It is a century ago that World War I swept across the European continent, a massacre of hitherto unheard-of scope and savagery. In the ensuing years, Europe licked its wounds, commemorated its dead and reflected on the events of the war. The industrial revolution, which had offered the promise of prosperity, had instead become the engine for weapon production and implementation, one whose ethical ramifications no one could have predicted. The United States of America, still a young nation, suffered relatively little.
While the country had indeed played a key military role in the war, sacrificing many young American lives, the battlefield was still thousands of miles from home. The economy did not suffer – on the contrary, the US weapons industry had made a substantial contribution and reaped the profits. American households were suddenly afforded luxuries until then they had only dreamt of: automobiles, radios, the first washing machines! Dance halls and cinemas offered entertainment outside the home, and the airwaves were filled with jazz. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ were about to unfold.
These developments influenced society as well: racial segregation, still common in many states, was challenged, and women made headway in gaining the right to vote. Newfangled clothes and hairstyles (the ‘bob’, a blunt cut reaching the chin) were popular with women, and dances became more individual and free. Men, to balance the picture, were expected to wear a moustache or beard. Slowly but surely this new lifestyle made its way to the rehabilitating European continent, reluctantly at first, but by the mid-twenties Paris was abuzz with ‘les années folles’. Berlin and London were the other European centers to enthusiastically embrace the American style.
Not everyone was so keen: Europeans were not able to shake off the terrible memories of the trenches and chemical warfare, and there were calls for old-fashioned decorum and warnings against decadence. ‘Dancing on the edge’, it was called. The arts, too, were ambivalent. For some artists there were no limits: the old order had to be challenged and toppled. Others looked back with melancholic longing. On ‘Black Thursday’, 24 October 1929 the stock markets crashed and brought the roaring twenties and its festivity to an abrupt end. The subsequent Depression and dissatisfaction would lead, ten years later, to World War II.
Calefax and Cora Burggraaf have worked together for many years. Their joint project The Roaring Twenties was so successful that they decided it should be recorded (with some alterations) on CD. The disc opens with the dance that epitomized the twenties: the Charleston. Breezin’ along with the breeze is a carefree ode to freedom and nature, and thanks its popularity to the singer/actress Josephine Baker.
Baker was wildly successful on the New York vaudeville stage before she conquered Paris (as the first non-white woman) and other European cities. She eventually became a naturalized French citizen. The song La petite Tonkinoise had already been around for some twenty years when Baker’s interpretation made it a smash hit. The politically incorrect text, about an Asian servant girl who enjoys ‘certain privileges’ from her boss, combined with Baker’s scintillating Creole appearance, must have driven plenty of men to utter distraction. The poet W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten had a tempestuous love affair that resulted in numerous artistic collaborations, including the Cabaret Songs. The texts are the fruits of Auden’s wild time in Berlin in the early thirties. The emotions these poems evoke vary from a sigh at the true nature of Love, a bluesy funeral march, a crippled love affair and a hasty taxi ride in busy traffic on the way to the train station. If there is but one piece of music that symbolizes interbellum Berlin, then it is Die Dreigroschenoper by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. This is ‘dancing on the edge’ at its best.
The opera – or, rather, the musical – is an ode to down-andouts, thieves, thugs, con men and whores. The notorious criminal Macheath, a.k.a. Mackie Messer, whose life motto is exposed directly following the brief and petulant overture, marries Polly, the daughter of a beggars’ boss. As the wedding ceremony offers little in the way of entertainment, Polly sings a song about the pirate fantasy of the lowly Jenny, who makes men quake in their boots. Mackie, now on the run from the law, stops in at his favorite brothel and reminisces about old times, when he ran a brothel himself, but the Madam turns him over to the police. While in jail, awaiting his impending execution, a messenger arrives with the news that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a title, a castle and a pension. The moral of the story: wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough. The team of Weill-Brecht collaboration resulted in a series of stage works. From their musical Happy End comes the song Surabaya Johnny, in which a girl upbraids the good-for-nothing who cheated her for many years. The French song Youkali, composed in the early 1930s, when Weill was forced to flee Germany as Nazism took hold of the country, tells of the universal but unattainable yearnings for a land where everything is just, peaceful and free from worry.
The American George Gershwin was just twenty-eight (and already famous) when he met Maurice Ravel in New York. To Gershwin’s request to study composition with the Frenchman, Ravel answered that it was ‘better to be a first-class Gershwin than a second-class Ravel’. Nevertheless Ravel advised him to take lessons from Nadia Boulanger in Paris. And he did pay a visit to Boulanger, who would later become famous as the teacher of Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass and many others. But after playing his music for her for ten minutes, she said she had nothing more to teach him. Still, his trip to Europe and sojourn in Paris had a significant impact on his career. He met Kurt Weill in Berlin and countless Parisian artists. More importantly, however, was his growing awareness of his unique, American and jazz-influenced style. In An American in Paris Gershwin seems to be looking for a meaningful synthesis of his own style and his newfound knowledge of classical form and composition. It is more complex and ‘classical’ than his earlier works; the autobiographical work sketches the awe-struck impressions of an American ambling through the chaotic Paris of the 1920s.
Breezin' Along Aaron Copland
Sentimental Melody Benjamin Britten
Tell Me The Truth Benjamin Britten
Funeral Blues Benjamin Britten
Johnny Benjamin Britten
Calypso Kurt Weill
Dreigroschensuite: I - Ouverture Kurt Weill
Dreigroschensuite: II - Moritat von Mackie Messer Kurt Weill
Dreigroschensuite: III - Seeräuber Jenny Kurt Weill
Dreigroschensuite: IV - Zuhälterballade Kurt Weill
Dreigroschensuite: V - Finale Kurt Weill
La Petite Tonkinoise Kurt Weill
Youkali George Gershwin
An American in Paris: I - Allegretto Grazioso George Gershwin
An American in Paris: II - Andante Ma Con Ritmo Deciso George Gershwin
An American in Paris: III - Allegro George Gershwin