Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Stylistic Guide to Classical Cabaret, Part 1: The Music of Satie, Poulenc, and Schönberg

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Stylistic Guide to Classical Cabaret, Part 1: The Music of Satie, Poulenc, and Schönberg

Article excerpt

WHAT IS CABARET? Cabaret was initially considered any place that served liquor; cabaret culture, however, began in 1881 in France. Cabarets were informal nightspots where poets, artists, and composers could perform and try out new material. Cabaret song can be anything that is performed in a setting of smoke, drink, dark lighting, and merriment. The lyrics usually contain dry wit, intelligent humor, sociological and political commentary, and sex, sometimes delivered with boldness. The themes of sexual deviance, taboo, satire, and/or alienation appear as either subtext or double-entendre, or they can be quite clearly revealed in the settings of cabaret songs. A song may contain just one of these elements, or all may be present.

Cabaret began with elevated literary and intellectual ideals and creative freedom that challenged societal norms and political thought. It represented the daily struggle of life. European imperialism caused vast social and economic chasms between the classes and at times included government oppression. Cabaret was born out of a wish for realism and freedom within the arts.

Musically, cabaret was a reaction to the high art of Wagnerian opera with its leitmotivs and thick orchestrations, and to the highly chromatic or impressionistic compositions of the late nineteenth century, considered to be music for the bourgeois and unattainable for common people. Conversely, cabaret melodies are simple, often based on popular idioms, and, depending upon the composer, may be in simple waltz form with uncomplicated harmonies with a simple waltz or a march with syncopated rhythms. Jazz elements, such as ragtime, also can often be found in cabaret settings.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, Parisian society has enjoyed a rich social life surrounded by cafés and salons where artists could perform and exchange ideas. After the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the popularity of the salon began to wane, and the artistic cabaret, which featured song as well as dramatic readings, began to become a central part of Parisian lifestyle. As already mentioned, in France the word "cabaret" meant any business serving liquor; however, on the 18th of November in 1881, a little hot spot called the Chat Noir (Black Cat) changed everything.

Rodolphe Salis, a famous artist, founded the Chat Noir in the Montmartre district of Paris. This café was the first cabaret "artistique" to achieve notoriety. Its walls were decorated in a Louis XIII style, with medieval artifacts and reproductions adorning the café. Salis devised an evening program that featured artists who would sing, recite poetry, or perform dramatic recitations. A master of ceremonies introduced each participant. In the early years, Emile Goudleau was the master of ceremonies, and Salis himself, along with waiters dressed as academicians, poured beer and served the patrons. The atmosphere was noisy, informal, and irreverent. Jokers called "fumists" also yelled out puns and funny tales between songs and performances.1 The Chat Noir closed its doors in 1897, one year after Salis's death; its lasting effect, however, was a precedent that served as a model for more modern cabarets that copied the diversity of Chat Noir's programs.

The Black Cat became an international as well as Parisian institution and gave rise to a host of imitations throughout Europe. But no matter how illustrious any of the others became they never superseded the fame of Salis' establishment and only one, the Russian Bat of Nikita Baliev, ever gained a truly international reputation. Nor was it ever forgotten that the seeds of the cabaret culture were first planted in France.2

Patrons were composed of intellectuals, aristocrats, and wealthy professionals, not to mention other artists looking for ideas and inspiration. Members of the French aristocracy were said to enjoy the nightlife cabarets offered. Those regarded as "snobs"-wealthy people, financiers, and political figures-began to attend so that they could rub elbows with the talented artists and famous intellectuals of the day. …

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