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Schmonzetten, Schmäh und Parodie (Melodrama, snide humour and parody)

Early 20th century word and tone poems from the German Music Archive of the German National Library on Youtube

At the beginning of the 20th century sound recordings were making an entry into private households. Music was no longer confined to the concert halls or musical evenings, no longer bound to the moment. People could bring sound within their own four walls on phonograph cylinders and later on shellac discs. Contemporary photographs often show a bourgeois living room with a family gathered round a gramophone. But the picture does not reveal the type of music coming from this turntable. Instead of orchestral pieces and opulent arias, jokes and poems or contemporary criticism could possibly have rung out of the trumpet. In this period considerable momentum was gained in the development not only of sound recordings and playback devices, but also of the entertainment industry, in particular cabaret and vaudeville.


At the start of the 20th century new theatres and cabarets in the French style (e.g. the Le Chat Noir in Paris) sprang up in major European cities. Berlin, Vienna and Budapest were the metropolises of German-speaking cabaret. Major playhouses were also opened in other places – Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig and Zurich. The end of the German Empire and its strict theatre censorship favoured this development.


Cabaret artists, folk singers, diseuses and singing comedians used not only the stage, but also the sound recording. Clear voice recordings, in particular, were better suited to phonograph cylinders than complex orchestral pieces, as the recording and playback quality was much inferior to that of modern audio systems. In the course of the 1920s the radio emerged as a further technical innovation for the masses. Among the most popular cabaret artists were Otto Reutter, Claire Waldoff, Paul O'Montis and Willy Rosen, but also Martin and Paul Bendix, who are less known today.


They described comical everyday situations, such as in "Sonntag Vormittag" ("What else is Sunday morning for? Other than to stay in bed and forget your daily worries", by Paul Graetz) and sang in bawdy language about an "alte, dürre, böse Schwiegermutter" ("What's the most hideous thing in our lives? […] An old, scrawny, wicked mother-in-law!" by Robert Johannes). The recordings pandered to clichés. Contemporary criticism and political satire also appeared in various forms: Otto Reutter refers tongue in cheek to the repeated elections in the Weimar Republic; Willy Rosen alludes to the League of Nations in his "Wenn das Wörtchen 'Wenn' nicht wär!" ("If ifs and ands were pots and pans") and with his "Lied des Schmarotzers" ("Song of the parasite") Anton Wildgans denounced wealth and work mania. Dialect poetry and parodies were also popular. Actors Alexander Moissi and Max Pallenberg were mimicked by several cabaret artists. Technical innovations were likewise the target of sarcastic comments ("and if you press this button, you will see in the little window everything that is happening in the world." by Ernst Suppek); or traffic in the big city ("Two policemen had to intervene in the traffic until a third was able to regulate it again", by Paul Nikolaus).


Not only the recordings contain information of contemporary interest, but also the sound carrier itself. In times of shortage due to two World Wars and the world economic crisis, many gramophone records were recycled to make new ones. The shellac was melted down and used again. From this it can be concluded that the recording media that still exists today has been listened to multiple times – and are accordingly worn, as can be heard in the digital copies. In turn, this can mean that the more specialised discs have not been preserved. Instead of a recording to which we attribute a high artistic value, perhaps only an amusing couplet has survived.


As for many other forms of art, the NS regime constitutes a break in the diverse cabaret and vaudeville landscape. Because their music and lyrics were pilloried as 'degenerate', the artists had Jewish roots, were politically disagreeable or lived in homosexual partnerships, from 1933 onwards many of them were gradually barred from making public appearances. Their songs and sketches were no longer permitted on the radio. Quite a few of them were persecuted. Many cabaret artists retreated to the sidelines or went into exile e.g. Willy Rosen, Kurt Gerron and Max Ehrlich: They founded exile theatres in Vienna, Zurich and Amsterdam, several even in Scandinavia and the USA, or played in their ensembles. But when the German troops subsequently invaded, the cabaret artists in exile were no longer safe. Rosen, Gerron and Ehrlich were deported and murdered in concentration camps, as were Paul O'Montis, Paul Bendix, Franz Engel, Paul Morgan and Ernst Suppek.


Today we remember a number of big names in the entertainment culture of yesteryear. Other successful singers and comedians at the beginning of the 20th century have all but disappeared from the cultural memory. From the 250,000 shellac discs and phonograph cylinders now in its possession, the German Music Archive has brought these sung and spoken recordings to life again in "Schmonzetten, Schmäh und Parodie".

Last update: 16.09.2016

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