June 12, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 18

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    Bohlman rescues music of rare Jewish cabarets

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Not only can Philip Bohlman discuss the Jewish cabaret music that was rescued from oblivion by the Austrian Censor's office--he and his colleagues also can perform it, rescuing it once again.

    Bohlman, Professor in Music and the College, is an ethnomusicologist who researches Jewish music, the musical cultures of Europe, America and the Middle East, and the musical dimensions of religion, nationalism and racism. Just last year he published World Music: A Very Short Introduction, which brings all of these elements together.

    In a fashion typical of Chicago's Department of Music, where composers like Shulamit Ran teach, Bohlman's scholarly research and teaching naturally flow into musical performance. He is artistic director and emcee for the New Budapest Orpheum Society, a revival of the longest-running Jewish cabaret in Vienna, which existed from the 1880s through the end of World War I.

    A closer look at Bohlman's work on the cabaret serves as an introduction to his research--the sometimes startling way it brings history, social conflict and entertainment together through music.

    People may remember cabaret as an emblem of German decadence and cynicism (think The Blue Angel or Cabaret). But what is less well known, Bohlman explained, is how this very Jewish art form crossed national boundaries and endured, even in the darkness of the concentration camps.

    "You could find these cabarets in Budapest, Prague and Berlin. An evening would consist of a mix of skits, poetry and comedy, and pop songs composed on satirical themes, called Spottlieder in German, which poke fun at people. The stage would be filled with Jewish stereotypes: the shopkeeper, the Yeshiva boy, the obedient daughter."

    Word about the New Budapest Orpheum Society has spread, due in large part to the recent double CD, "Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano." On Wednesday, May 28, the troupe took a new program to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

    "The theme of our show is 'the world turned upside down,' which alludes to the confusion of the new immigrant, the social turmoil of the time."

    But, Bohlman explained, the cabarets persisted when the Jewish world was turned upside down in the worst way.

    "We do one show based on Theresienstadt, where there were nine cabarets, an opera and orchestra. There was a famous women's orchestra in Auschwitz, and operas were regularly performed at Theresienstadt.

    "Our repertoire is very synthetic, but it comes from real turn-of-the-century pop songs, broadside ballads printed on cheap paper and sold on the street, which would be labeled 'performed by musician X for Budapest Orpheumgesellschaft.' It's stuff I found in the censors' records, which was often the only way it would be preserved.

    "The material was well known but very ephemeral--they often made it up as they were going on. And it's all in Viennese dialect, which is very close to Yiddish," said Bohlman. "We always include translations into English; we have a lyricist who really renders them into song form. The two CDs we recently recorded include one in English and one in the original languages--German, Yiddish and Hebrew."

    Bohlman and Ilya Levinson, Lecturer in Music, work "to reconstruct the music--sometimes all we have is the text itself, usually with an engraving of a picture, 'sung to the tune of song X,' so we can figure out what the music is."

    To animate his careful reconstruction of this lost culture, Bohlman said, there is nothing like a really bad joke. "On stage, I play the Joel Grey character, Herr Ober or 'headwaiter' figure, who orchestrates everything that's happening in that social space. One of the main things I do is tell bad jokes. Everybody feels they can laugh at them."

    In addition to his stage performances, Bohlman is the author or editor of 17 books, and he currently has two books in press.

    His many honors include the 1997 Edward J. Dent Medal of the Royal Music Association and a University Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching. He has been a member of the Chicago faculty since 1987.