded track when there is an orchestra? The Eurovision Song Contest was to take place in Dublin and, knowing the level of musicianship on the British Isles, I was sure it was going to be a fine orchestra. At the same time, though I was quite experienced as a studio arranger, I hadn’t written a lot for large orchestral setups yet. I was kind of nervous about the orchestration, but I wanted to test my abilities as an arranger.”

Photo taken during the shooting of the video clip of ‘Vechni strannik’

“In order to create the best possible sound, I consulted a symphonic conductor. He was a friend of relatives of mine. He gave me advice on how best to achieve those big brass chords that create a wall of sound. As well as the orchestra, I wanted to have two acoustic guitarists playing live on stage. The first I chose was Igor Khomich, who played in the Blues League, and the second was a very young classical guitar student called Vadim Chebanov. Later onwards in his career, he specialised in modern instrumental music played in classical style. A great musician really!"

"Once the orchestration was ready, there was no way of testing it in Russia. I didn’t have an orchestra at my disposal. As best I could, I rehearsed with Igor, Vadim, and Masha. She wasn’t always easy to work with. After winning the Russian final, she found it hard to put her talent as a singer in the correct perspective – let’s put it that way. One thing I was sure of; I was going to conduct the orchestra in Dublin myself. I wasn’t a trained conductor in any way, but conducting a pop song has nothing to do with the abilities needed to guide an orchestra through a classical symphony. If you have a good drummer, he makes sure you play the correct tempo. All that remains to be done is giving the cues to the various musicians. I was confident I could do that without too much trouble.”

“At last, we were on the plane to Ireland. Our following consisted of three or four newspaper journalists and about 25 to 30 television officials. Some of them were accredited as translators, which was bizarre. I doubt if they spoke a word of English. Once we arrived in Dublin, most of them rushed into the city-centre to go shopping. Some of them I only saw again when travelling back to Moscow. On our way to Dublin, there was a little problem. When we made a stopover in London, it turned out English authorities demanded a transit visa from us, which we didn’t have. Somehow, the problem was settled and we were allowed to complete our journey.”

“While most of the others set out to do some sightseeing in Dublin, I stayed in the hotel with the two guitarists. The first rehearsal was to happen on the day after our arrival. After having hastily swallowed our Irish breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, Vadim and Igor withdrew into one of their rooms to practice, while I sat down in my room, diligently studying every detail of the score. As mentioned, this was the first time the arrangement was going to be played. Though I already had a computer at the time, I had done the arrangement with pencil and paper. Having arrived in Dublin, I wanted to be 100 percent sure that there wasn’t some little mistake left in the transcription for the various instruments. Once that was done, my last nerves subsided. I knew that I had written a good orchestration. I was ready for this.”

“Each country was given two rehearsals, then there was a general run-through with an audience in the auditorium, and lastly the live broadcast on Saturday. Each of the rehearsals lasted 45 minutes exactly, of which the first 15 minutes cannot be used to play, but just for instructions. In the remaining half hour, if you are lucky, you can play the song 3 times and give some comments to the musicians in between. At the first rehearsal, I was introduced to the musicians by the musical director (Noel Kelehan – BT). For some reason, he gave the impression of being nervous – for what reason, I don’t know, because I assume he must have been a talented man to be given the lead of such an orchestra. When looking at the orchestra, it was plainly obvious the musicians were exhausted. It was 4 pm and they had started rehearsing at 9 am. In one day, twelve countries rehearsed their songs, and we were among the last. The string players were sipping tea from thermo flasks. They were hardly able to move their bows. Only the rhythm group were playing well. The rest of them were half asleep.”

Another image of Masha (Youddiph) in the video clip of her Eurovision entry

“Under these conditions, I got the first rehearsal underway. After some first instructions, I counted them in, 1-2-3-4, but they didn’t start playing! Fortunately, as an engineering student, I had taught myself to speak English, otherwise it would have been very hard to understand what was going on here. One of the musicians explained me that they were used to be counted in 1-2 and then 1-2-3-4. No problem of course, but I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to get this misunderstanding out of the way without the common ground of the English language."

"The following year, when Eurovision took place in Dublin once more, Philip Kirkorov represented Russia. He took a very good Belarusian conductor with him, Mikhail Finberg, but Finberg doesn’t speak English, I suppose. In the broadcast, I noticed that Kirkorov was singing a bar behind the orchestra in the first verse – and the orchestra didn’t play very well. It may have been down to the fact that Finberg puzzled the musicians by using the Russian method of counting in the orchestra. It’s important to get this type of thing out of the way in rehearsals.”

“Honestly speaking, our first rehearsal was a disaster from start to finish. The string and brass parts sounded awful. Then, there was the practical problem that Masha and the two guitarists were 50 metres away from me on the central stage. In between them and me was a large television camera, obstructing my view of the stage and vice versa. Now, in the orchestration, Vadim and Igor had to play from the first bar, starting simultaneously with the drummer and percussionist in the orchestra. I had to bow down underneath the camera, using one hand for the guitarists on stage and the other for the rhythm players in the orchestra, in order for all four of them to see me giving the signal.”

“Due to these circumstances, Masha had a nervous breakdown. She was standing there with her microphone on stage, while I was trying to manage all those little issues. She started yelling, and loudly so. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t count in the orchestra just like that – kind of logical when taking into account her youth and inexperience. I had performed in rock festivals in Russia with an audience of 25,000 people. She had never been on such a big stage before. While she was freaking out, the orchestral players looked at me in bewilderment. I just pretended that this kind of behaviour is part and parcel of every rehearsal on the Russian music scene.”

“In spite of all that had gone wrong in those 45 minutes, I wasn’t even that dissatisfied. The main thing was that there were no mistakes in the score, although I needed to speed up the orchestra a little bit to stay within the maximum of 3 minutes. As it turned out, even one second over would result in disqualification! I knew that the orchestra would be in a better condition for the second rehearsal, which was scheduled early in the morning, two days later. Irish television, unlike ours, was very well organised. There was even an assistant with a walkie-talkie who accompanied me from my dressing room to the conductor’s platform for each rehearsal and finally for the live show as well. Each time, he showed me exactly where to stand and when to start. All rehearsals were recorded. Afterwards, you were taken to a room backstage to be shown the video. There were some officials making notes of our comments on the sound and the images.”

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person in the room. It turned out that part of our delegation had managed to free themselves from the temptations of all shops and bars in downtown Dublin and had actually come down to attend the rehearsal. Sitting among them in that small viewing room, for some reason I felt as if I was at a Komsomol (the Soviet Union’s Communist Youth League – BT) meeting, about to be heavily criticised for something I had done which wasn’t in line with state ideology; and, as it turned out, that was exactly what happened. With long faces, expressing the fullness of their responsibility, they spoke to each other over my head, “The arrangement is hopeless – what are we going to do now?” I decided not to answer any of their comments. I knew they wouldn’t want to listen to my explanations anyway; there was no point in talking to them. What was more, I found out our rehearsal had been broadcast to Russia, where a team of eminent composers had expressed serious criticism. After that first rehearsal, I was bluntly ignored by the Russian TV crew. They simply pretended I no longer existed.”

Masha Katz showcasing the dress designed for her by Pavel Kaplevich – in her act, she made references to Gustav Klimt’s renowned painting of the biblical figure Judith

“The following day, Masha and the crew of Russian television representatives went on an excursion to the Irish countryside. Vadim, Igor, and I weren’t even invited to come along. The morning after, at our second rehearsal, I found the orchestra fresh, just as I had been expecting. In fact, they played brilliantly – and, with some effort from me and them, also avoided crossing the 3-minute deadline. Given how good the orchestra sounded, all of a sudden the Russian representatives in the auditorium cheered up. Afterwards, they all commented to me how good my arrangement really was. The Head of Delegation even gave me a smile and the others made it known by their behaviour that I was no longer an outcast.”

“Now finally able to relax a bit, I took the opportunity to discover what Dublin was like. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, near Trinity College. There were students everywhere. On a bridge over the River Liffey, there was a quote of James Joyce – and I enjoyed standing there, feeling the sea breeze on my face. The city had its own unique charm and atmosphere – and I was enjoying myself. I fell in love with Dublin and its inhabitants. There were receptions at local clubs and pubs every night. Now, you have to know that I like Irish music very much. Many bars had a discotheque on the top floor, but on the ground floor you could enjoy folk musicians playing their tunes; and it was so nice sitting down among the locals, enjoying listening to those excellent musicians.”

“Among the Russian journalists, there was just one who spoke English. One of the others was a girl who worked for MK, one of the biggest newspapers in Russia. During receptions and parties, she dragged me everywhere to translate on her behalf – and because there were parties every night, I couldn’t get rid of her. One evening, I was dutifully translating her questions while she interviewed a local screenwriter. Suddenly, this guy said he could introduce us to Bono of U2 if we wanted. Apparently, Bono was in a bar nearby – and he knew him privately. So we went to this bar and there he was… Bono. In the pub, there was a family atmosphere, with children running around and cakes with candles on the tables. This was a private party! To me, it was obvious this wasn’t the right moment to approach him. I tried to leave, but this Russian girl grabbed the screenwriter and me, inevitably dragging us to the barstool where Bono was seated.”

“After we had been introduced to him, the girl started firing offensive questions at him. “Do you know that your music isn’t very popular in Russia?” His facial expression betrayed how bored he was by this woman. After a couple more questions, he just asked her, “Would you care for a drink?” She said, “Yes, I’d like a martini!” Stretching out his hand at the bar immediately, he had a martini in his hand – from where, I don’t have a clue. Anyhow, he just gave her the martini and turned his back on us. The interview was over! With the greatest difficulty, I managed to explain to her that Bono was no longer willing to talk. She refused to believe it. It had just been plain stupidity on her part to offend him. He had been polite enough to talk to us – and in other circumstances, I could perhaps have had an interesting conversation with him, but apparently it wasn’t to be.”

“Back in the auditorium, I had the opportunity to sit in on the rehearsals of some of the other countries as well. Some used backing tracks, but the majority worked completely live. I liked the Irish song which went on to win the competition. It was minimalistic, just very charming. The songwriter (Brendan Graham – BT) was chief of the Musicians’ Union of Ireland. I had a chat with him sometime during the week. Apart from the Irish song, here were some other good entries as well; Hungary and Poland spring to mind. I was pleased to note that delegates from some other countries looked at us as serious rivals for first place.”

Masha Katz flanked by her then-husband Oleg backstage at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin

“On the night of the live broadcast, I wasn’t nervous. I was focused and that helped me a lot in getting the best from the orchestra. One distinct memory is the moment when I turned to the audience to take a bow. This audience was different from the Eurovision audience today. I just saw black and white. Black costumes, white blouses, and lights from jewels on the ladies’ evening gowns. It was an impressive sight… and it took a long time before the applause died out. The assistant who had accompanied me to my place in front of the orchestra made frantic gestures, indicating that I was supposed to start the music without any delay, but I wanted the audience to quiet down first. Remember, the drummer and the percussionist in the orchestra and my two guitarists far away on the main stage had to start at the same time! I wanted to make sure that Vadim and Igor were focused on me rather than on the audience applauding them. In such a situation, mistakes can happen very easily… but fortunately not in our case.” (that year’s Bosnian entrant Dejan Lazarević was not so lucky – due to audience applauding him loudly and lengthily, he failed to hear the orchestra playing the first bars of his song, resulting in him joining in late – BT)

“I was satisfied with the performance. I’m convinced that I did what I could, but not everything depended on me. There were sound engineers, orchestral musicians, and of course Masha. In the end, she managed the situation well and did a very good job. The intricate dress and the act around it weren’t her idea. In fact, we had hired an artistic director, Valentin Gneushev – the same guy who I had worked with on Broadway some years before – and he invited a designer (Pavel Kaplevich – BT) to create a dress. Valentin worked on the act with Masha and the result wasn’t bad. Somehow, I would have liked something more from Masha’s performance, but I cannot clearly explain what. Perhaps I would have wanted another singer? But then, maybe I should have written a better song? In all, taking into account that Russia took part in Eurovision for the first time, I think we made quite a good impression.”

“Honestly speaking, I had expected a little more in the voting than a 9th place. I knew we wouldn’t win, but I was quite sure we would at least come 4th or 5th. Things were a little prejudiced by political voting here and there; for instance, Poland gave Russia 10 votes, I guess because my surname sounds Polish. The casting of votes certainly wasn’t completely objective, but I can’t say I feel much grief about this. It was a show, it was supposed to be fun. After the broadcast, musicians from the orchestra came to me to compliment me on my style of conducting. They said that I managed to give the orchestra a good sound. That was very complimentary, because it isn’t that easy with so little rehearsal time. Musicians have to feel they like a conductor. You must inspire the musicians to do well for you personally.”

“When coming back to Russia, it turned out many people had watched the contest. In the newspapers, some pop stars gave bad comments. Alla Pugachova felt we had done badly, but some other respected figures were much more positive. Masha’s album with my English songs didn’t sell that well. On the other hand, that one Eurovision song, which meanwhile has been largely forgotten by the general public in Russia, was covered by artists in various European countries. It didn’t bring me that much; just a couple of 1000 dollars. With that money, I bought myself a new computer! Strikingly, Youddiph’s version of the song was and still is popular among Eurovision fans throughout Europe. It’s funny to note how many good comments the video of ‘Vechni strannik’ on YouTube is still getting.”

“Taking part in Eurovision gave Masha’s career some impetus in Russia, although she never really became a nationally popular figure. She has been working on the club stage, while making a living as a vocal teacher simultaneously. I never worked with her again after Eurovision, simply because I didn’t have that many aspirations on the Russian pop stage any longer. My ambition was to write instrumental music – and that’s what I have been doing since, basically."

Lev Zemlinski on the conductor’s platform at Dublin’s Point Theatre, 1994 (photo by Valeri Plotnikov)

"By the way, one funny anecdote related to this story is about my father. Ever since my teenage years, he had frowned upon me becoming a musician. After I left my job at Russian television in the early 1980s to become a band musician with pop artists, he kept on asking me when I would start a real profession. The day after Eurovision, however, the chief at his work asked him if the man who had been conducting the Russian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest was his son – and my father confirmed that I was. That was the moment when he finally believed I was a real musician!”

“The Eurovision Song Contest was the first time in my life I conducted an orchestra on stage. In that sense, it was an important moment; and a good experience to work with a fine orchestra and to have my work performed to a European audience. In the following years, I regularly conducted big orchestras in Moscow, but only in rehearsals. I wrote arrangements for symphonic concerts with pop artists like Larisa Dolina, Alexander Gradski, and Alsou. To see if the arrangements sounded right, I conducted the rehearsals myself, but the staff conductor always took over for the concert. I prefer to stay in the background and write music. The Nikulin Circus once asked me to become the conductor of their theatre orchestra, but I turned them down.”

“I never made an attempt to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest again. It was a certain stage of my career which I passed – and there was little point in doing it a second time. It’s in my character to want to go further and have new experiences. A second point is the method of choosing a Eurovision entry here in Russia. After that first participation in 1994, we never had a fair selection process again. I’m pretty sure we were the first and last to win the ticket to Eurovision for this country without paying a generous sum of money to Russian television.”

“Furthermore, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed profoundly since the time I took part – the main point being that there no longer is an orchestra. As a result, I really lost interest. It’s a pity that we have all those freaks taking part in Eurovision these days. It has become a competition of stage designers and directors, rather than of good music. I’m not saying that my song is the best Russian entry ever, but it’s certainly among the best. All the drivel that we have sent to Europe in the last twenty years… I remember being shocked at how bad Mumiy Troll’s song in Eurovision was (in 2001 – BT), but I have to admit that there have been many entries since which were much, much worse. If you love listening to this kind of music, you perhaps have to wonder if everything is alright with you.”

“Eurovision is still popular with a certain kind of audience here in Russia; people who don’t have much fun in their ordinary life and want to watch the familiar faces of Russian showbiz on the international stage. Politically, the contest is of secondary importance in this country. Politicians will only take an interest if Russia wins. My overriding emotion is how sad it is that Europe has more or less lost its tradition of pop music; the tradition of The Beatles, ABBA, and others. The Internet has changed the music industry completely. Good pop music, music that I like, still exists, but you have to look for it carefully in some obscure corners and outposts.”

Masha Katz (Youddiph) during her Eurovision performance


So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists who worked with Lev Zemlinski.


Country – Russia
Song title – “Vechni strannik (Вечный странник)”
Rendition – Youddiph (Masha Katz)
Lyrics – Piligrim (Masha Katz)
Composition – Lev Zemlinski
Studio arrangement – Lev Zemlinski
Live orchestration – Lev Zemlinski
Conductor – Lev Zemlinski
Score – 9th place (70 votes)

  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Lev Zemlinski, April 2021
  • A playlist of Lev Zemlinski’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link
  • Photos courtesy of Lev Zemlinski and Ferry van der Zant
  • Thanks to Lily Beatrice Cooper and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript