Berlin or It was the Best Place in the World
We're turning the knobs on the old radio set – and suddenly one hears songs from distant times: street songs by Berlin's 'glimmer twins' Brecht and Weill, by Friedrich Hollaender and Marcellus Schiffer, Michael Jary and Norbert Schultze. Somewhere in a New York hotel room, some musicians seem to be making music just for themselves, and we can listen in. Accompanied by pianist and arranger Fumio Yasuda and a string quartet, Theo Bleckmann strikes up with songs from the preceding century of catastrophes: from "Lili Marleen" to "Surabaya-Johnny". Some of them come from the 'thousand-year Reich', others from earlier, in the Weimar Republic. And four Brecht songs were set by Hanns Eisler in 1942, exiled in Hollywood. Suddenly, the familiar lines from 'Mahagonny' and 'The Blue Angel' sound strangely different: the old songs are presented without glitter and glamour. The musicians treat their material from the 'Roaring Twenties' and the period of exile like art-songs. There's nothing that recalls the places where these compositions originated: cabaret, theatre or film studios. The street songs have been totally cleansed. Even the enduring hit "Davon geht die Welt nicht unter" ('It's not the End of the World') that Zara Leander sang in 1942 in "Die große Liebe" ('A Great Love'), the most successful UFA film of all time, doesn't break the flow of this recital.
At the same time as 27 million cinema viewers in Nazi Germany were singing along with Leander, Hanns Eisler began setting poems by Brecht, Hölderlin, Goethe, Rimbaud etc. He called this collection his "Hollywood Songbook". Music critic Erwin Ratz described it as a "milestone in the history of song … just like the former great cycles of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf". And it's these elegies of exile in Hollywood that set the tone for this Lieder evening. Even Brecht/Eisler's "Four Songs of a Working Mother" are presented here without pathos. Somewhere in a New York hotel room the musicians seem – as in the "Bilbao Song" – to be longing for the old songs. Like Lou Reed in his "Berlin" cycle, Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda reinvent their Berlin. To a degree, one has to imagine this "Berlin" as a Utopian place: a musical topos populated once again by the great song-makers of the Weimar Republic who had to flee into exile: Friedrich Hollaender and Mischa Spoliansky, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.
By 1948 Eisler, whom Americans during the McCarthy era branded as "music's Karl Marx", was already dreaming of being back at Spree-Athen: "My longing is, as ever, for Berlin. Do you think one could find a hole somewhere there for me to creep into? I'm not making any demands."
Viktor Rotthaler (Translation: Richard Toop)
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