From the Editor: Death Must be Viennese

Orbituary of Cabarettist Georg Kreisler: 1922-2011

Dardis McNameeComposer and cabaret singer Georg Kreisler entered my life as a dictation in a German class.  It was in 1996, early in my time in Vienna, and a spirited teacher at the Volkshochschule Brigittenau decided to challenge the students in the B2 class with the irresistible verses of “Tauben vergiften im Park” (Poisoning Pigeons in the Park) – one of Kreisler’s trademark bits of black humour that made him a cabaret legend in 1950s Vienna. It was hard-going for an intermediate German class. Still, you knew people were getting it, as suppressed giggles rippled about the room.

This first encounter led to the discovery of Kreisler’s “best of” song collection Everblacks, where I received important lessons in the culture of my new home:  For example “Der Tod, das muss ein Wiener sein” (“Death must surely be a Viennese”) as “he” understands the importance of punctually at the Gates of Heaven, or, my favorite, the deliciously scathing “Wie schön wäre Wien ohne Wiener” (“How beautiful Vienna would be without the Viennese”). This gleeful revenge fantasy gives voice to the bottomless sense of betrayal of the Vertriebenen, those who had been driven out of their beloved city after the Anschluss.

With transcendent merriment, Kreisler sings of his beautiful Vienna that, “like a sleeping woman,” is presumably better to look at than to have to deal with. He sings of empty streets and unspoiled parks that would be a boon for tourism. And think! No more construction sites! No more folk bands! And not a blessed thing on television! And in this paradise, he muses, anti-Semitism would finally be consigned to the dusty shelves of a second-hand bookshop.

Born in Vienna in 1922 in a middle-class Jewish family, Kreisler and his parents were forced into exile in 1938, emigrating to the U.S., where he became a citizen in 1943. He returned to Europe with the army, acting as a translator and with opera scholar Marcel Prawy, writing and performing songs for the troupes. In Hollywood after the war, he performed in nightclubs and film studios, serving, for example, as ghost pianist for Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. Record companies were less receptive, finding the biting wit of his songs “un-American,” according to his biographers, and he returned to Vienna in 1955.

Here he became a fixture of the legendary Wiener Kabarett, alongside Helmut Qualtinger, Gerhard Bronner and Peter Wehle, then went independent, performing solo with his then-wife Topsy Küppers at the Marietta-Bar. He wrote songs and verses, stage and radio plays, cabaret sketches and musicals, including the highly successful Heute Abend, Lola Blau, and the television series, Die heiße Viertelstunde.

His relationship to Vienna was an uneasy one, however. As popular as he was with critics and his cabaret audiences, his increasingly biting political humor also led to censorship on both television and radio. His critiques of Austrian politics, made all the more powerful by his dazzling lyric gift, may have simply pushed too far in a country still in such deep denial about its role in the war.  He was never invited to reclaim his Austrian citizenship, nor did the City of Vienna choose to honor him, as it did, for example, for Marcel Prawy.

“This city never lifted a finger for me,” he was quoted recently in the German news weekly Der Spiegel. “Rather than welcomed, I was chased away with bared teeth.” Kreisler became a man without a country, moving to Munich in 1958, then Berlin (1976), Salzburg (1988) and Basel (1992), finally returning to Salzburg in 2007.

He never lived in Vienna again.

Still, he visited from time to time on a series of “Farewell Tours,” the last in 2001. After that, he concentrated on poetry, publishing Zufällig in San Francisco: Unbeabsichtete Gedichte (Accidentally in San Francisco: Unintentional Poems), awarded the 2010 Friederich Hölderlin Prize.

It was to read from these and other lyrics that Kreisler was back in Vienna last January, at the venerable Kabarett Simpl.  Bent over and clearly frail, he shuffled onto the stage on the arm of his wife, actress Barbara Peters, and seated himself awkwardly behind a desk. As he began to read, the years fell away, his resonant voice filling the hall, answering with hers, ringing with perfect clarity to the back of the house, the music of words, the masterful marriage of sound and sense.

Georg Kreisler died on 22 Nov. in Salzburg at the age of 89. Perhaps it mattered to him after all to die in Austria, even if not in Vienna. “Your homeland remains your homeland,” he once said, “even when you have been clobbered with it.”

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