Next Monday I am performing a concert in the Royal Opera House’s lunchtime concert series with my colleague from the chorus there, Katy Batho, and pianist Stephen Higgins. We chose our programme to coincide with a new production by the Royal Opera of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opened on March 10. Our programme features several of the main contributors to popular music during those inter-war years; in particular Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky and, of course, Kurt Weill.
Dissent and difference thrived under the more relaxed social attitudes of Weimar; where entertainment and social activities had been highly regulated under previous authoritarian governments, it was suddenly possible to explore alternative sexuality, and to satirise and openly criticise the Establishment. Cabaret soon became dominated by two subjects in particular – sex and politics – and a certain wild democracy was evident in the wide range of its targets. No person or subject was safe from parody and satire, even the increasingly powerful Adolf Hitler.
Of course not everyone approved. Cabaret was seen by some as emblematic of capitalism’s wastefulness (its rise coincided with catastrophic hyper-inflation in Germany); to others it demonstrated a lack of social authority, leading inexorably to moral corruption and decadence. Stefan Zweig wrote in his autobiography:
“Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order. Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.”
Musically the songs of the time seem to fall into two types. Timeless tunes such as Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt (Falling in Love Again) and wordy comic songs that often seem more closely bound to time and place; Zieh Dich aus Petronella (Petronella, get your kit off) pokes fun at Cabaret’s fondness for striptease and nudity. There’s some silly stuff too: in this clip from the 1961 Billy Wilder film One, Two, Three, Hollaender himself appears as the band-leader, singing Ausgerechnet Bananen.
Alabama Song combines both in classic Brecht/Weill style – a memorable chorus melody and biting words about the collapse of social order in Mahagonny, holding up a mirror to Germany itself in the late 1920s. Whether bleak or optimistic, cynical or charming, there is still always a subtext in this music. Sometimes it’s just smut and sometimes it’s harsh social or political satire, acting as a kind of pressure valve, perhaps, for what Zweig describes:
“everywhere it was unmistakeable that this over-excitation was unbearable for people…the whole nation…actually only longed for order, quiet and a little security…the German people, a disciplined folk, did not know what to do with their freedom.”
Other writers such as Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin point to Weimar society seeming to accelerate, as if sensing that the end of the world was imminent and embracing the headlong rush towards destruction. Even after Weill had left Germany and was living in New York with his wife Lotte Lenya, there are still echoes of this earlier life – in 1939 he presented her with a setting of Nanna’s Lied, a fierce Hans Eisler text with an elegiac refrain. The story goes that Lenya never sang it in public – who knows? Perhaps it was all still just too close.