– by CMSCVA Artistic Director James Wilson
I draw inspiration for concert programming from a lot of sources – concerts, recordings, books, film, TV and news sources. A famous film, Bob Fosse’s 1972 screen adaptation of the musical “Cabaret”, inspired tonight’s concert in our “Revolutionary and Banned” Festival.
There are a lot of things I love about this movie. It’s amazingly stylish and yet touching. The music is fabulous of course, and Joel Grey as the Emcee is a force of nature and irresistibly chilling. I also love the ways it tells the story of Weimar Berlin’s brilliance, tolerance, and decadence all standing bravely in the face of rising Nazi-ism, but finally crumbling and vanishing. The opening shot of the movie is a reflection a mirror of the cabaret where we see a colorful scene of people laughing and having a great time on the town. The closing shot is the same mirror, but the cabaret audience is quiet and grave, the colors are muted and the scene is peppered with Swastika-clad officers.
Classical music during this inter-war period of history has a similar story, and this is what I try to tell in tonight’s concert. Four cabaret songs, starting with one that extols the virtues of love and passion and ending with one mocking Hitler, frame a trio of classical pieces written in these heady and turbulent years. The wonderful mezzo Tracy Cowart acts as the Emcee and Rieko Aizawa as her back up band.
Friedrich Hollaender’s song “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Lieber eingestellt” opens the program. Most listeners will recognize it from the famous German movie “The Blue Angel” in which the astonishing Marlene Dietrich sings it dressed in undergarments and top hat, backed by a beer swilling girl band. The literal translation of the Germany is more risqué than the “Falling in Love Again” title most Americans know it by: “I am from head to toe energized for love”…enough said.
The Waltz from Korngold’s Suite for two violins, cello and piano-left-hand is a rarely heard musical gem. It was written for the famous pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated in World War One. Originally from Brno (now a part of the Czech Republic) Korngold was a child prodigy admired by Richard Strauss, and who studied with Zemlinsky. Although he had an immensely successful career in Austria, he came to Los Angeles to at the invitation to write music for films, and because of the escalation of anti-Jewish sentiment in the late 1930’s, never went back to Austria. Korngold wrote about those years: “We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.”
Johannes Brahms admired the work of Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Among Zemlinsky’s works of popular music is a cabaret song “Herr Bombardil,” a delightfully comic (and rather Monty Pythonesque) song about a man who was so gluttonous, he exploded. It provides a frame for Franz Hasenohrl’s amazing transcription of “Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” perhaps the most popular tone poem by Richard Strauss. This too is a comic story about a boy whose practical jokes lead to his doom.
Moving on to Berlin, we come to a song by the iconic German composer Kurt Weill. A member of the ‘Novembergruppe,’ a group of advent-garde artists that also including Stefan Wolpe, Weill had no choice but to flee Nazi Germany when he was denounced by authorities. He immigrated to Paris and then later to New York, where he became integral in the development of the Broadway musical. His love song to the city of Berlin, “Berlin im Licht,” is in the form of a slow fox trot and was written for an art exhibit with the same title in 1928,
Like Korngold, Erwin Schulhoff was from the area now known as the Czech Republic. One of his early proponents was Dvorak, and he studied with Debussy. He is considered one of the rising starts of classical music whose careers were literally terminated by the rise of the Nazi Party. In the 1930s, Schulhoff faced increasing personal and professional difficulties because of his Jewish descent and his socialist politics. His works were labeled degenerate, blacklisted by the Nazi regime, and could no longer be performed publicly. In June 1941, Schulhoff was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp where he died a year later from tuberculoses. Luckily, his music is seeing a resurgence. The wonderful Concertino for the bizarre combination of flute/piccolo, viol and double bass draws on many influences including Czech folk music, Asian music and American jazz.
Perhaps the most radical of all these composers, Stefan Wolpe, was born in Berlin and studied with Franz Schreker (whose music was featured on our first concert of this Festival). Both a Jew and a communist, Wolpe fled Nazi controlled Germany for Austria, where he studied with Anton Webern, then to Palestine and then to New York. His cabaret song “Hitler” is a mocking, comic strip characterization, making fun of the “little man.”
Despite the humor, Wolpe’s musical style teeters between the popular and the avant-garde and hints at a more serious assessment of Germany’s political situation. The reality was that he and all of the other composers featured on this half of tonight’s concert would have to either flee their homelands or face imprisonment or extermination. The final word of the song, “ Heil,” is at once mocking and terrifying.