Degenerate Music,” a remarkable program of songs and compositions by German composers and lyricists, many of them Jewish, branded as “Degenerate Artists” by the Nazis, will be performed this Sunday at the East Bay Jewish Community Center, as part of the Jewish Music Festival.
Co-sponsored by the Mendocino Music Festival and the Goethe-Institut, “Degenerate Music” premiered last summer in Mendocino. Its billing as music of the Weimar Republic conjures up images of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, of cabaret and the louche life of Berlin, as chronicled by Christopher Isherwood and Robert McAlmon, among others.
But the provocative title and the Weimar-related PR don’t begin to do justice to the range and depth of what pianist Susan Waterfall has put together for chamber group, soloists and singers.
The program covers unusual examples of music produced from the time of the First World War, through the runaway inflation that helped make Weimar-era Berlin an international party town, to the censure and destruction of modern art as degenerate by that very different party, the National Socialists (just as Max Nordau had attacked the “Decadents” earlier, but without state apparatus), through the years of exile and war—music that includes much of what would influence postwar American music and culture, a lot of it created or premiered on American soil—to the repatriation and reconstruction of Germany during the postwar occupation.
Waterfall hasn’t just created a divertissement of familiar pieces, but rendered a 30-year period of immense conflict and change with a sense of dimension, and of the unusual.
There are pieces like Schoenberg’s onomatopoeic entertainment for his fellow officers in World War I, lesser-known Brecht-Weill songs like “The Shell Oil Song” or a gripping Hanns Eisler setting of a Brecht poem that details what happens to a young woman who flauts the Nuremberg Race Laws prohibiting social relations with Jews.
Stereotypes are also overturned. “The Hollywood Songbook” contains German poems set by Eisler when he and Brecht were endeavoring to work for the film industry in wartime Los Angeles—and justly called by Waterfall the greatest art song cycle composed in America. Brecht’s lyrics detail his passion for little things: the portable radio he flees with from country to country, which broadcasts the voice of his enemy declaring victory after victory, this precious crystal set the poet begs never to fall silent; or the strange new trees and flowers he finds in his garden in Los Angeles, overwatering them with the hope of nurturing something in dark times.
Even the familiar songs of Threepenny Opera are presented in a virtuoso arrangement by a colleague of Weill’s for the violin—Paganini plays “Mac the Knife”?—in a delicious, tour-de-force instrumental medley.
There’s also profound chamber music, “14 Ways of Describing the Rain,” composed in 12-tone style by Eisler and presented to his old teacher Schoenberg on the composer’s 70th birthday in exile. The piece was played with the silent film Regen (Rain) by Joris Ivens. The program ends with the anthem Eisler composed for German schoolchildren to give them perspective and hope during reconstruction. A moving recording gives us Eisler himself crooning it.
Projections place the sounds with photographic images and pictures of visual art. Throughout, valiant vocalist Erin Neff sings and enacts lieder that run a gamut of emotions, changing costume constantly, rejoining Waterfall and the other players onstage. “Degenerate Music” is an immersion in one of the crucial epochs of the 20th century, its culture and politics in an upheaval of values, still affecting us today.
7:30 p.m. Sunday as part of the Jewish Music Festival. East Bay Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St.