It seems the British Library has been thinking about Auden’s songs too, and produced a handy guide to them.
The blog I posted last week didn’t include any introduction to them whatsoever and I had been planning on doing a little one in case anyone was curious about what I was talking about.
I don’t suppose that many people are familiar with Auden or cabaret music these days, but it seems I did suppose so when I wrote that entry.
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.
I am really at a loss about what ‘Bizarro’ fiction is, although I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with a rather serious treatment of the rise of Odoacer and the fall of Rome (or with cabaret music but that is another matter), but my odd little verse-play on these subjects is going to be in Vincenzo Bilof’s ‘More Bizarro’ anthology due this March.
So keep your eyes on the news stands, not because the book will be found there, but because it’s good to keep up on current events. After all an empire can collapse at anytime.