Subversive Verses: The New Budapest Orpheum Society reconstructs the rebellious songs of Jewish cabaret

Expect neither spangles nor top hats at the New Budapest Orpheum Society’s January 17 “Jewish Cabaret In Exile” performance at the University of Chicago. Though this is cabaret, it’s not “Cabaret”. Instead the group, named after a Hungarian cabaret active in 1880s Vienna, will present a collection of historical songs from some of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ best Jewish cabaret composers, many of whom were forced to flee their home countries because of anti-Semitism and official disapproval of cabaret’s antagonistic political commentary. Even without “The Blue Angel”-style glamour, the New Budapest Orpheum Society has beauty to spare: the ensemble, made up of three classically-trained singers, piano, violin, double bass and percussion, presents heartbreaking melodies commemorating pogrom, personal loss, and exile.

The New Budapest Orpheum Society’s place in cabaret tradition is hard to define. “Obviously we do revive things, but we’re not revivalists in the sense of klezmer groups,” says Philip Bohlman, a professor of music at the UofC and director of the group. Klezmer underwent a popular resurgence in the 1990s, suddenly appropriated by jazz musicians and dancing accordion fans, and groups like the New Klezmer Trio “revived” klezmer to such a point that it was almost totally reinvented. The revival that Bohlman’s group attempts is more like a reconstruction: old songbooks are excavated from historical archives, then arranged for an ensemble and translated from the original German or Yiddish for American audiences. The final performances in cultural centers, university concert halls, and synagogues bear little resemblance to the underground clubs that originally hosted lower-class Jewish cabarets.

But Bohlman believes that such a historical approach creates music that can still live today. When the Society performed at last November’s Kristallnacht anniversary at the Chicago Cultural Center, the songs were no less moving because of their vintage. Similarly, a performance in memory of 1933’s Nazi book burnings has just as much relevance to modern incidents of blocked speech and the suppression of a culture. In several clubs and wine bars in Vienna today, cabaret goes on strong–and it’s not just old songs that they play. “There’s a living tradition there, and in Berlin also,” Bohlman says. “In the past decade, there have been cabaret songs against Jörg Haider and the Austrian Freedom Party”–a right-wing political party whose leader, Haider, was accused of anti-Semitism and xenophobia before his death in 2008. Just as in the pre-war era, cabaret songs are a creative form of subversion and attack, but the genre is flexible enough to keep up with modern targets.

Though cabaret is often associated with French acts such as the Moulin Rouge, a vibrant strain developed in Vienna at the turn of the century in response to the influx of Jews from across Central and Eastern Europe. Vienna had a diverse population because of its position in the sprawling Habsburg Empire, and upper-class, assimilated Jews were an integral part of the city’s artistic and cultural circles. When poor Jews from Galicia, Hungary and elsewhere arrived in the city with their own folk music traditions, a new society of cosmopolitan, politicized musicians and audiences sprang up as dissatisfied Jewish composers like Hannes Eisler moved to the outer districts looking to cause trouble for the establishment. The newcomers, many of whom spoke Yiddish, slowly dropped their own languages for German (or, as similar situations unfolded in Warsaw and Budapest, Polish and Hungarian)–all the better to mock the authorities. “It’s a music that has its own elite intellectual politics to it,” says Bohlman. Considering the nature of the venue, it should be a perfect fit.

Fulton Recital Hall, Goodspeed Hall, 1010 E. 59th St. January 17. Saturday, 7:30 pm. Free. music.uchicago.edu