Auden’s Songs (Cabaret Music pt. I)

I can’t find a suitable version of Auden’s cabaret songs.  I can find some well-done versions, but they are all done in the operatic style.  It may have something to do with Britten’s settings, or the simple fact that Britten did the settings, which are musically fine, but don’t really reflect how good the lyrics are, or the nature of the material.

Opera can ignore bad writing, because it is about the performance, but the same is not true here — the quality of the song depends largely on the quality of the lyrics. That is the story of popular music in the first three quarters of the 20th century.

There was a sentimental movie in my youth that featured one of these songs read aloud at a funeral as if it were a poem. Whoever wrote the screen play showed good judgement here (if not anywhere else).  The lyrics aren’t poetry (there is a very big difference and Auden wrote on the subject) but they do function better on their own.

It doesn’t have to be the case. Certainly, we can imagine these songs would be better if they had been scored by Kurt Weill, or George Gershwin, but it ain’t necessarily so. The music is better than sufficient, but the songs themselves need to be sung in different voices — the baritones and contraltos they were meant for. The ones that could deliver the wry jokes with the sly winks they need.  The songs need to be transposed into a different sensibility (and perhaps into keys low enough for us to hear the words).

But, alas, the song are, and have always been, the property of the classical world.  It is a world of composers and of performers, but not of lyricists. It is a world where changing a key is an act of impiety, where a great performance treats the voice as an instrument, but it is far away from the world where these songs belong.

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Author: Thomas Olivieri

Thomas Olivieri, an enthusiast of long walks on the beach, chilly mornings, and strong pipe-tobacco, has written many short stories which have been published in anthologies and periodicals, and is the author of Priceless Treasures and Ghastly: a Slight Collection of Hallowe'en Tales and Miscellanea. He writes tales of love, death, and shipwrecks.

2 thoughts on “Auden’s Songs (Cabaret Music pt. I)”

  1. I would like to apologize to the first few readers of this post who read an unpolished version that I had drafted, scheduled, planned to proofread, and forget about.

    I’d offer you your money back but you know how it is.

    Like

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