Can you call a sad song

Sound of the century

Carolin Stahrenberg

Carolin Stahrenberg, Dr., Research Associate at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt.

The popular music of the 1920s

"Beautiful gigolo, poor gigolo, / Don't think about the times anymore / Where you were a hussar, even tied with gold / You could ride through the streets! / Uniform passée, sweetheart says: Adieu! / Beautiful world, you went in fringes. / When that Heart breaks too / Put a smile on your face / You pay and you have to dance. " There are many different acoustic manifestations that can come to mind in view of Julius Brammer's lyrics from 1928 (music: Leonello Casucci). Do we think E.g. the deep voice of Marlene Dietrich, the melancholy her English version Just a gigolo breathes into the microphone. Or to the young Max Raabe, whose slightly nasal head voice presents the text to us rather jaggedly, with a heavily rolling "r" and concise consonants. Or Louis Armstrong's unmistakable voice, who brought the song out in the United States in 1930. Three stations of a hit (1930, 1978 and 1989) each with a different sound. But how was the "original" sound of the 1920s designed? And how did people hear the music at that time?

Probably the first recording from Nice gigolo is known only to a few today. It is a recording from August 22, 1929 with the Dajos Béla orchestra and Kurt Mühlhardt's Refraingesang. In contrast to many later versions, which musically brought the song closer to the ballad or swing (e.g. the well-known version by Louis Prima, 1956), the tango rhythm is still clearly in the foreground here. An indication that people danced to this music and in what way? The recording is characterized by the background noises of the old gramophone record, the slightly flat sound of the strings, the muffled brass section and the overall dry impression of the drums and accompanying instruments. A dry sound that must have differed significantly from the live presentation by a dance orchestra. And yet this recording fascinated people because it allowed them to "take" the music with them to different places. In order to track down popular music of the 1920s, we not only have to ask where and by whom this music was played or heard; it is also about "listening to" the sound of the old recordings again.

Dance palaces, theaters, bars and cabaret - scenes of popular music in the 1920s

Nice gigolo: ... - The story that the song tells and that is primarily conveyed via the chorus is about the descent of a former soldier who earned his living as a dancer after the end of the war: "You pay and you have to dance." The actual pleasure here becomes a chore, the work is strenuous, requires not only dancing skills, but also foreign language skills, empathy and, above all, perseverance when the young, beautiful man has to be available to the ladies for their (dance) pleasure. The identification of the soldier as a former hussar, that is, as part of the cavalry equipped with splendid uniforms, whose members were said to be appealing and elegant in addition to bravery, speed, cleverness and fearlessness, makes the decline even clearer. In its melancholy, the text not only reflects disappointment and lethargy in the face of the war lost for the former soldier, but its mood fits into the time of the beginning Great Depression in 1929. For the visitors the bars, theaters and dance palaces were places of pleasure and relaxation , they were more or less attractive places to work for musicians, singers and dancers. Whether earning money or spending money - everyone was surrounded by music and everyone participated in it, making music, singing, dancing or (listening).

In the big cities, the various entertainment establishments were often concentrated in specific centers that were close to transport hubs. In Berlin z. B. two such centers had developed in the first half of the 20th century: Before the First World War, one was built around the Friedrichstrasse train station, where the renowned hotels were located Adlon and Imperial Court and the variety show Winter garden important sites of dance music and popular culture were also located in the 1920s. The establishments in the "New West" of Berlin around Kurfürstendamm were emerging and, after the First World War, leading the way in terms of entertainment. For example, the journalist Karl Scheffler reported in 1931: "There are [...] the large cinemas, glittering in light, which take in many 1,000 visitors every evening and release them at certain hours, then the restaurants, pastry shops and cafés with their awnings covered in summer Forecourt, the dance halls and cabarets. […] There, the well-dressed, the theatrically made-up, the actors who voluntarily act in the review of the city life gather, like in a parade. […] This is the after-work apotheosis of the Big city is the song of triumph that the new Berlin sings itself over and over again. "

Advertising measures for the performer and the record company were closely interlinked - here a poster by "Friedl" for the Comedian Hamonists / Odeon, around 1929, Deutsches Poster Museum Essen (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

At such culmination points, there was a lively exchange between the dance halls, cabarets, stages, cafes and bars; both the artists and the audience switched back and forth between the locations. The program and repertoire exchange that took place in this way in the immediate vicinity also reached a distant audience via the new types of mass communication channels - newspapers, radio, gramophone records. The sales markets were served in the interplay of various media structures, such as the example of the marketing of the well-known vocal group Comedian Harmonists shows. The production of a new record was followed by z. B. not only advertising measures in newspapers, but also concert tours, for which in turn the external record sales outlets advertised. Only the skilful use of the various media and distribution channels made the amazing career of the ensemble possible, which is still popular with hits like Veronika, spring is here is known. Such hits were distributed in various arrangements as sheet music, which made it possible for solo entertainers, café musicians or dance orchestras to include them in their repertoire.

The close relationship between song and performer as we know them from the second half of the 20th century did not exist in the 1920s. Often a hit was produced shortly after it was released by different record companies with different orchestras or performers. So was z. B. also Casuccis Nice gigolo Heard on records from the labels Odeon, Elektrola, Parlophone, Beka and Homokord at the end of the 1920s, Richard Tauber, Luigi Bernauer and Walter Jurmann and the orchestras of Dajos Béla, Marek Weber, Bernard Etté, the saxophone orchestra Dobbri etc. accompanied.

"Miss, please do you want to shimmy?" - Schlager and dance music

Schlager and dance became more and more an inseparable unit in the 1920s. In the song of Nice gigolo The focus is not only on the content of the dance, with the gigolo dancing himself and being at the service of the women as a dance partner - as a tango, the song is also formally dance music and can be heard live or on record through the interpretation of dance orchestras such as the Dajos Béla orchestra Dance events. If a song should become popular, it had to be "danceable" above all: "Practice has proven that hits that are not only suitable musically and lyrically, but also correspond to the current modern dance steps, are successful "It was said in a magazine in 1932.

Modern dance steps - in the 1920s (known from the time before the First World War) these were tango, Boston and Onestep as well as the foxtrot that developed from the latter. In 1920 the forerunner of the Charleston followed with the Shimmy, like this a place dance in which there is no actual movement in space. Also dances of South American origin like the rumba found their way onto the dance floor.

In fact, hardly a hit from the 1920s could do without names like "Foxtrot", "Valse Boston", "Shimmy", "Tango" or "Onestep". With the reference to the dance forms, musical changes also went hand in hand: They manifest themselves above all in a stronger emphasis on the rhythmic element before the melodic element and in further influences of Afro-American and South American music. These are sometimes referred to as the "slump in jazz" and are used for example. B. in the form of new combinations of musical instruments such as the saxophone or banjo with old parlor orchestra traditions (standing violinist).

But what else made a hit successful? The composer Ralph Benatzky, interviewed on this subject in 1926, who, among others. for a large part of the music for the revue operetta The white horse was responsible, highlighted musical, formal, textual and strategic market components without hierarchizing them: "a) the [...] natural correspondence of text and music; b) the smallest possible range and an easily singable pitch; c) an ins- Ear-going, but also not-going-too-much-in-the-ear; d) any [...] unexpected harmonic or rhythmic, but not melodic twist, the fishhook with which the listener's attention is caught; e) a good and logically prepared short preface; f) the correct length or brevity of the entire opus; g) the psychologically correct moment of publication; h) the market's receptiveness, caused by the topicality of the opus and i) some chance and 1,000 other imponderables that cannot be explained. "

Joséphine Baker in the famous "little banana skirt" in the Paris revue "La Folie Du Jour", Folies-Bergère, 1926. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
Two of the elements that Benatzky highlights (with a wink) seem particularly important and are related to extra-musical developments. In the 1920s, the "correct length or brevity" of a song is no longer in a dramaturgical or other context, but is directly related to the receptivity of a shellac record side, which has a playing time of just over three minutes (with the 10-inch records ) included. In addition, with the "topicality of the opus" a crucial point is addressed, which affects a large part of the hits of the 1920s. They were "striking" because, on the one hand, they were current in the choice of musical form of expression (e.g. a Shimmy or Tango), and on the other hand, their lyrics linked to current topics or at least could be brought into connection with them. Schlager, for example, sing about the still new achievement of the weekend (e.g. Weekend, weekend and sunshine) or radio (Hello, hello, this is the radio). The English language song Yes! We have no bananas (Frank Silver / Irving Cohn) came as Bananas, of all things even before the guest performance of the dancer Josephine Baker in Germany (namely in 1923), she received an additional boost in popularity through her appearance in a banana costume.

But not only the topicality made a good text - with a view to the success. The chorus was also decisive, as the dance arrangements were usually only produced with chorus singing. In addition to love topics, nonsense rhymes were preferred, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which were easy to remember thanks to their pun (My uncle Bumba from Kalumba only dances rumba, What does Maier do in the Himalayas, Benjamin, I have nothing to wear), or hits that told short stories or contained hidden personalities (My little green cactus, My girl is just a saleswoman, Veronika, spring is here).

The hits of the 1920s, which found their way from the production center in Berlin via records and music editions to the whole of Germany, even to remote areas, were acoustic expressions of their time. In the new physicality that z. B. expressed in the shake dances, revealed not only a - literally executed - "shaking off" the corset of civic constraints and Prussian order, but probably also a discomfort with the increasing mechanization and rationalization of the world: the freedom and individuality of dance as well as the in The fashionable "hot" - ("hot" or "sharp") jazz improvisations in which the musician unfolded musically, detached from the rigid musical text, stood in the way of the thoroughly planned, industrialized element. The newly discovered freedom of the body as a sign of a naturalness that z. B. also expressed in nude dances, formed a counterbalance to a reality increasingly shaped by machines and technical innovations. In this sense, the silly nonsense verses of the Schlager can also be perceived as a kind of counter-movement to the oppressive rule of reason.

Revues, operettas ... - revue operettas! Popular musical theater of the 1920s

Hardly any picture shaped the reception of popular culture in the 1920s as much as the photographs of the girls' series of the major equipment revues - but which sound actually belonged to the well-known pictures of the girls and how was it integrated into the dramaturgical conception?

Based on the originally French tradition of annual revues and taking up English and US-American influences from the music halls, the type of annual revues and revue episodes had already established itself in Germany with the center of Berlin before the First World War. In the 1920s, the dramaturgical conception, which was initially held together by a loose framework, became freer and merged into a series of images that were staged with great expense and could at most be grouped under a general theme. In the system dominated by private theaters, James Klein was the first to establish his revues with titles such as The world has not yet seen that or Thunderstorm 1,000 women in the Komische Oper (from 1921). Shortly thereafter, Herman Haller in the Admiralspalast and Erik Charell in the Großes Schauspielhaus followed with more demanding productions.

Musically and dramatically, the revues were built in such a way that the so-called train numbers, i.e. H. the main musical hits, decoupled; Their marketing went hand in hand with the production, their success was in part secured by the targeted engagement of stars even before the performance series began. One of them was Claire Waldoff, who crowed her songs with "Berliner Schnauze" and her appearance did not correspond to the cliché of beautiful show girls. She was not only close to the people and funny, but also used her popularity outside of the theater as a champion for the emancipation of women.

Claire Waldoff, Berlin singer, actress and cabaret artist - photo taken around 1927 (& copy picture-alliance, akg)
The appearances of popular singers and comedians formed a contrast to the opulent outfit numbers, which worked through mass rather than individual artists. In addition to the stars, well-known hits, often adaptations of American songs, were integrated into the revues and specifically advertised in the program. The multiple use of text and music in different contexts was already taken into account during the composition and text production.

As early as the 19th and early 20th centuries, stage works had become known mainly through the secondary reception of their music outside the theater (e.g. in the form of arrangements or barrel organ sounds) - now this situation not only worsened in the face of radio and gramophone records, it became also used specifically for advertising measures. On the titles of the records and sheet music there was the addition "from the Revue ..."; the music numbers in turn were strategically built into the dramaturgy of the theater evening at prominent points so that a recognition effect could occur. The importance of different media channels for the success of a revue is z. B. from the hit I'm Marie from the Haller Review read out the one in the revue Nice and chic was sung: "I'm Marie from the Haller Revue, I'm a genius when it comes to dancing, there are articles about me in Mosse and Scherl, people even think I'm a Tiller Girl! I'm Marie from the Haller- Revue, you can see my photograph in the BZ, underneath it is written in bold: Marie von der Haller-Revue! "

The Tillerettes dancers in the Variete Wintergarten in Berlin - 1932 (& copy Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, Scherl's Magazin page 94 - 1296 6.1930, issue 12, December)
So you know the girl Marie from the newspaper, as the naming of the publishing houses Mosse and Scherl and the Berliner Zeitung BZ in the Schlager makes clear, and not from the stage, where she drowned in the crowd of other girls. The allusion to the more famous dance formation of the Tiller Girls also shows how reference was made to already known role models and how these were functionalized to increase their own importance. At the latest when the whole of Berlin and with it the whole of the German Reich whistled the tune of the hit, sang and danced the foxtrot, the Haller Revue was literally on everyone's lips and the advertising strategy of the authors was literally on everyone's lips.

The dramaturgy of the revue, the essence of which the critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt once described as "it is its form, not having a form", as well as the natural integration of "jazzy", ie. H. dance music musical numbers, had an enormous influence on other areas of musical life. Not only the advanced music theater experimented with novel dramaturgical forms and jazz elements such as B Brecht / Weills Threepenny Opera or Hindemith's opera News of the day. In the operetta too, attempts were made to work with elements of revue. For example, Hermann Haller brought Emmerich Kálmáns in 1930 Cszardas princess as a revue operetta with new (additional) music numbers.

Charell also experimented with operetta productions and produced, among other things. the Dreimäderlhaus, the mikado and The Merry Widow in new versions. He landed his greatest success in 1930 with his last revue operetta in the Großes Schauspielhaus, the White Horse Inn, which he then staged in London, Paris and New York. Charell expanded the music of the Viennese Ralph Benatzky, who was then already known as a revue and operetta composer, to include hits by Robert Stolz (The whole world is sky blue), Robert Gilbert (What can Sigismund do for being so beautiful?) and Bruno Granichstaedten (I can watch). They turned out to be alongside Benatzky's main hits (In the White Horse Inn on Lake Wolfgang or In the Salzkammergut, it's easy to be funny) as train numbers and contributed significantly to the modern, jazz-influenced musical appearance of the piece. Pointed with its heterogeneous elements The white horse Features that, according to Stuckenschmidt, were characteristic of the revue, namely the "contrast, the opposition and juxtaposition of sensual effects, the interaction of heterogeneous stimuli".

The "short art": cabaret

The smallest popular musical sphere in the 1920s was certainly that of cabaret. Even if it did not reach a mass audience, its influence or interaction with the large theaters, dance palaces and film music proved to be significant. The musical program in cabaret in the early 1920s was varied: avant-garde dances by an Anita Berber were alongside balalaika orchestras, solo violin lectures and songs. The chansons were composed by writers such as Walter Mehring, Kurt Tucholsky, Klabund and Marcellus Schiffer; the music was written by composers such as Friedrich Hollaender, Werner Richard Heymann or Mischa Spoliansky, all three were later successful with theater and especially film scores. Musical contributions alternated with puppet theater, one-act play or silent film experiments.

The spectrum of cabaret stages ranged from folk suburban theaters or the Linden Cabaret, where z. B. The above-mentioned popular Claire Waldoff sang, through Rudolf Nelson's elegant and sophisticated art theater to literarily committed and avant-garde-oriented stages such as the "Schall und Rauch" of director Max Reinhardt, the "ramp" of the actress Rosa Valetti or the little Wild Stage ", which was directed by the operetta singer and actress Trude Hesterberg. The companies were mostly short-lived. In the second half of the 1920s, the spectrum expanded with the "cabaret of comedians", a long-lasting and larger venue that also integrated variety elements into its program. "Die Katakombe", founded in 1929 by the cabaret artist Werner Finck, was a decidedly political stage in a time of worsening crises.

The cabaret program thrived on parody and caricature of current trends. In addition to plays and revues, popular hits were also the target of ridicule or the object of rewrapping. With the participation of actors such as Kate Kühl, Kurt Gerron or Rosa Valetti, representatives of the later Brecht Theater were on stage, some of whose personalities still shaped the post-war period. The fact that the sound of their voices and their chanson interpretations from the post-war period cannot simply be equated with the sound of the 1920s is shown by some of the few recorded cabaret recordings from the interwar period. B. the chanson Charlot, sung by Kate Kühl, in a recording from 1929 the singer has a much higher pitch than we know from recordings from the post-war period. The accompaniment of some songs, which were originally only sung with the piano, was rearranged in the post-war period.

What is essential for the music in cabaret is a characteristic that Werner Richard Heymann describes for the cabaret chanson and that we also find in the hit songs of the 1920s: "Cabaret is often referred to as cabaret, you should actually call it 'short art'. You have namely, no time in cabaret. The most essential characteristic of poetry and music in cabaret seems to me to be that you have to jump right into it, that you don't have time to prepare, but to be immediately in the dramatic situation to be described or experienced with both feet got to." The conciseness and brevity perfected in the Schlager chorus towards the end of the 1920s can already be found in cabaret at the beginning of the 1920s, even if a different (literary) claim is associated with it.

In terms of popular music, the "sound" of the 1920s was shaped by dance music and hits that made their way not only to dance palaces, bars and cafés. Even smaller and larger stages, including operas and films, were infected by the new sounds and integrated them into their specific repertoire and their tonal language. Thanks to the gramophone and radio, broad sections of the population were able to take part in popular music far away from the performance venues and integrate it into their everyday lives: the needle scratched the record, the radio rustled while the right frequency was searched for, then the latest hit came from the device . In terms of content, the songs with characters such as the gigolo or the saleswoman tied in with the everyday life of these sections of the population. Live music, which could be heard every evening in innumerable pubs, ballrooms, dance or cellar bars, bars and theaters, also remained significant. There they mingled with the sound of the crowd, the sanding of their shoes on the dance floor, the glasses, conversations and applause. In the 1920s, musicians and audiences shared and shaped the very specific "sound" of popular music, which the sound documents on gramophone records can only bring back to life to a limited extent, but at least a little.


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Wolfgang Jansen: Brilliant revues of the twenties, Berlin 1987

Walter Rösler: The Chanson in German Cabaret 1901-1933, Berlin 1980

Christian Schär: Schlager and its dances in Germany in the 20s. Social-historical aspects of the change in music and dance culture during the Weimar Republic, Zurich 1991

Karl Scheffler: Berlin. Changes in a City, Berlin 1931

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Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt: "Praise of the Revue", in: Anbruch 8 (1926), pp. 170-173

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Knud Wolffram: dance floors and amusement palaces. Berlin nightlife in the thirties and forties, from Friedrichstrasse to Berlin W., from Moka Efti to Delphi, Berlin 1992