Songwriter, composer, and cabaret performer
Georg Franz Kreisler was an Austrian-American songwriter, playwright, composers, novelist, and cabaret performer who spent most of his career in German-speaking Europe. The experience of immigration and remigration is a central theme in his artistic work, as evident in many of his songs and musicals—most notably in Heute Abend: Lola Blau, one of the most widely performed works in contemporary European musical theater.
Kreisler was born on July 18, 1922 in Vienna, Austria. It was here that Kreisler first began his training in classical music, which included private lessons in piano with Hilde Klein, violin with Felix Lenz, and music theory with Walther Klein. However, despite this early training among some of Vienna’s most renowned musicians, Kreisler never received formal academic instruction as a musician. His middle-class Jewish family escaped Austria in the spring of 1938 after the Nazi occupation of the country. They fled to Los Angeles where close relatives, like screenplay writer Walter Reisch, were working in Hollywood. Here, Kreisler began to gain experience in the entertainment business, including working as the pianist for Charlie Chaplin. His duties entailed—among other things—transcribing Chaplin’s melodies for him. Kreisler also sang in choirs and worked as a rehearsal pianist and piano accompanist.
Early Success in the United States
Around 1940, Kreisler was thus starting out in a promising career writing popular music for the American entertainment industry. At the same, he tried to enroll for Arnold Schoenberg’s composition class at UCLA, but was unsuccessful because he had been unable to finish school in Austria and thus lacked the necessary qualifications. One wonders how Kreisler’s career might have developed if he had become a pupil of Schoenberg, who was then the most famous and influential Avant-garde composer and teacher. After all, Kreisler’s later catalogue rasoinné includes several early art music pieces: Drei Klavierstücke (Three piano pieces, 1947),Sonata for Piano (1952),Five Bagatelles for Piano (1953), and Klavierkonzert (Piano Concerto, ca. 1955). In his later years, Kreisler returned to art music. He composed two operas, Der Aufstand der Schmetterlinge (The Revolt of the Butterflies)and Das Aquarium oder Die Stimme der Vernunft (The Aquarium, or The Voice of Reason);several art songs for mezzo-soprano, piano, and violin titled Fünf Lieder für Barbara (Five Songs for Barbara);and a work for baritone, soprano, oboe, violin, cello, and piano called Untergangssextett (Downfall Sextet).Most of his career, however, was devoted to creating popular music for wider audiences.
During the final stages of World War II, Kreisler—like many other European émigrés—served in the U.S. Army, acting mainly as a translator and troop entertainer. He gained experience as a songwriter and, even more importantly, as an author of musical theater. After World War II, Kreisler received further training as a professional night club entertainer in New York. Beginning around 1950, he enjoyed some success as a cabaret singer-songwriter in New York clubs like the Monkey Bar and on tour, though attempts to find work as writer on Broadway remained unsuccessful. It was during this time in New York that he developed his signature performance style as a singer-songwriter, accompanying himself on the piano.
Musical Theater in Postwar Europe
Returning to Vienna in 1955, Kreisler went on to become one of the most prolific and virtuosic cabaret songwriter in German-speaking Europe after the war. Though he retained the American citizenship he acquired in 1943, Kreisler spent most of his later years in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. For many years, he resided in Munich, Berlin, Basel, and Salzburg. He did however return for extended personal visits to the United States. He reached the peak of his popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, but maintained a strong group of supporters for the rest of his career.
As the premier dates of Kreisler’s art music works discussed above indicate, his strong interest in the style remained hidden from the public for most of his career. His talents as a composer have always been overshadowed by his extraordinary abilities as a writer of cabaret song lyrics, as a performer—both singing and accompanying himself on the piano—of his own works, and finally as a polarizing figure because of his unwillingness to compromise politically.
All his life, Kreisler kept his old Austrian passport with the red “J” for Jew that had been stamped in it by the Nazi administration. The way German and Austrian societies behaved under Nazi rule and how reluctant they were to deal with the past after the war became a central theme of Kreisler’s artistic work and personal agenda. Still, in its focus on language, its style of singing in a strong baritone voice and heavy Viennese accent, Kreisler’s work can been seen as deeply rooted in German-speaking culture. These elements largely overshadowed the influence his experience in America had on him though, as an artist, Kreisler was equally schooled in and well-informed about the standards of both cultural traditions.
In addition to the two operas already mentioned, Kreisler also took part in almost three dozen musical theater projects during his career either as a composer, arranger, performer, librettist, lyricist, and translator. Among these is the musical Heute Abend: Lola Blau, which was written for one female actor-singer with piano accompaniment. Following an autobiographical plot, it deals with the problems of immigration and remigration that Kreisler had himself experienced. Its dominant theme is a sense of spiritual and personal homelessness: The main character, an actress and singer, flees Europe due to anti-Semitism, but as an immigrant is not well-received in American society and ends up as a prostitute. Upon her return to Europe, she is forced to recognize that returnees are unwanted here, too. The piece reflects to some extent Kreisler’s personal experience with the problems of immigration and remigration exploring onstage the feelings of being foreign and unwanted everywhere shared by so many Nazi refuges and postwar returnees. It is one of the most widely performed pieces of popular musical theater in German-speaking Europe since its Viennese premiere in 1971 and has been performed in venues as varied as small café stages and large public theaters.
A Transatlantic Life
Georg Kreisler was married four times, twice in the United States and twice in Europe, and fathered three children. His first son was born in Los Angeles, while his second son and his daughter were born in Munich. This family tree, thus, symbolizes Kreisler’s transatlantic life. His first wife Philine Hollaender, a fellow refuge, was the daughter of Friedrich Hollaender, one of the best-known cabaret singer-songwriters in Germany in the 1920s. His third wife was the Austrian cabaret performer Topsy Küppers, with whom he recorded extensively around 1970. She also starred in the premiere of Heute Abend: Lola Blau. His fourth wife was cabaret performer Barbara Peters, with whom he also had a strong working relationship both in recordings and on stage.
Although he finally stopped performing around 2000 because of his age, Kreisler kept a full schedule for the rest of his life, writing, and composing. Besides his musical work, Kreisler also wrote many novels, autobiographical texts, and song lyrics, touring widely to hold public readings of his published works. He died on November 22, 2011 in Salzburg, Austria.
Drei Klavierstückepremiered in Bad Homburg von der Höh, Germany in 2010.
Sonata for Pianopremiered in Essen in 2009 (part II) and Berlin 2012 (whole work).
Five Bagatelles for Piano premiered in Bad Homburg von der Höh, Germany in 2010 (parts II, IV and V) and Berlin in 2012 (whole work).
Der Aufstand der Schmetterlingepremiered in Vienna in 2000.
Das Aquarium oder Die Stimme der Vernunft premiered in Rostock, Germany in 2009.
Fünf Lieder für Barbara premiered in Berlin 2012.
Untergangssextett premiered in Salzburg in 2012.