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Max Raabe Revives Weimar-Era “Schlager”

February 22, 2014

Holocaust Memory in Germany Politics and Culture

by Leo Treitler

From the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Jewish Currents

TWO RHYMES BROUGHT AS BAGGAGE FROM GERMANY at the time of my emigration in 1938, at age 7:

Jude Itzik Nase spitzig Arschloch dreckig Kopf viereckig
Jew Izzy pointy nose, dirty asshole, square head

Hundert nackte Bayaderen A hundred naked dancers
In Extase sich verzeren Contort themselves in ecstasy
Hoppsen wie ein wildes Kangaru Hopping like a wild kangaroo
Ich stehe in der Mitte I stand in their midst
Und was tuh ich nu? and what am I to do?


Schmeiss doch deine Kleider Weg Throw away your clothes
Denn die haben keinen Zweck For they serve no purpose
Wenn es dich mal packt Once you’re grabbed
Der wilde Takt By the wild beat
Dan tanzt mann nackt Then you dance naked.

The first was carried in memory. I have no recollection of its planting there. I assume that it was chanted at me in Germany before my family left.The second came with us in an album of “Schlager,” hit songs of the sort sung in cabarets or music hall shows or operettas. “Elevated nonsense” is how Max Raabe describes the tradition, which he and his Palast Orchester have been reviving in Germany since 1987.

max-raabe-palast-orchester-ajwnewsTHE EIGHTEENTH ANNUAL JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL of Berlin and Potsdam, Germany, opened on June 4th, 2012, with the world premier of the German film about the orchestra’s Israel tour, Max Raabe in Israel. It was subsequently shown in the Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York, where I saw it, with this billing: “The wildly popular Berlin-based singer Max Raabe and members of his band in their emotionally and politically charged trip to Israel to perform their show ‘Tonight or Never.’” The film is a ninety-minute documentary featuring moments from concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, interspersed with interviews with and monologues by Raabe, as well as moments with members of his Israeli audiences, mostly emigrés from Nazi Germany now in their eighties and nineties, at once thrilled to recognize music from their early years in Germany and recollecting the terrors of those years and the pain of emigration. There are moments of tourism: band members at the suk in Jerusalem looking for handbells of the right pitches to make a tune at the concert there, Raabe with yarmulke at the Wailing Wall.

Max-Raabe---Fuer-Frauen-ist-das-kein-ProblemThe contrast of playful and serious is characteristic; the film mainly draws its emotional and political charge from interviews, monologues, and conversations. Its fit for Jewish film festivals would seem to be apparent in its title, but less obvious, and ultimately more material, is something Raabe calls attention to more than once during the film: that most of the core repertory of the band, songs composed and made popular in cabarets and music halls and in early recordings during Germany’s Weimar era, the 1920s and early ‘30s, were composed and their lyrics created by Jews.

Songs of the period have been characterized as risqué, seductive, melancholic, elegaic, ironic, madcap, silly, kitsch, dark, eccentric, dizzying, and devilishly catching. Music and lyrics are said to convey the spirit of the era — a time not only of “Roaring Twenties” social experimentation, but of unrest and economic turmoil, from which the music was an escape. The lyrics that are printed in the epigraph above can be considered characteristic, although Raabe’s repertory does not generally reach such explicitness.

The tradition was silenced with the installation of the violently anti-Semitic National Socialist State in Germany in 1933. Jewish composers, lyricists, and performers who were not able to emigrate fell victim to “the Final Solution.” That heavy burden attaches to this whimsical tradition today.

RAABE BEGAN DISCOVERING THIS MUSIC, which no one was performing at the time, in his twenties (he is now 52) from shellac records and sheet music in the family home (his mother played piano). He developed a passion for it and took to sifting through flea markets for old recordings and sheet music. He entertained with the songs during celebrations at home and parties with friends. After moving to Berlin to train as an opera singer, he and fellow music students organized the Palast Orchester and began performing their repertory in public in 1987. They rapidly gained a following and launched a revival of a tradition that drips nostalgia, even for listeners who have not experienced its original heyday.

SidebarThe background to this revival was the anti-Semitic persecution and censorship that silenced the tradition, but bringing that background to public attention was not Raabe’s initial purpose. “We founded the Palast Orchester for purely musical reasons,” he told me, because of “the high standard of the compositions, the sophisticated humor and elegance of the songs.” Still, “the responsibility to make comments about the fate of the creators became apparent with the years” — and as it did, Raabe did not hesitate to make the connections known to his public.

In November 2008 he participated in a concert marking the seventieth anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom at Berlin’s former Tempelhof airport. In September 2013 he presented a concert billed as “Songs by Jewish Composers Who Emigrated” at the Foundation Beyer in Basel. “The concert took place,” Raabe explained, “in the context of an exhibition of work of the surrealist Max Ernst, who also lived in exile during the Third Reich.” He makes the connection in direct statements in the film. “We are open about the tradition we present, nothing is swept under the carpet. Anyone who listens to our music knows who wrote it. I mention the names of the composers and the lyricists wherever we perform, names that were to be made forgotten between 1933 and ’45.” But that attention is balanced with this:

My intention is to show what treasures the creators of our songs left us, and not to reduce them to their fate. Of course it interests Germans how they destroyed their own culture, and this is often a topic in interviews and talk-shows. The perplexity and despair over our history is increasing with the years.

That is further nuanced:

Although the larger part of our repertoire was written by Jewish artists, our audiences perceive it as typically German. They are not aware of the religion of the composers while listening to the music. These are mutual roots, and the audiences before 1933 saw the music as typical for Berlin. I believe this was one reason for our success in Israel. This tradition was a great part of German society and of our culture, and it was a great tragedy for us that so much of it was lost.

Raabe told me that his generation is totally incapable of understanding how the Holocaust could have come about, and he is certain it will never happen again. When I asked him how he could be so certain, he replied, “What I was trying to say is that we will never forget what happened to our Jewish neighbors during the Nazi era. And I am sure that nobody in Germany will ever allow this to happen again. Neither the Jewish nor the non-Jewish neighbors.”

MAX RAABE IN ISRAEL, THEN, is a document not only of a concert tour but of the revival of a popular musical tradition that would hardly have come to be without its Jewish originators, and might not have required a revival if not for their persecution and destruction. The film documents the penetration of that history into the consciousness of the music’s present-day practitioners. “This music is not innocent,” Raabe says in the film, adding, in correspondence with me: “Music is, of course, innocent, but a composition loses its innocence when we become aware of the fate of the composer or lyricist.”

The equivocal — not equivocating — way that such awareness is conveyed to the public contributes to the interest that the film had for the Jewish film festivals, and for us who are ambitious to unriddle the inscrutable variety of current German behaviors vis-a-vis the history of the relationship between the descendants of the perpetrators and those of the victims. When I asked Raabe whether he thinks that the relationship can ever settle into a state of normalcy, he said “No, never.”

Considering all the ways he talks about the songs of the 1920s and the early ’30s, it seems that the question of whether Raabe considers and presents them as a Jewish tradition is balanced on a knife’s edge, and that is the way he intends it. His conception comes into relief if we compare this revival with the revival of another musical tradition that is always regarded as Jewish, the ubiquitous klezmer tradition.

Wherever it sounds and by whomever it is made to sound, whatever its varieties and whatever styles it assumes, klezmer registers as Jewish music, just as the words “Jewish music” call to mind klezmer. In cultures that once included a strong and diverse Jewish component, after the Holocaust klezmer has virtually filled the musical segment of the mostly vacated Jewish space. In that role it is often associated with a romanticized Fiddler on the Roof shtetl culture. Raabe does not present the songs of his repertory as “Jewish music” in that sense.

Awareness of the background of the cabaret tradition shows itself in the film in Raabe’s initial ambivalence about making the tour. In a confrontation with an Israeli journalist that turned on the German language, she tells him, “In our family, the German language is something terrible and we can’t deal with it. Why do you come to Israel and sing German songs?” His reaction:

She didn’t need to ask me. I had asked myself, ‘What am I after there? Why do I risk a confrontation singing songs whose composers were discriminated against, ostracized, killed?’ But they wrote and sang in their mother tongue, of which they were robbed by men who proclaimed themselves owners of the German language, which is, of course, much older than the Third Reich. And what right have I to rob those composers of their mother tongue for a second time?

The anxiety about the tour was assuaged by Raabe’s encounters with two nonagenarian ex-German forced-emigrés. Shimon Yoron, a cheerful and jocular ex-Berliner (born there 1920, emigrated at 15), was by chance on the plane that was carrying the band to Tel Aviv. A quipster throughout the trip, Yoron attended the first concert and, Raabe later told me (referring to him by nickname as “Izzy”), they have maintained contact through monthly correspondence. The other was Hannah Schächter, born in Berlin in 1920 and an emigré to Palestine at 16 with a group of girls of like age, all leaving their parents behind. Schächter brought to the Tel Aviv Opera House photographs of her group at the Berlin train station to show to Raabe. In the film she is joyful at the way the songs she hears at the concert transport her back to her life before the forced departure. Later, reflecting alone, Raabe says, “It was hard to take, hearing what they went through, what they suffered, and now here they are so warm-hearted and welcoming to us...” He looks away from the camera, pauses, bites his lip, deep in reflection. When I reminded him of that moment, he said, “Stones fell on my heart.”

Emmanuel Witzthum, born in 1975 as a third-generation Israeli, delivers a declarative soliloquy in fluent, native-intoned German. We see him in his apartment along with a harpsichord, music stands, and a music score labelled “Haydn.” The music he heard at the concert, he says, reminded him of his grandfather and of the beloved music of the Comedian Harmonists.

When I hear this music from the ’30s I think he [Raabe] is speaking to my grandfather and to his culture. Happy, sad, tango, always a farewell. Therefore it is unbelievably strong, it crushes my heart. It is a lament for something I don’t know and a longing for something that was never there. For us third-generation Israelis who originate from German and European roots, there is a strong feeling that we can’t dissolve. It has nothing to do with our life, with our reality.

A German critic wrote after the premiere of the film in Berlin, “This tour with songs of the 20’s was a politikum that constituted for the musicians an attraction, a provocation, a gift, an opportunity. They were freely and intentionally conscious of the human and political dimension that an appearance with just this repertory in Israel and before an Israeli-Jewish public had.”

AFTER I TRAVELED TO GERMANY FOR A FACE-TO-FACE INTERVIEW WITH MAX RAABE I sent him ten follow-up questions. He addressed them all. To an eleventh question about the first ten — “Are they too serious for you?” — he replied, “Yes and no.” Let’s see whether we can locate the referents of his “yes.”

Max-Raabe-Palast-Orchester4The film opens onto a stage peopled by a dozen middle-aged, rather ordinary looking men in dapper black tie. They are stationed behind music stands marked “Palast Orchester” and holding wind and brass instruments. One sits behind a drum set. In stark contrast, a woman, much younger, dark-haired and strikingly beautiful, carrying a violin and wearing a glamorous off-the-shoulder gown and a slight, pleasant smile that seems pasted on her face throughout the concert, walks graciously onto the stage and sits on a chair placed for her well in front of the rest of the band, as though she were going to play a concerto — but, of course, violinists do not sit while playing concertos. She is Cecilia Crisafulli of Venice, the only female in the band and the only full-time string player. She has been with Max Raabe’s band since 2007, and was preceded in her position by a succession of similarly attractive counterparts. Raabe refers to her as their “bird of paradise.” I asked him about this aspect of their tradition. He said, “We have to have our jewel.”

Once Crisafulli is seated, Raabe steps out and takes his position, with arms hanging at his sides, in front of Cecilia and behind a standing microphone that is already adjusted for his height. In contrast to the other men, he is dressed anachronistically in white tie and tails. His hair is blond and combed straight back. He looks younger than the other men — also a kind of jewel. Standing perfectly still, he begins to speak, in practiced Hebrew: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen.” Applause. He pulls himself up to his full height, acknowledges the applause with a slight smile and a slight nod of the head, then with a slight bow from the waist. He continues speaking, still in Hebrew. “My name is Max Raabe.” Then in English, “And now a composition by Fritz Kreisler with a text by Ernst Marischka,” and again in slow, deliberate Hebrew, “How love comes, how love goes.”

With that his left eyebrow rises a bit, he turns his head a bit to the right and blinks once, in slow motion. The body remains unmoving. These mini-gestures constitute a sly coquetry, a quality he identifies in the film as characteristic of their performances, along with irony. When I asked him about his fixed stance from the neck down, he said, “I’m lazy.” (A glance at his concert schedule for this year puts that in doubt; forty concerts from the 18th of January to the 13th of April in Germany, the U.S., Russia, and Austria).

Later, in our written interview, he offered a more plausible explanation of why he eschews broad physical gestures to project the sense of a song. “You don’t need to be funny while singing funny songs, and you don’t have to explain emotions like love or pain that everybody knows. The songs must be in the foreground, not myself.” Well and good, but there is no doubt that the stance and the languorous blinks and the drooping eye-lids, the altogether dry-as-dust, sleepy manner that he attributes to his Westphalian origin, all belong to the trademark performance persona that has been so seductive to his audiences in this era when branding is everything in the public sphere. In the film he establishes that in the first moments. And for the seduction of this particular audience he does something especially cagey in his choice of an opening song: It is an item heavily laden with history and with the atmosphere of early-20th-century Germanic central-European Jewish culture. Fritz Kreisler, born Jewish in Vienna, baptized at 12, wrote the music as one of “Three Old Viennese Dances,” all waltzes, all precisely expressive of the feeling of their titles, for violin and piano, published in 1910: “Liebesfreude” (“Love’s Joy”), “Liebesleid” (“Love’s Sorrow”), and “Schöne Rosmarin” (“Pretty Rosemary”). They have been extremely popular down to the present. Ernst Marischka, a Viennese Jewish emigré to Switzerland (where he had a successful career as a screenwriter and director), put words to the second of the three, which the Comedian Harmonists recorded in 1933. When Raabe announced its title in Hebrew he had the audience in the palm of his hand, and they applauded.

HIS SINGING VOICE IS AS DELIBERATELY UNDEMONSTRATIVE as the body that projects it — vibratoless, never interfering with the articulation of the words, a matter of the greatest importance for the whole project — and gliding gracefully into falsetto range, contributing there to his somewhat androgynous presence.

The concert in the film ends with a final coquettish gesture that is part of the artifice of the whole. Before the final song, Raabe says, “My dear ladies and gentlemen, the next song will be the last of the program.” The audience (a full house) groans in chorus, in the midst of which Raabe continues with glum facial expression, “And no one is more unhappy about that than we.” The audience, satisfied that it has participated in this little drama, performs a standing ovation and does not ask for an encore.

After experiencing a live performance that ended with the same scenario I knew that the great popularity of Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester owes not only to the music, but also to the meticulous articulation of an artifice that is designed and choreographed in every detail and executed in each performance with the greatest precision. Raabe’s response to me that the presentation is of the song, not the singer, may be an ideal, but in the event that is not quite how it turns out.

Leo Treitler is Distinguished Professor of Music, Emeritus, at the CUNY Graduate Center. His books include Music and the Historical Imagination, With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made, and Reflections on Musical Meaning and Its Representations. He recently edited a new edition of his teacher Oliver Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History.