Cabaret Songs

Essay, 2001

28 Pages, Grade: R. Serge Denisoff Award for Bes



The Cabaret Audience

Four Types of Content

The "Prostitute Song" as the Most Prominent Subgenre of Cabaret Songs

The "Camp" Style of "Prostitute Songs"



Cabaret songs [1] have been in existence for a little more than a cen­tury, which makes the genre surveyable. [2] The reasons for its former pop­ularity and recent decline in Europe and for its continued popularity in the USA can be discerned. [3] If, however, we are asked for a precise definition of what a "cabaret song" is - as compared to other kinds of songs­ e.g., pop songs or jazz songs ‑ we soon find ourselves confronted with considerable difficulties. The simplest imaginable answer that a cabaret song is a song performed in a cabaret or nightclub of a certain, originally European, type, is not necessarily true. Cabaret songs can be heard in music halls, [4] in movies (e.g., sung by Marlene Dietrich or Hildegard Knef, in "One Wo/Man Shows" (e.g., by Ute Lemper, Liza Minnelli, or Tony Bennett), and on recordings of all kinds. As we shall see, we aim with the term at a certain style of performance rather than song, even though obviously not every kind of text can be performed as a cabaret song.

Therefore, we start this investigation of the Cabaret Song in Europe and the USA not ‑ as would be normally expected - with a historical introduction, but rather with an analysis of two styles of presentation found in cabaret songs to this day. This is followed by a description of the original cabaret audience, which naturally had a strong influence on the genre. Following this, we examine the four main types of content of cabaret songs, which at the same time constitute subgenres of the cabaret song. Only then are we equipped to focus on the most important subgenre of the cabaret song, the "Prostitute Song" (in the form of "self introduction"). In the "Prostitute Song," all the important stylistic fea­tures of the Cabaret Song can be found, most importantly its "camp" style. We hope that the results in the concluding summary will justify this unorthodox order of presentation.

Two Styles of Presentation

We can experience some of the songs of the first cabaret singers on precious old discs, which have been "cleaned" of static noise and other interference. When we listen to recordings of the two unquestionably most famous pioneers of the first days of the cabaret, Aristide Bruant [5] and Yvette Guilbert [6], we immediately realize - even if we do not under­stand French - that their technique of presentation fundamentally dif­fered from each other and that both have created a "school," which lasts until this day.

Yvette Guilbert (1867-1944) published the book The Art of Singing a Song, which is still among the best to have been written on the subject. But one also cannot keep from noticing that it has become obligatory reading only for those artists who - consciously or unconsciously - have followed her example. In addition to this tradition, which she founded, is the school of the "folk singer" Bruant (1851-1925). Since the times of these two artists, cabaret songs have been performed in both styles. However, if we speak of cabaret songs now, we mostly think of Guilbert's style [7].

Exaggerating just slightly, we could say that only bards in the tradi­tion of Bruant really and exclusively sing, while the successors of Guil­bert recite with music. Yvette Guilbert has defined her kind of cabaret song as "un drame condense," as a little drama condensed into a few lines. And she understood her extraordinary talent for shaping a song of four or five minutes' duration into an unforgettable experience as that of "an actor serving a singer without a voice, who demands the orchestra or from the piano to sing instead of her" (114). She also said: "We are really painters, designers. Our voice is our palette. We color and illumi­nate the multitude of our 'nuances' persons, themes, their atmosphere, epoch - by means of the speaking voice, which combines with song … Only at the last stage I concern myself with the music to my texts. This was for me the decoration. All of my songs were worked out like roles or poems, depending on the kind of text" (27).

For this highly intensive, melodramatic type of recitation, Guilbert developed a rhythmical freedom which has become a commonplace ele­ment of cabaret singing in our time, but which was absolutely new in her time. She called this technique "rhythme fondu," which we might trans­late as "softened rhythm" or better: "suspended rhythm." It consists of temporarily abandoning the underlying meter of a poem or song for the sake of expression, rushing ahead or slowing down the words in favor of a "gestic rhythm," as Brecht later liked to say.

Do we have to emphasize that this highly complex mode of recita­tion (and occasional singing) with accompaniment has nothing to do with the rhythmical parlando practiced by vaudeville singers in the 19th century? The latter almost never departed from the basic rhythm of their songs. They merely used a "speaking voice" because they had no "singing voice" and not in order to create variation between various parts of the stanza. Only those who still have memories of the mindless sing-song of the chanteuses of the Café Concert and Café Chantant, (8] where Guilbert began her career, can appreciate the daring and innova­tion of her way of presenting a song. This is why her recordings still have such an extraordinary impact. She herself described her new tech­nique only in the shortest of terms: "What is 'rhythme fondu'? It was my new contribution to the art of the diseur. It was my 'discovery' in my beginnings. Since then, the whole world has been imitating it. This dis­covery consists in giving up the musical rhythm and replacing it with the rhythmic word, according to the accentuation and necessities of the texts. At the beginning of my career this baffled my audience. Even Gounod admired this kind of nuance" (35).

We have to add that only a thoroughly musical artist can afford this style without "losing track." S/he has to function on two levels, so to speak: while s/he is freeing herself from the "musical rhythm" she must never allow it to slip "out of ear's reach." Otherwise, s/he could not find her way back to it at decisive moments and the listeners would gain a sensation of "drifting." What applies here to the rhythmic quality of a song has an analogy in the freedom a jazz vocalist (like Ella Fitzgerald) would claim for the harmonic quality. Even in her most daring improvisations ("scatting") the latter must "hear" and rely on the basic sequence of chords, which s/he is improvising on. Our task of describing the style of cabaret songs is complicated by the fact that jazz vocalists, especially blues singers, not only afford themselves the freedom of improvisation in the domains of harmony and melody, but also of rhythm. When Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae sing blues, they use exactly what Yvette Guilbert named "Ie rhythme fondu." Therefore, it is not surprising that - especially in the USA - cabaret songs (e.g., by Cole Porter) are being presented in a "jazzed-up" manner. In other words, the two genres sometimes merge.

The French have two groups of terms that should he utilized for dif­ferentiating the two techniques of presenting cabaret songs: the "chan­sonnier" or "chanteur" as well as the "chansonnière" or "chanteuse" (in German, mistakenly, "Chansonette," which means in French: a little song) are mainly singing: the "diseur" and "diseuse" are mainly reciting (with music) and sometimes acting. Guilbert was a "diseuse," Bruant a "chanteur."

There is even a difference between the exact meaning of the words "chansonnier" and "chanteur," which should be kept in mind. As Cate and Shaw explain: “The chansonnier sang poetry he - sometimes she - had written, even though another might have composed - or arranged - the music. The chanteur sang poetry created by someone else. The chansonnier was typically not a trained singer and might even be a rather bad one. Vocal shortcomings, however, were either overlooked or regarded sympathetically, as part of the idiosyncratic savor essential to the performance [In the cabaret, the performing poet and com­poser generally enjoyed a higher artistic cachet than the interpreter of words and music written by others.

A second distinction is that between chansons with newly composed melodies and parodies, or re-textings, of melodies originally written for other lyrics. Sentimental chansons were by and large set to newly composed melodies, since they required a somewhat higher degree of musical persuasive­ness to complete the sense of the - often rather trite - poetry. Parody, a practice based on centuries-old tradition … was more common in satirical or political chansons, where the main emphasis lay on the text.” (161)

To feel the difference between the old style of "chanteuses" and the utterly different performances of "diseuses" one only has to listen to Mistinguett's silly rendering of "Paris, reine du monde, Paris c'est une blonde . . ," still available on many recordings,[9] and then Yvette Guil­bert's miniature analysis of a "loose" woman's life in "Madame Arthure." The impact of her rendering of Jean Richepin's "La Glu," the study of a sexual obsession that made a man kill his mother in order to present his evil mistress with her heart upon her demand, has been described for us by several famous writers - e.g., Julius Bab - but unfor­tunately has not been preserved as a recording. It represents the first appearance of the "vamp" in a song and must have sent shivers down the spine of all who heard it.

Paradoxically, the art of Guilbert remained the exception in France, where it was developed. Singers like Georges Brassens, Juliette Greco, Yves Montand, and Edith Piaf followed mainly in the footsteps of Aris­tide Bruant. Guilbert's style became the rule of cabaret singing in Ger­many, but it was never surpassed there.[10] The German "literarisches Chanson"[11] was always understood as literature presented with music­ that is to say, the latter existed only in order to support the former.[12] In the United States and England we find both forms used, the choice depending on the vocal equipment of the singer and the sophistication of the text. Many of the witty texts by Cole Porter, for example, have been presented precisely in the style of German cabaret songs. [13] Many impor­tant actresses (e.g., Elsa Lanchester) and even authors (e.g.. Noel Coward)[14] cultivated the cabaret song as a sideline and hobby, just as originally was the case in France and Germany.

The Cabaret Audience

It is debatable whether the cabaret song can be considered to be a literary genre, since it uses other literary genres, from ballad and couplet to folk song and Rococo-aria, in order to create something new and unique. The effectiveness of a cabaret song depends only partly on the literary quality of its text. As with the German romantic art song, rather poor texts have sometimes been made into great songs, either by their musical elaboration or by the art of the performer.[15] Some performers of "typical cabaret songs" have hardly ever appeared on a cabaret stage proper (besides in their movies), e.g., Marlene Dietrich. Nevertheless, and probably more than in other genres, the cabaret song's peculiar char­acter and relatively short life span can be explained from the particular social and cultural framework in which it thrived and on which it still seems to depend. It is not so, however, that what we now call "typical cabaret songs" have always been written expressly for the cabaret. In many cases, well-qualified songs from musicals, operettas, vaudeville, and revues, as well as variety shows, music hall, and café concert, were recruited for use in cabarets.[16] Sometimes songs that had not been partic­ularly successful in musical plays were made into something completely different and precious by the art of a gifted cabaret performer. The important point is that the songs usually had no connection with each other. This differentiates them from the "numbers" of the political "Kabarett" in Germany after World War II. Up to 1945, the programs of cabarets had "collage-character."[17] Still, in order to understand the gen­eral character of cabaret songs - exceptions are always possible and the limits to other kinds of songs are fluid - we have to envision its original background.

Cabarets are medium-sized meeting places of an intimate and rather personal character, almost like clubs. With regard to "intimate," we think especially of the type of lighting, which has to focus the concentra­tion of the audience on the performer and must not be too bright (neon lighting is unthinkable in a cabaret). By "personal" we mean, first, that the decoration of a cabaret has to give the customers a feeling of "home away from home.” In the past, the paintings on the walls were made by one (or several) of the performers or members of the audience. Some­times, symbolic items - like the black cat of the "Chat Noir" in Paris"[19] or the guillotine of the "Eleven Henchmen" in München - were displayed and promptly carried in procession to a new locality when the cabaret was forced to move.

The limited size of the venue (up to about 200 persons) has always been important because historically the performers have tended to be amateurs. This limitation can be overcome now by the use of microphones, but even in the present day the audience has to see the mimic expression of the performers, which can in some cases turn the meaning of the words sung into their opposite. A twinkle of the eye, a smirk, can create nuances that all get lost if the audience cannot see the performer. On the other hand, the musical dilettante and "singing actor" in the cabaret are not allowed to exaggerate, since in the intimate atmosphere of the cabaret any large gesture is embarrassing. The pathos of the opera singer is impossible in the context of the cabaret. As soon as the cabaret song was transplanted into large halls (e.g., in the form of the "Socialist Song"), it changed its character and lost its intimate charm. By the framework within which they worked, cabaret performers were forced to develop the art of understatement and fine nuance. Most important was and still is the intimate contact between audience and performer. This special audience-performer relationship may still be found in some bars where amateur musicians perform for fellow stu­dents and in the few remaining jazz clubs (live houses). However, in contrast to club performers, the performers of the cabaret, especially the females, have usually been of a "mature" age. This must have something to do with the kind of songs they perform. As Erich Kästner once said in praising a cabaret singer in a poem: "She sings what she knows, and she knows what she sings" [4]. The adequate performance of cabaret songs requires life experience. Starlets would be poison for the cabaret. In exceptional cases, however, comparatively young performers can bring this quality of experience into their songs, especially female blues singers (e.g., Billie Holiday).


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Cabaret Songs
R. Serge Denisoff Award for Bes
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Cabaret, Songs
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Dr. Wolfgang Ruttkowski (Author), 2001, Cabaret Songs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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