This is day 20 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
The three years that I spent working with John O’Brien were some of most eventful and magical that I can remember. One summer in particular, the whole world seemed to speed up like a fairground ride, an emotional Spaghetti Junction of people, places, love, meetings, partings, music, song, dance and balmy weather (many of the people mentioned in this Advent Calendar met each other in that summer at one of Gilly’s barbecues, and there was something decidedly spooky about how everyone else somehow interconnected too). I made friends, I lost friends, fell in and out of love, felt unpredictably desolate and ecstatic in equal measure, all of it accompanied by & interwoven with the songs I learned while I was working for the first time with Gertrude Thoma and Nicolas Mead their show, From Brecht to Brel; and that’s how I fell in love with German cabaret music once and for all.
You have to know that Gertrude is the most amazing singer I’ve ever come across, a deep voice like a knife through velvet in a back alley, and an almost terrifying presence that can go from warmth to danger and back again in the space of a semiquaver. It didn’t matter how many times she sang the same song, every performance held some new surprise, and she could pin an audience to the wall with her eyes and her voice. She had such musical autonomy, accompanying her was bliss, and you felt free to play with the music in ever more adventurous ways.
One of my favourite songs in her repertoire was Zwei dunkle Augen, a Friedrich Hollaender song from the revue
Es liegt in der Luft (1930) Bei uns um die Gedächtniskirche rum (1927) [thanks to Stephan Wuthe for the correction, see comment below] , with mad lyrics and even madder harmony. (Gertrud explained the context of this song expertly – but you can find the lyrics, and a fine discussion of what it was satirizing in Verwaltete Kultur oder kulturelle Freiheit? – Momentaufnahmen. aus der Weimarer Republik 1918-1933 (PDF, 4.27MB). She delivered the single word ‘Literatur’ in the line “Verkehrsinseln in dem Meere der Literatur” with a comic gravity as unforgettable as Edith Evans’ “A handbag?” in The Importance of Being Earnest. Musically, it’s a nuthouse. At the end of the second line, the cadence drops straight down a semitone with no preamble or preparation, like falling down a step in the dark. It’s an eccentric mixture of wild operatic declamations, fragmented tangos and harmonic bungee-jumping.
Apart from the fact that it works very well for one of John’s ‘tango’ allegros, and that I managed to persuade Gertrude to sing that other famous Hollaender song Johnny, wenn du Geburtstag hast for John’s birthday at the crack of dawn (we’d both woken up in a house in Barnes with a grand piano after a party, round the corner from John who we invited round for a surprise performance) this song more than any other reminds me of that extraordinary time. It’s those kind of places that my musical energy comes from, and that in turn is something that developed naturally through working with John, so it’s most appropriate that he should have it as his Advent calendar music.