Friedrich Hollaender, who composed some of Marlene Dietrich's best-known songs, wrote 17 of the 44 selections in the set. Hollaender (later emigrated to Hollywood), also performs on piano. Other performers include some of the first names in German cabaret: Trude Hesterberg (founder of "Die Wilde Bühne"), Ernst Busch (Germany's greatest politically engaged singer), Blandine Ebinger (USA, 1937-1947)), Kate Kühl ("Lucy" in the premiere of Die Dreigroschen-oper, 1928), Margo Lion (one of the best German chanson parodists), and many others.
Despite the word "cabaret" in the title, many of the numbers included come from so-called "Revues" (perhaps best translated as "follies"-as in Ziegfield Follies). If cabaret offered humor, irony, wit, and Zeitkritik, the Revues offered both wit and humor, but were less politically oriented; additionally, they featured Girls . Yet the songs from these entertainments, because they are either personal statements or expressions of universal emotions, remain fresh.
The set includes "literary" texts by Joachim Ringelnatz, Theobald Tiger (i.e., Tucholsky), Walter Mehring, and Bertolt Brecht. Friedrich Hollaender wrote many of the lyrics as well, particularly those from early "talkies" such as "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss" from Der blaue Engel. The set justly showcases La Dietrich and her vocal talents. Her earlier, somewhat rougher versions of "Jonny" and "Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte" contrast interestingly with later, more polished-and more familiar-recordings of them. Several numbers feature her in duet or trio with other singers.
To my great delight, I discovered several songs by the immortal Claire Waldoff which do not appear on her album Wer schmeisst denn da mit Lehm... (Odeon). Her rendition of "Raus mit den Männern aus dem Reichstag," with its strongly trilled R's, rings as true today as it did when first sung.
The booklet includes texts for most of the songs . This is quite necessary since the songs contain Berlin dialect, references to local institutions, and a certain insouciant silliness as in "Yes, We Have No Bananas." Without he booklet the songs would be harder to understand. Still, problems abound. The printed texts frequently do not faithfully represent what is being sung. Further, one has to switch constantly between printed texts and the table of contents to see who is singing, speaking, playing, etc. (The numbers/songs not carefully dated.)
The singers typically speak-sing with conscious disregard for actual musical pitch in a way that seems to typify popular music from this period. Much of the music on this set sounds like Lotte Lenja's version of "Seeräuber Jenny" and indeed provides a context for the Brecht/Weill style of vocalizing.
The original recordings, which were provided by various archives in Berlin and Frankfurt, have been digitally reworked to improve the sound quality. A comparison between vinyl (remember LPs?) and CD proved very interesting. Because a few of the songs on the set also appear on long-playing albums (Berliner Revuen, 1927-1932 and Die Goldenen Zwanziger Jahre, both by Electrola), I was able to listen to the same material in two media. The digital version renders the voices more clearly and significantly reduces the surface noise. The cost, however, must be measured in loss of musicality. In the digital version the instruments seem less present and somewhat artificial; the rich interplay between voice and instruments tends to disappear. By the 1930s, however, recording techniques had evidently improved. The sound quality of the later pieces is much better with very little hiss or noise on either vinyl and CD.
Much of the material on this set remains fresh and interesting. The parody of the Wandervogel movement is quite amusing, as is Ringelnatz's nonsense parody of "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär" (sung by Die Drei Katakombe-Jungens). The songs I found less appealing were "protest songs" (to use an anachronistic phrase) expressing concern and outrage over long-past-and-to-me-unknown events.
The last song on the set is Brecht's "Der Marsch ins Dritte Reich," sung by Ernst Busch to a version of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," arranged by Hanns Eisler. This is certainly an odd blend of cultural elements.
All of the artists and topics mentioned above can be researched in Klaus Budzinski and Reinhard Hippen's Metzler Kabarett Lexikon (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1996 ISBN 3-476-01448-7). This well-illustrated handbook (b-w only) covers the entire range of German-language cabaret, from the earliest times (the 1890s) to West German television broadcasts. A typical entry occupies one third to half a page with extensive cross-referencing arrows. References at the end of many entries point to published books (mostly autobiographies, biographies, and other primary material), but not to articles. A thorough index of names at the end supplements the alphabetically arranged entries. An appendix lists contemporary theaters where cabaret (still a living form!) can be seen. I missed a discography.
The entry "Kabarett" provides a typological discussion of the genre. Fine distinctions are drawn between "literarisches Kabarett," "politisch-literarisches Kabarett," and "politisch-satirisches Kabarett," a categorization which somewhat too neatly corresponds to pre-WWI, inter-war period, and post-WWII.
This volume serves not only as a source for researching German-language cabaret, but also lends itself to film studies because so many individuals from German cabaret and theater were also involved in German films and later in Anglo-American feature film production.