The Cabaret Classics

One of the most potent forms of banned music was the cabaret of Weimar Germany. But the genre has always had a shocking and subversive edge as Michael Oliver explains.

It’s an interesting word, ‘cabaret’. Some French authorities insist it’s derived from an old dialect word meaning ‘a small room’; others that it comes from the Arabic and means ‘a place of refreshment’. Both seem rather appropriate. A smallish place, certainly; maybe not tiny, but much smaller than a theatre. The French also use the word boîte: box, an intimate space in which a voice with guitar or piano or at most a small band can easily make itself heard. Secondly food, or at least drink, is served during the performance. The original cabarets, in eighteenth-century Paris, were taverns at which street singers would call on their rounds, thus providing varied, more or less non-stop entertainment at no cost to the inn-keeper. They weren’t very respectable places.

Toulouse-Lautrec at the cabaret
What we mean by cabaret was invented in November 1881 when the famous Chat Noir (the Black Cat) opened in Paris, advertising itself as a cabaret artistique: it was intended as a meeting-place for artists, writers and musicians. This final ingredient blended with the other elements of the equation – intimacy, informality and a touch of the disreputable – to produce a unique art form. Its greatest exponent was Yvette Guilbert, and even if you’ve never heard her recordings you almost certainly know her: she’s the tall, thin, ginger-haired woman with long black gloves and an amazing range of grimaces who turns up again and again in the paintings and lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec. Her songs, brilliantly funny, ribald, sometimes brutally realistic, are about everyday life, often low life. At one extreme there is the famous and irresistible Le fiacre (The Cab): a woman, sharing a cab with her lover, is appalled when a pedestrian falls under its wheels – the publicity! – but when she realises that the casualty is her husband… ‘Tip the cabby, Léon! We’ve no need to hide any more.’ At the other, La pierreuse (The Mugger’s Moll): she entices men in the street, then with a cry of ‘Piouit!’ summons her accomplice to strangle them. He’s caught, and the last sound he hears before the guillotine falls is a heartbroken wail of ‘Piouit!’

Politics, poems, balalaika and Debussy
Guilbert became internationally famous (Zola, Bernard Shaw and Freud were among her devoted admirers) and she soon moved on to bigger stages than that of the Chat Noir, but her great contemporary Aristide Bruant stayed (you may know him from Toulouse-Lautrec as well: broad-brimmed black hat, red scarf, haughty profile). Although Bruant too could and did fill theatres and music-halls, when the Chat Noir moved to bigger premises he took the original cabaret over and renamed it Le Mirliton (The whistle). His songs were often overtly political, often angry, often filled with pity for the downtrodden. Guilbert said that she couldn’t sing Bruant’s À Saint-Lazare without weeping. Saint-Lazare was the hospital-prison where licensed prostitutes went for regular check-ups. This one has learned that she has syphilis, and has had to tell her boyfriend:

I end my letter with a kiss,
Goodbye, my man.
Although you weren’t tender to me
Ah! I still adore you
As I used to adore the Dear Lord
Or my father, when I was little,
And when to communion at

The Chat Noir, even in its new premises, lasted only 14 years, but by then it had many rivals and imitators. Of the next generation of cabarets, among the most influential were Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Bull on the Roof), opened in Paris in 1920, which really did become a rendez-vous for composers (Poulenc, Auric, Milhaud) and painters, and the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich where Dadaism and Surrealism first flourished, and where two or more poems read simultaneously through loudspeakes alternated with a balalaika band, piano music by Rachmaninov and Debussy and songs satirising German militarism.

One of these, printed on postcards and dropped by light aircraft over the German trench lines in the closing stages of the First World War, may have had a large influence on cabaret in the German-speaking countries. This was directly inspired by the Parisian example (for instance, songs in German cabarets were confusingly called chansons, not lieder), but tended to be rather more ‘literary’ and, with the founding of the short-lived Weimar Republic between the wars, much more political.

It’s still amazing to see what the writers of cabaret songs got away with, right up until the moment when the rise to power of the Nazis saw the wholesale banning of cabarets in Germany. As late as 1931, one of the leading writer/composers in this field, Friedrich Hollaender (he wrote Marlene Dietrich’s Falling in Love again) was jeering at Hitler’s anti-semitism in ‘It’s all the fault of the Jews’ (sung to the tune of the Habanera in Bizet’s Carmen) and was portraying Hitler himself (‘I’m little Hitler, and I’ll bite you! You’ll all end up in my nasty sack!’) as a nursery-rhyme ogre.

Edith Piaf, Ute Lemper and Bob Dylan
In France cabaret has never quite died out. Edith Piaf and Juliette Greco were the descendants of Guilbert, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel those of Bruant. Elsewhere cabaret lives as an influence. Hollaender was one of Kurt Weill’s models, in his American musicals as well as his collaborations with Brecht, and they in their turn influenced Stephen Sondheim. Cabaret was a vital influence on the protest and satirical songs of the 1960s and on Bob Dylan. Spurred by the musical Cabaret and by Ute Lemper’s recordings there is now renewed interest in the cabaret songs of Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s – the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and his semi-fictional Sally Bowles.

‘Serious’ composers have acknowledged that cabaret is different from the ‘art song’ but no less valid, from Erik Satie (who was second pianist at the Chat Noir and wrote around 50 cabaret songs), via Schoenberg (who worked for a while at the famous Überbrettl cabaret in Berlin and whose Pierrot lunaire is cabaret for highbrows) right up to the remarkable group of Viennese composers (Kurt Schwertsik, H K Gruber and Friedrich Cerha) who are writing cabaret songs for our day. We could do with more of them.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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