The Kennedy Center

Classical & Non-Classical Art Songs of the Early & Mid-20th Century

About the Work

 Various Composer: Various
© Richard Rodda

Erwin Schulhoff

Born June 8, 1894 in Prague

Died August 18, 1942 at Wülzburg, in Bavaria

Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff experienced profoundly the ancient Chinese curse/blessing by living in interesting, and, for him, ultimately treacherous times. Born into a musical family in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff studied (on the advice of Dvorák) at the conservatory in his hometown from 1904 to 1906 before completing his formal education at music schools in Vienna (1906-1908), Leipzig (1908-1910, where he was a student of Max Reger) and Cologne (1911-1914); he also took some lessons with Debussy. After military service in World War I, Schulhoff returned to Prague, where he worked as a composer, teacher and concert and jazz pianist before settling again in Germany in 1919. He was an active propagandist for new music in both Czechoslovakia and Germany, organizing concerts and including works by members of the Second Viennese School and other avant-gardists in his own recitals, and espousing the aims of such artistic modernists as Grosz, Klee and the German Dadaists. Schulhoff was back in Prague in 1929, teaching piano and orchestration at the city's conservatory and working for Czech Radio. He took up the cause of Marxism in the early 1930s as a reaction to the rise of Nazism, made a rousing musical setting of the Communist Manifesto in 1932 (not performed, however, until 1962, in Prague), and attended the International Congress of Revolutionary Musicians in Moscow the following year. He joined the Communist Party, and wrote a half-dozen symphonies in the optimistic, easily accessible style dictated by Stalin in the 1930s. He was granted the supposed protection of Soviet citizenship when the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia in 1939, but it did not work. Schulhoff, outspoken in his political views and of Jewish origins, was imprisoned before he could flee from Prague to Russia, and interned in a concentration camp at Wülzburg, in Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis.  

Though Weimar Germany of the 1920s was a place of seared memory, turbulent present and uncertain future, it was a cauldron of musical creativity. Some, including Weill and Hindemith, the country's best young composers, responded with caustic satire and mutations of the day's most fashionable musical styles, and the influence of these Dadaist tendencies on Schulhoff is reflected in the Five Pieces for String Quartet that he wrote in December 1923 and dedicated to the French composer Darius Milhaud, who had premiered his jazz-driven ballet La Création du Monde just two months before in Paris; the Five Pieces were introduced on August 8, 1924 by the Czechoslovak Quartet at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg. Each of the Five Pieces is Schulhoff's commentary on a popular or traditional dance style, the sort of attitude and technique that the American composer and critic Eric Salzman cogently identified in the music of Igor Stravinsky as "Art about Art." The first is Alla [in the manner of a] Valse Viennese, though the music is notated not in the genre's quintessential three-quarter time but in a duple meter whose grating cross-accents constantly unsettle the expected rhythmic patterns and Gemütlichkeit sentiments. The limping five-beat meter, obsessive accompaniment, stunted melodies and sometimes harsh, sometimes cloying harmonies of the Alla Serenata make it seem more furtive than romantic. Alla Czeca [Czech Dance], with its short repeating phrases, metric regularity and simple textures, is the most conventional of the Five Pieces, perhaps a mark of Schulhoff's respect for the musical traditions of his homeland. Alla Tango Milonga is based on the Argentinean dance that was wildly popular in Europe during the 1920s, but Schulhoff's version has been filtered through the prism of Viennese Expressionism, perhaps a song for Schoenberg's demented Pierrot Lunaire rather than for a sultry Buenos Aires couple. Schulhoff originally sketched an Alla Marcia Militaristica in Modo Europaia as the last of the Five Pieces, but he ultimately decided on a less memory-laden Alla Tarantella whose whirling themes and non-stop motion provide an exciting close for the work.


Raymond Asso (1901-1968), born in Nice, led a peripatetic existence until settling in Paris and taking up writing poetry and lyrics in 1933. Two years later he met the French chanteuse Edith Piaf and became her coach, mentor, stage manager and lover. In 1938, with composer Louis Maitrier, he wrote for her Elle Fréquentait la Rue Pigalle ("Her Beat Is the Rue Pigalle"), in which he captured something of Piaf's seamy past.

The Russian-born French composer Michel Emer (1906-1940) had established a reputation as a composer of songs for such established stars as Lucienne Boyer and Maurice Chevalier before he brought L'Accordéoniste ("The Accordionist") to Piaf early in February 1940, just before he was mobilized to fight the Nazis. She was immediately struck by the song's expressive power and subject, about a prostitute whose dreams of starting life anew are shattered when her lover (the accordionist) is killed in battle, and created a sensation when she introduced it at her show at the Bobino Theater on February 16th.


Kurt Weill

March 2, 1900 in Dessau, Germany

April 3, 1950 in New York City

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and Kurt Weill (1900-1950) hoped that they could duplicate the success of The Threepenny Opera with the propagandist "comedy with music" Happy End, but its premiere (September 2, 1929 in Berlin, with the young Peter Lorre cast as a sinister Oriental) was a fiasco. Though the piece has never enjoyed any luck in the theater, Weill's fourteen songs for the production have occasionally been heard in concert. The plot, reminiscent of Damon Runyon's contemporaneous Guys and Dolls, concerns a female Salvation Army lieutenant who falls in love with a criminal. The ironic "happy end" is brought about when the gangsters and the Salvationists join in a commercial enterprise. Weill's score includes the torchy Surabaya Johnny, which became a favorite of Marlene Dietrich.

Weill and Brecht based their The Threepenny Opera, one of the 20th-century's pivotal works of music theater, on the 1728 English satire The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. The story has as its central character Macheath, one of the London underworld's most notorious figures. Polly, possessor of the only shred of innocence in the entire cast, falls in love with Macheath, and marries him in a stable surrounded by stolen goods and her groom's gang. As soon as the curtain rises, a Street Singer prepares the audience for its encounter with the villainous Macheath in Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, which became Weill's greatest hit in America under the title Mack the Knife.


Hanns Eisler

Born July 6, 1898 in Leipzig

Died September 6, 1962 in East Berlin

No composer was more buffeted by the howling gales of 20th-century political change than Hanns Eisler, the son of the liberal middle-class philosopher Rudolf Eisler who moved his family back to his native Vienna when Hanns was two. Hanns showed an early attraction to music but there was no money for lessons, so he taught himself the rudiments of the discipline from books and scores during his high school years and began composing. Following military service from 1916 to 1918, Eisler was able to pay for some classes at the New Vienna Conservatory by working as a proofreader for Universal Edition, the publisher of some of the most important avant-garde composers, including Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg quickly recognized Eisler's talents, and taught him (without fees) from 1919 to 1923. Eisler inevitably came under Schoenberg's influence, and his music of those years reflects both the emotionally charged Expressionism of Pierrot Lunaire and the early experiments in serial composition. When Eisler accepted a teaching post at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin in 1925, however, he began writing in a leaner, more easily accessible adaptation of the twelve-tone system that rebelled against Schoenberg's dense counterpoint and adamantine intellectualism, and the ensuing rift between teacher and pupil worsened when Eisler joined the German Communist Party in 1926.

With left-wing authors, most notably Bertolt Brecht, providing the texts, Eisler turned out a steady stream of songs, choruses, occasional pieces, incidental music and film scores during the next several years that reflect his radical political views: it was inevitable that he was among the first composers whose music was banned when Hitler came to power in 1933. He spent the next fifteen years in exile from his native Germany, traveling incessantly during the late 1930s - composing for theater and films in Vienna, France, Holland, Belgium and London, writing anti-fascist concert works, briefly joining the forces fighting against Franco in Spain, visiting Brecht in Denmark, lecturing at the New School for Social Research in New York - before settling permanently in America in 1937. He taught again at the New School before moving to Los Angeles in 1942 to join the USC faculty, write for films, and resume his collaboration with the recently arrived Brecht. Eisler lived apolitically and became an important figure in American cultural life during the war years, but in 1947 he was called before the Communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities and ordered to be deported, despite a world-wide protest supported by such prominent figures as Chaplin, Mann, Einstein, Picasso, Matisse, Copland and Cocteau. After visits to Vienna and Prague, Eisler settled in Berlin in 1949, accepting a teaching post at the Hochschule für Musik, becoming a member of the German Academy of Arts, and composing music fitted to the needs of the new German Democratic Republic, including a national anthem and many film and theater scores, several in collaboration with Brecht, who had also been sent back to Germany. Eisler continued to compose prolifically and travel widely throughout Europe to oversee performances of his music until his death in Berlin, on September 6, 1962.

Der Graben ("The Trenches") was one of three songs Eisler composed in 1929-1930 on poems by Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1835), the Berlin journalist, satirist and writer who was an outspoken critic of the rise of Hitler and the threat of National Socialism; Eisler set 36 more of Tucholsky's verses in 1959-1961. Der Graben, written in the wake of one world war and on the eve of another, tells the grim tale of a lovingly nurtured son who was sacrificed on the altar of national ambition.

During his years in America, Eisler wrote nearly fifty songs on texts by various German authors, about half by Brecht, that were collected after he moved to the West Coast into The Hollywood Songbook. The painful Über den Selbstmord ("On Suicide"), written in 1939, voices the bleak thoughts of a lonely exile forced to live far home.

Brecht began what became Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe ("The Round Heads and the Pointed Heads") as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure for the Berlin Volksbühne in November 1931. By the time he finished the play a year later, however, it had become a mordant comedy about the evils of a fictional Peruvian dictator. When Hitler seized power in January 1933, Brecht fled to Denmark. In February 1934, Eisler visited Brecht, who convinced him to provide music for the production - an overture, eleven songs and several instrumental numbers. Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe was staged at the Copenhagen experimental theater Riddersaalen on November 4, 1936, but has rarely been seen since. Jan Knopf, in his 2000 study of the author, called it "Brecht's most underrated work." Die Ballade vom Wasserrad ("The Ballad of the Waterwheel"), a bitter allegory about the oppression of the underclass, is sung by Nanna, who has been forced to work as a prostitute.


Nikita Bogoslovsky

Born May 22, 1913 in Saint Petersburg

Died April 4, 2004 in Moscow

Nikita Bogoslovsky, one of Russia's leading musicians during the mid-20th century, was born into a musical family in St. Petersburg in 1913, began playing piano at three and composing at eight, had an operetta produced professionally when he was fifteen (an unwitting usher refused him entry to the premiere and told him to come back for the weekend matinee with his mother), and trained at the city's famed conservatory under Glazunov. Bogoslovsky went on to a distinguished and prolific career as a composer and conductor, composing eight symphonies, an opera, two string quartets, piano pieces and some 300 songs, but he became best known for his incidental music and more than 100 film scores. The poignant ballad Tyomnaja notch ("Dark Night," lyrics by Vladimir Agatov), sung by a soldier at the front thinking of his wife and infant child at home, was written for the 1943 film Two Soldiers. It is the most beloved and enduring song written in the Soviet Union during World War II.


Chava Alberstein

Born December 8, 1947 in Szczecin, Poland

Chava Alberstein is one of Israel's foremost musicians and personalities, named among the "100 Greatest Israelis" in a public poll in 2005, recipient of an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University that same year, and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from YIVO (the Institute for Jewish Research in New York City) for her contribution to the preservation of Yiddish song. Born in Szczecin, Poland in 1947, Alberstein emigrated with her family to Kiryat Haim, a working-class suburb near Haifa, when she was four. She showed musical talent as a youngster, winning a government scholarship to study music when she was twelve and making her public debut on a live radio broadcast four years later accompanying herself on guitar. She started to tour the country soon thereafter and in 1967 signed a recording contract with CBS. She has remained one of Israel's most beloved artists, releasing more than sixty albums in Hebrew, Yiddish and English that have reached gold and even platinum status in sales and won multiple Kinor David ("David's Harp") awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Grammy. Alberstein began composing songs in the 1980s, often also writing the lyrics, and she has since included many of her own pieces as well as those of a wide variety of Israeli musicians in her recordings and performances. Two of her songs that embody the soulful essence of both her own voice and the Yiddish tradition are Stiller Abend (Shtiler Ovnt, "Silent Evening," lyrics by Itsik Manger) and Ikh Shtey Unter a Bokserboym ("I Stand Beneath a Carob Tree," lyrics by Zhame Telesin).



Astor Piazzolla

Born March 11, 1921 in Mar Del Plata, Argentina

Died July 4, 1992 in Buenos Aires, Argentina

The greatest master of the modern tango was Astor Piazzolla, born in a resort town south of Buenos Aires and raised in New York City, where he lived with his father from 1924 to 1937. Before Astor was ten years old, his musical talents had been discovered by Carlos Gardel, then the most famous of all performers and composers of tangos and a cultural hero in Argentina. At Gardel's urging, the young Astor moved to Buenos Aires in 1937 and joined the popular tango orchestra of Anibal Troilo as arranger and bandoneón player. Piazzolla studied classical composition with Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires, and in 1954 he wrote a symphony for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic that earned him a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. When Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1956, he founded his own performing group and began creating a modern style for the tango that combined elements of traditional tango, Argentinean folk music and contemporary classical, jazz and popular techniques into a "Nuevo Tango" that was as suitable for the concert hall as for the dance floor. In 1974, Piazzolla settled again in Paris, winning innumerable enthusiasts for both his Nuevo Tango and for the traditional tango with his many appearances, recordings and compositions. By the time he returned to Buenos Aires in 1985, he was regarded as the musician who had revitalized one of the quintessential genres of Latin music. Piazzolla continued to tour widely, record frequently and compose incessantly until suffering a stroke in Paris in August 1990. He died in Buenos Aires on July 5, 1992.

Piazzolla most ambitious undertaking was the "tango operita" María de Buenos Aires (1967-1968), with a libretto by the Uruguyan poet Horacio Ferrer. In an introduction to the 1998 recording of the opera on Teldec, Gudrun Maurer gave this précis: "As the protagonist of this little opera, Maria de Buenos Aires personifies the tango: her cradle lies on the banks of the vast delta of the Rio de la Plata, from where Argentinean peasants fleeing the countryside and countless European emigrants bore her into the suburbs of Buenos Aires in the middle of the 19th century.... With her subtle blend of the different types of tango permeated with various forms of jazz and classical music, Maria de Buenos Aires passes through various phases, initially upwardly mobile as she progresses from the suburbs to nightclubs in the city center. Then comes her heyday in cabarets and bordellos, the exhaustion of the form, its decline and death, its shadowy lack of direction, and its spectacular rebirth at the end of the piece." Maria introduces herself in the sultry aria Yo soy María ("I Am Maria").

In 1984, Piazzolla went to Rome to compose the score for director Marco Bellocchio's screen version of Luigi Pirandello's drama Enrico IV, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale. "The theme in Henry IV," wrote John Humphreys Whitfield of the University of Birmingham, England, "is madness, which lies just under the skin of ordinary life and is, perhaps, superior to ordinary life in its construction of a satisfying reality. The play finds dramatic strength in its hero's choice of retirement into unreality in preference to life in the uncertain world." Bellocchio thought that Piazzolla found "a very strong point of contact" in the character of the King, which he captured in the deeply nostalgic number Oblivion written for the film.

Poet Horacio Ferrer was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1933 and became enamored with tango as a teenager during visits to his uncle in Buenos Aires. He moved to the city, taught himself to play guitar, studied the history of tango, and began writing lyrics for tangos at the suggestion of the celebrated composer and bandoneónist Aníbal Troilo. In 1967, Ferrer recorded a spoken collection of his lyrics with guitar accompaniment titled Romancero Canyengue ("Ballads Canyengue," one of the earliest forms of tango), which led to Piazzolla asking him to write the libretto for the "tango operita" María de Buenos Aires. Two years later, they collaborated on Balada para un loco ("Ballad of a Crazy One"), which became Piazzolla's first big hit. He and Ferrer produced a number of vocal tangos during the next four years, including the sensuous La última grela.


Jacques Brel

Born April 8, 1929 in Brussels

Died October 9, 1978 in France

Jacques Brel, who gained almost iconic status in 1960s popular music for his songs and performances, was born into a prosperous family and educated in Catholic schools, where he showed a strong interest as a teenager in writing. He worked briefly in one of his father's factories after leaving school but continued writing, producing several plays to benefit a local philanthropic organization. In 1950, Brel began writing songs and performing them in Brussels' cabarets and on radio, and three years later he moved to Paris, quickly establishing himself as one of the city's finest performers; his debut album on Philips (Jacques Brel et ses Chansons) was released the following year. By 1956, he was touring widely in Europe, recording regularly, and appearing with such stars as Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand. He made his American debut in 1963 at Carnegie Hall, and subsequently toured the Soviet Union, Middle East, Canada and the United States. In 1967, despite his international popularity (the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris ran for more than four years in New York after opening at the Village Gate in January 1968), Brel retired from the concert stage and devoted himself to theater and film for the next six years, producing and starring in his own French adaptation of the Broadway hit Man of La Mancha, recording four more albums of his songs, and appearing in ten feature films. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1973, Brel divided his time between a house in French Polynesia and trips back to France for medical treatment and one final recording. He died in Paris on October 9, 1978.

Jacques Brel was one of the masters of the modern chanson, setting his own acutely observant lyrics - frank, gritty, world-weary, satirical, lonely, melancholy, but often tempered with moments of hope and humor - to such sophisticated music as that he wrote for Chanson de Jacky (1965), Amsterdam (1964) and Ne me quitte pas (1959).