Cabaret comeback

By Laura Putre

Photography by Dan Dry

Philip Bohlman’s musical journey over the past two decades has taken him to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. But it began in the farming town of Boscobel, Wisconsin. Bohlman’s hometown didn’t have the sophistication of, say, Vienna or Berlin, but it managed to cram religious diversity into its population of 2,000—including Norwegian Lutherans, German Lutherans, and mobile-home–dwelling Russian Orthodox monks. “There were 17 different churches in town,” recalls Bohlman, the Mary Werkman professor in the humanities and music. “It seems almost unbelievable, but their music all sounded different. This made a very deep impression on me.”

Photo: Philip Bohlman
Rescuing dozens of Jewish cabaret tunes in the Austrian Censor’s Office from oblivion, Bohlman also performs them with the New Budapest Orpheum Society ensemble.

In Bohlman’s research, too, cultures and borders tend to overlap. An ethnomusicologist with a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he has followed Christian pilgrims to Austrian villages, studying the role of music in their spiritual quest, and interviewed cabaret singers who survived concentration camps. He’s also spent time on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, interviewing Indian and Pakistani shopkeepers and taxicab drivers about the music they play while working.

But Jewish music is at the center of Bohlman’s scholarship. He isn’t Jewish—he grew up playing piano and organ at Boscobel First Congregational Church—but he got interested in German-language Jewish music as a graduate student working with professors who’d survived the Holocaust. Released last fall, Bohlman’s book Jewish Music and Modernity (Oxford University Press) examines how the music altered, amalgamated, and endured in response to political change and migration from rural to urban areas. Due out in March is Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New (University of Chicago Press), an anthology Bohlman edited on the intersections of Jewish history and music from the late 19th century to the present. And he is working on two more books: one on musical anthropology in Mediterranean cultures and another on the music of Jewish communities in western India.

Meanwhile, Jewish cabaret, a darkly comic, bawdy, vernacular blending and upending of folk songs from the rural shetls and street songs from the urban ghettos, holds an unusual place in Bohlman’s oeuvre. He not only studies it but also is part of its re-creation, as artistic director and narrator for the New Budapest Orpheum Society. The loose group of singers and musicians started in 1998, when composer and pianist Ilya Levinson, a Russian émigré and Chicago lecturer in music, was invited to perform at the Harold Washington Library. Levinson, PhD’97, was interested in both chamber music and old cabaret tunes. Bohlman, already a student of Jewish cabaret, helped pull together a repertory and gave a talk on the songs’ meaning and importance.

Soon after, Bohlman and Levinson, who became the group’s pianist and arranger, received an invitation from a U of C Holocaust conference to play cabaret music written and performed in concentration camps. The ensemble—still ad hoc and nameless, though its members were starting to come together—presented pieces from the opera The Emperor of Atlantis. Written in 1943, it is one of the final works by Czech-born composer Viktor Ullmann, who wrote it while imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. A year later, he died at Auschwitz. Familiar to chamber-opera aficionados today, The Emperor of Atlantis was obscure a decade ago. Bohlman was “amazed at the extent to which such things were unknown.”

He began scouring European archives for broadsides of cabaret tunes, dating from the 1880s to the 1940s. Broadsides—single, penny-press sheets of song lyrics, often adorned with woodcut art—were sold on the street to an audience that included new immigrants hungry for cheap entertainment. Lyrics were recast according to time, place, and political winds, but they were often sung to familiar melodies of Yiddish and European folk tunes. As they grew popular, these songs were performed in local cabarets, where an evening might include a mix of skits, poetry, and popular tunes on satirical themes. “I started digging out some really old stuff,” Bohlman says. “It became the core of our repertory.”

In an Austrian archive of Nazi-censored works, he unearthed a hoard of Viennese street music. One name in particular kept turning up: the Budapest Orpheum Society, a Viennese group that Bohlman calls “the most important and most durable” of the Jewish cabarets in Vienna between 1888 and 1918. “I had heard about it through these broadsides because they often have these little advertisements: ‘This song was sung by so-and-so at the Budapest Society.’” Meanwhile, Bohlman’s group was still trying to come up with a name. He offhandedly suggested the New Budapest Orpheum Society. “Even as nondescriptive as it is,” he says, “it actually is somewhat attention-grabbing.” The name stuck.

A performance at the Chicago Cultural Center this past November commemorated the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht—the night of violence across Nazi Germany that marked the start of the Holocaust. The fiery four-piece ensemble (consisting of bass, drum, violin, and piano) accompanied two singers—one male, one female—who performed in German and occasionally Yiddish. Selections included Bertolt Brecht’s harrowing poem, “Ballade von der ‘Judenhure,’ Marie Sanders.” It tells the story of a woman who sneaks out at night to meet her Jewish lover, only to be caught. She’s next seen riding “through the city in her slip, / With a board round her neck, her head was shaven. / The crowd was jeering.” Brecht collaborator Hanns Eisler set the poem to music in 1934. The ensemble also performed Ullmann’s poignant “Berjoskele—The Little Birch Tree,” in which a despondent speaker humbly asks a struggling sapling to pray for him. Bohlman’s introductions brought the music into the realm of ordinary people caught up in a horrible tragedy. In his Holocaust work, he says, he tries to “find ways of remembering that these are everyday experiences. It’s not just a regime that imposes this.” The Holocaust “is actually something that penetrated down to the level of children’s response to other children. And that needs to be known.”

Bohlman says he’s most proud of interviews he’s done with concentration-camp survivors who performed in cabarets to pass the time. The cabarets were a surprising mainstay of concentration-camp life considering the lockdown nature of the camps. “The Nazis were managing massive numbers of people,” he says. The Theresienstadt camp had nine cabarets, an opera, and an orchestra. “They would struggle and work all day and have to do these horrendous things, and in the evening they would get together and make music. There was this tremendous amount of creativity going on.”

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