Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published November 15, 2022

Mention the words “Berlin cabaret” and most people will imagine the sleazy M.C. and decadent all-girl band from the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. Film buffs will conjure up the image of Marlene Dietrich tormenting a mild-mannered elderly gentleman with her sexually charged “Falling in Love Again” in the movie The Blue Angel.

While neither image is totally inaccurate, each is a mere snapshot of Berlin’s famous Kabaretts. They were born with the twentieth century and died with the rise of Hitler, as the Nazi regime took control of popular entertainment. Some were places where intellectuals could gather to have serious discussions, while others were dives where both the drinks and the entertainers were for sale. Their stages hosted sophisticated literary parody and sentimental celebrations of bourgeois life; sharp left-wing political satire and rabble-rousing right-wing nationalism; naked dancing girls and hotbeds of gay liberation. Their fads lasted a few months or a few years, and drew on a wide range of talents, including some of Germany’s finest writers and actors. Tonight’s show celebrates the artists who contributed to Berlin’s Weimar cabaret scene, where the songs were direct and anything but genteel. Their concerns still hit close to home.

The popularity of cabaret entertainment reflected the new, fast pace of city life. Fragmentation began to replace the overarching organization of the nineteenth century’s great novels and five-act dramas. Collage made its way into the vocabulary of visual artists, as did montage in the new art of cinema. Audiences began to want to see shows that mirrored their restless city. As early as the final years of the nineteenth century, variety shows were becoming so popular that they were driving dramatic theaters out of business.

1920s Berlin was the inevitable place for the flourishing of Kabarett. It was a city long known for its wildness. Disdaining Prussia’s traditional conservatism, it now became a hub for “everything that was new, young, daring, different,” in Hans Heinsheimer’s words. And it was a fast-growing city, whose population had doubled since the turn of the century. Berlin had its own style of humor, “Berliner Witz,” a subversive, slightly rude, confrontational manner not unlike the sass of New York City.

As the cynical and the sublime vied for the cabaret audience, Germany was undergoing an unprecedented period of economic tumult precipitated by severe inflation. Prices were so high, and money so worthless, that at one point people had to pile their bills into wheelbarrows to go shopping. When economic stability was temporarily restored in 1923, Berliners celebrated with an era of wild excess. But Berlin was not just a city of nightclubs. It joined Paris as a trend-setting European metropolis in all the arts, home to musical legends like Klemperer, Piatagorsky, Horowitz, Serkin, Arrau, and Menuhin.

The party was in full swing for about six years, from 1923 to 1929, when the American stock market crash signaled a distant but audible “last call.” The Great Depression soon hit Germany, and by 1932, 7.5 million were unemployed. The grim outcome of that widespread destitution is all too well known.

Berlin was a city ruled by the fleeting appeal of fashion. This was especially true in its cabarets, where a performer could have a meteoric rise one day, only to descend into obscurity in a matter of months. But the best artists endured. Kurt Tucholsky, Friedrich Hollaender, and Mischa Spoliansky were among the classiest writers in the ephemeral world of Berlin’s nightclubs. Sharp observers of Berlin’s social and political scene, they captured the jerky, tawdry glamor of Berlin with irresistible tunes and brilliant lyrics.

Tonight’s spotlight falls most directly on Tucholsky and Hollaender, two of Berlin’s giants. Hollaender enjoyed the longer career, one that spanned from the early days of the Weimar Republic to the Space Age. His father was an operetta composer, one of his uncles the director of the Berlin Conservatory, and another uncle a drama critic who went on to work with the legendary director Max Reinhardt. Young Friedrich studied with Engelbert Humperdinck, composer of Hänsel und Gretel. His early cultural education turned into artistic gold: a repertoire of verbally deft, musically irresistible cabaret songs for which he wrote both music and words, capturing the politics and social trends of his time. Though rather uniform in structure—usually three strophes of verse and refrain—his tunes are instant earworms, his wit is at the level of the greatest twentieth century lyricists, and his political satire knows no limits. When Hitler came to power and Hollaender had to emigrate to America, he continued his career in Hollywood. Since he had grown up with an English nanny, his American movie songs (like “Black Market”) are as verbally dazzling as the ones he wrote for Berlin cabarets.

It would be easy to think of Hollaender’s German cabaret songs as throw-away material long past their use-by date. And it is true that they rarely have the melodic richness of the Great American Songbook—they are driven by their lyrics rather than their tunes. But Hollaender applied himself to these topical songs with great seriousness. Of his creative process, he wrote:

That is the secret of the cabaret: the aphoristic novel, the burst of a short-lived drama, the two-minute song of our times, the sweetness of love, the heartbeat of unemployment, the bewilderment of politics, the standard-issue uniform of cheap amusement. All without the drain of five acts, three volumes, a thousand kilos of psychology—in the form of a pill, which might be bitter…

The laws inherent to this compressed form demand not only the rapid effect of the arresting word and the quickly understood gesture, they call imperiously for music that is provocative, short, revealing, essential; in its rhythms and coloring, in its melody and drama, the music must explode in a lightning flash and can permit itself no time to develop and build…its mood must be present in the first beats.

Hollaender’s colleague Kurt Tucholsky was an artist of a different stamp: a prolific essayist, journalist, poet, novelist, and lyricist. The ravages of World War I made Tucholsky a committed pacifist, a writer who attempted to “stem the irresistible tide of war with his typewriter,” in the words of a contemporary. He clung to his idealism, holding out for a reconciliation of the irreconcilable German parties and classes. Tucholsky’s essays and lyrics are marked by a genius for social satire as well as a rare understanding of human vulnerability. He was one of the first to write about the looming menace of Nazism; small wonder that his books were among the earliest to be banned by the Third Reich. And he wrote about women with astounding perceptiveness. Berlin’s cabarets boasted many female stars, while all the major writers were male. Of them, it was Tucholsky who best captured the inner life of women, as you will hear in songs like “That,” “Song of Indifference,” and “Sie, zu ihm.” 

After years of being suppressed, Tucholsky ultimately attained the status of a hero. His essays and poems are now widely read among today’s younger Germans, and his psychological insight has stood the test of time.

The career of Russian-born Mischa Spoliansky may not have reached the exalted heights of his colleagues Hollaender and Tucholsky—for one thing, he was not the sole creator of his songs, which were largely written in collaboration with other lyricists (most notably Marcellus Schiffer). But there’s no denying that Spoliansky left a significant legacy. He wrote the first gay liberation song, “Das Lila-Lied,” in 1920, which NYFOS featured in a recent concert called PROTEST; and a song he wrote for a 1935 British movie called Sanders of the River, filmed in Nigeria, was later taken up by Congolese fisherman as they paddled through remote tributaries. Spoliansky himself was neither gay, nor had he ever traveled to Africa. Yet his music possessed the kind of authenticity that his listeners recognized and took to their hearts. And he brought a bracing vitality to the subject of sexuality and gender, as you’ll hear in “The Special Girlfriend” and “Maskulinum-Femininum.”

“Bracing vitality” is not a term I usually associate with Hanns Eisler, a student of Arnold Schoenberg. He rose to his greatest prominence when Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill became estranged in the early 1930s. Brecht chose Eisler as his next musical partner, a collaboration that lasted to the end of Brecht’s life. Both men were committed Marxists; their political like-mindedness cemented their artistic bond. While Eisler was trained in Schoenberg’s school of twelve-tone music—the fashion of the day—he also wanted to write strong, straightforward music to energize the working class. He called these songs Kampflieder—songs of struggle—and they brought him an enormous following in the late 1920s. He was associated with the German Workers-Singers Union, a group that had 400,000 members, and his songs and choruses incited a visceral response from them—to the dismay of Schoenberg and his academic colleagues.

Eisler’s hard-line, unyielding politics could take the form of hard-line, unyielding music. He’s probably the most serious composer in the history of popular song. But in the pacifist anthem “Der Graben,” written to a poem by Kurt Tucholsky, and “Friedenslied,” written with Brecht, his music takes flight. Here, here seems to be writing from his heart, not just from his head. I had not intended to feature Eisler in a free-wheeling playlist focused on social satire and sexual freedom. Yet it is Eisler’s sober voice that confronts the urgent concerns we face today—senseless wars, power-hungry narcissists, creeping Fascism—and also offers a prayer for peace.

It was tonight’s least well-known composer, in fact, who sparked the idea for the concert: the Berlin pianist and music-director Olaf Bienert, whose music I first encountered over 40 years ago when I accompanied the cabaret singer Martha Schlamme. In the mid-1970s she was approached by the translator and director Louis Golden about an off-Broadway production called Tickles by Tucholsky, a revue featuring several composers’ settings of the great German writer’s verses. When I went to see it, I had the feeling that Golden was trying to ride the wave of a previous, wildly successful, revue, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Alas, the Tucholsky show didn’t fly—the material lacked the thrilling punch of Brel’s showstoppers, and the “tickles” were few and far between. Still, there were some magnificent songs—and the best of them were composed by Bienert, who had died just ten years before Tickles saw the light of day.

Martha didn’t appear in the show, but she incorporated several of its songs into her permanent repertoire; she also corresponded with Bienert’s son, Christian. Years later, in 2019, I included a few Bienert songs in a show I did at Juilliard. A friend of Christian’s heard about our show and contacted him; excitedly, Christian called the NYFOS office, searching for me; and soon we were connected by telephone. (He was still at the same number as the one rubber-stamped at the bottom of the decades-old sheet music.) Christian was a man of tremendous good humor and infectious energy. He spoke a vigorous, slightly broken English and endeared himself to me in the first 10 seconds of our acquaintance. He promised to send me some of his father’s songs, most of which remain unpublished. In a few weeks a package arrived with the Xeroxed manuscripts, along with copies of his letters to and from Martha. I dissolved in tears when I read Martha’s loving words about me, written in the late 1970s.

It is a tribute to Kurt Tucholsky that 20 years after his death he was able to attract composers as disparate as Hanns Eisler and Olaf Bienert. In truth, neither of them had much of a passion for the writer. Eisler, the strident communist, disdained Tucholsky as a bourgeois intellectual; Bienert, a Conservative and a regular contributor to an anti-Communist radio show called Die Insulaner, was pro-American. Both musicians wrote their Tucholsky songs at the request of the artists with whom they worked. Eisler’s 40 settings were mostly created for the actor Ernst Busch, while Bienert’s were for a variety of female stars including Kate Kühl, who had gotten her start in the Weimar era cabarets. Through Eisler’s music we meet Tucholsky, the uncompromising freedom-fighter; through Bienert’s, the keen observer of sexual mores. Other post-war composers were drawn to Tuchosky’s verses, including the prolific Rolf Alexander Wilhelm. Besides his hundreds of German radio plays, television shows, movies, and commercials, he created jazz-tinged settings of Tucholsky poems, among them the delicate, bluesy “Sie, zu ihm.”

In 1930 the Nazi Party won 107 seats in the Reichstag, dramatically increasing its representation from 12 and making it the second-largest party represented in the German Congress. Three years later, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. With the exception of Olaf Bienert, whose wartime activities remain shrouded in mystery, and Rolf Alexander Wilhelm, who was drafted into Hitler’s Luftwaffe while still a teenager, every artist on tonight’s program became an enemy of the state. Most of them were Jewish, and all of them were outspoken anti-Fascists. They were forced to scramble for their lives. Hedi Schoop, Hollaender’s wife, recalled it this way to Jeremy Lawrence: “Were we called left wing? I don’t think so. No, we weren’t. We were just for justice—you know, to protect the innocent and the ones that are hurt. It’s unbelievable to think that we had to flee, to go away. We went to England because they threatened us. And I got letters: they are going to cut off my ears for some reason. But it’s scary: you don’t know if they cut off the whole head or what.”

The Hollaenders, mistakenly thinking that the coast was clear, returned from London to Berlin only to be told that their lives were in immediate danger, and they fled once again. After packing a few things, they found a cab driver to help them get away. “That was the scariest thing in my life,” Schoop told Lawrence. “Because they stopped us and I know they would have taken Hollaender anyway and me probably too. I didn’t even think of myself. I covered him with coats and they looked in and they went to the other side and I had to open the window and he was there and they looked there and they didn’t see him. If I would meet that driver, I would give him anything he wants. I mean he really saved our lives. I don’t know who he was. He didn’t say anything.  He just drove us to the station. And then finally we arrived in Paris, and we knew we were safe.”

Hollaender went on to a brilliant career in Hollywood, where he received four Academy Award nominations and continued writing songs for Marlene Dietrich. Spoliansky settled in London and, like Hollaender, enjoyed a successful second career composing movie scores. Both lived to a ripe old age, secure in the knowledge that they had made their mark in the world.        

Others were less lucky. Brecht and Eisler found an uneasy refuge in Los Angeles, until the House Un-American Activities Committee booted them out of the country in the mid-1950s. Austrian-born Rudolph Nelson, one of Berlin’s leading lights in cabaret (represented tonight by his song “Long Live Equality”) fled to Amsterdam, where he was soon interned in a Dutch concentration camp. Released at the war’s end, he returned to Berlin to revive his career. Richard Fall and Fritz Löhner-Beda were also interned, but they did not survive their years in concentration camps. Both were murdered in captivity before the war was over.

Tucholsky never lived to see the Second World War. Left-wing cabaret, agitprop theater, pacifist journalism, and Communist demonstrations all proved useless against the rise of Hitler. Tucholsky emigrated to Sweden. In 1935, unable to obtain Swedish citizenship and already overwhelmed by the early ravages of the Nazi era, he decided he’d seen enough. He took an overdose of sleeping pills that ended his life. Tucholsky’s tombstone quotes Goethe’s Faust: “All that passes is but a parable.”

I imagine that almost all of these composers and lyricists would be surprised and delighted to learn that their satirical songs, written for Berlin nightclubs and theaters almost 100 ago, had found a new home in a Manhattan concert hall. They might also be dismayed that today’s political battles are all too similar to the ones they faced. Certainly they would be glad that their knife remains as sharp as the day that it was created. “Cabaret that fails to take pleasure in the attack, that lacks the taste for battle, is not fit to live,” wrote Friedrich Hollaender.

A final word: these songs remain “fit to live” because of the scholars, the historians, and especially the translators who have brought them into the contemporary era. Lewis Golden, Corinne Jacker, Mark Campbell, Daniel Kahn, and Eric Bentley have supplied beautiful English adaptations that honor the German originals. But we owe a special debt of gratitude to two men. The first is Alan Lareau, a scholar of this repertoire and indeed of the Weimar era. It turns out that he must have been the “friend in Oshkosh” who helped connect Christian Bienert to me. Al’s deep knowledge of tonight’s composers and lyricists was an invaluable resource not just to us, but also to the second of tonight’s heroes, the writer and performer Jeremy Lawrence. Jeremy’s understanding of this material and his dexterity as a lyricist were a beacon for all of us onstage tonight, guiding us into port. His generosity is matched only by his devilish wit. From all of us, a deep bow of thanks to both of these men.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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