Authors, publishers, and, presumably, readers show no signs of becoming bored with the cultural history of the decades before the First World War. And indeed the fin de siècle, the belle époque, remains fascinating because it can be seen both as the end of an age in Europe, the last years of a triumphant bourgeois liberalism, doomed, as we now see it, by the catastrophe of 1914, and as a period of unusual brilliance in the arts during which the foundations of twentieth-century modernism were being laid. However, the popularity of the period poses problems for the writer as the main topics become exhausted and as the principal centers of cultural life (Paris in the “banquet years,” Vienna 1900) have been intensively studied.

At first sight, then, Turn-of-the-Century Cabaret seems a subject to turn to when all others have been preempted. But even if the theme is a marginal one, Professor Segel has in fact written an interesting piece of cultural and social history that looks at the international artistic avant-garde from a new perspective. Verbal descriptions of past artistic events can only partly convey what they might have been like, but Segel has re-created something of the excitement and the sense of the new that gave rise to these ventures from Paris to Kraków and from Barcelona to Moscow.

It was of course nothing new for artists and writers to meet in a favorite coffee house or tavern; but, according to Segel, the cabarets of Europe between 1881, when the Chat Noir in Paris was founded, and 1916–1917, when the Dada movement emerged from the Café Voltaire in Zurich, were a unique phenomenon, “very much at the center of the upheaval in the arts then taking place in Europe” and something quite distinct from the cafés, café-concerts, music halls, and nightclubs that came before and after them. The prototype—literally so, since it was to be copied in many cities of Europe—was the Chat Noir in Montmartre. Starting as a meeting place for writers and artists where drinks were served, it provided entertainment, with poets reciting their work and chansonniers, of whom the best known is probably Aristide Bruant, performing songs that were tough, cynical pieces of satirical social criticism. He is still today a familiar figure from the lithographs and posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, even if his songs are forgotten.

Segel’s excerpts from the verses of the chansonniers show clearly how cabaret performers were contributing to the atmosphere of the 1890s in France, when artists and intellectuals had some sympathy with those anarchists who resorted to “propaganda by the deed,” expressing their hatred for bourgeois society by throwing bombs into the stock exchange or the parliament and even into popular cafés, on the grounds that no one was innocent in a corrupt and unjust society. The anarchist writer Laurent Tailhade, an habitué of the Chat Noir, proclaimed, “Qu’importe les vagues humanités, pourvu que le geste soit beau,” and in fact he became a victim of his own beliefs when a bomb exploded in a restaurant where he was eating.

Although Segel does not follow up the implications of the social criticism associated with the Chat Noir or the Mirliton, it is quite clear from his extensive quotations from their songs how charged with anarchist feelings they were. (It is, incidentally, one of the many merits of Segel’s book that he gives long extracts in the original languages as well as in translation to illustrate the songs characteristic of each of the different cabarets.)

The cabaret craze quickly spread from Paris to other European cities, although, for reasons that Professor Segel only hints at, it never really took hold in England and Italy (where the Italian Futurists provided their own disruptive entertainment). Segel gives a detailed account of the cabarets, their sponsors, performers, and clients, in Barcelona, Munich, Vienna, Kraków, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Zurich. In Barcelona the name of the cabaret, Els Quatre Gats, recalled that of the Chat Noir; and it is interesting to learn that the Green Ballcon in Kraków was inspired by a visit to Paris by the dramatist Jan August Kisielewski and was modeled directly on the Chat Noir rather than the cabarets of Vienna, the capital of the state to which Kraków at that time belonged.

Each cabaret had its own flavor given by its own national culture. In Barcelona the flowering of the Quatre Gats was closely linked to the Catalan national revival of the 1890s. In Kraków the Green Balloon was an offshoot of the “Young Poland” at the turn of the century: it was, as one of its writers later recorded,

an outburst of mad gaiety, a boisterous laugh whose echoes reverberated throughout all of Poland; it was a “counsel of revision,” sometimes cruel, of the many false grandeurs and official falsehoods which for a very long time found shelter within the labyrinths of our complicated and tormented national life.

The Bat in Moscow, although taking its name from the Fledermaus in Vienna, was very much a local product, starting as a place where actors from the Moscow Arts Theater entertained each other after performances, often with parodies of the plays in which they had been acting. It later developed into a theater with short plays and dances and its own special “living doll” numbers in which the actors pretended to be puppets, following, as Professor Segel suggests, a Russian tradition that also found expression in the Stravinsky/Benois ballet Petrouchka. The Moscow Bat was to survive longer than most of the other cabarets, since its founder, Nikita Baliev, resurrected it in Paris after the Revolution as the Chauve-Souris company, which had considerable success in Europe and America between the wars.


From being places where artists and writers could meet, display their paintings—a notable feature of the Quatre Gats, where Picasso was exhibiting in 1900 at the age of nineteen—and recite their works to each other, the cabarets became increasingly centers of more public entertainment. Since so much of what they were doing was intended to be subversive, socially as well as artistically, their activities were inevitably affected by the attitude of the local authorities. In Berlin, for example, the Prussian censorship made political satire very difficult, and the principal impresario of the Berlin cabaret, Ernst von Wolzogen, made the point that his satire at least would be somewhat muted:

The satires of the times and customs which you will be able to hear in my establishment will be those, so to speak, of a well-educated man of the world with no political party proclivity. A well-wishing smile, gentle but expressive, should sweep over the stage.

In Munich, on the other hand, as was demonstrated by the irreverent magazine Simplicissimus, which maintained its humorous and satirical onslaught on the authorities for a generation, the Bavarian officials were more relaxed. The entertainment provided at the Munich cabaret, the Elf Scharfrichter (Eleven Executioners), was tougher than in Berlin, with the French chanteuse Marya Delvard, an austere, white-faced figure in a long black dress, singing Frank Wedekind’s bleak ballads of seduction and death. (She was not without her critics: Franz Kafka was to complain that she always sang in “the same tough, unbreakable voice” and accused her of only playing at revolution.) However, even if the Bavarian authorities were more tolerant than the Prussians, the Catholic Church was influential enough to have the police clamp down on some of the cabaret performances that were regarded as dangerously subversive in their political and sexual implications—as indeed they were intended to be by Wedekind and the other writers and performers.

In Vienna there was already a coffee-house society; and the Café Griensteidl was in the 1890s providing a meeting place for the writers of the Jung-Wien circle, which included Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, and Peter Altenberg. There was in fact no need for cabaret as a center for writers and artists; and, from 1910 on, Karl Kraus was to provide a sort of one-man cabaret with his own extraordinary public readings and recitations. It is perhaps not surprising that the first cabaret, the Jung-Wiener Theater zum lieben Augustin, was a failure. Then, when the Elf Scharfrichter in Munich closed in 1903, some of its writers and performers started up again in a cabaret in Vienna called Nachtlicht. This too did not last long, and its end was hastened by a fight between its director, Marc Henry, and Karl Kraus in which, according to the writer and cultural historian Egon Friedell (himself a cabaret performer), “with no warning at all, Marc Henry lunged at Kraus whom he thrashed nastily to the point of senselessness. It was extremely unpleasant and rough. In an effort to make peace, I found myself pushed aside unceremoniously and lay in a corner on the floor with a sprained finger [and] broken pince-nez.” The cabaret world was not all conviviality; and the row rumbled on for months in Kraus’s periodical Die Fackel and even in the law courts.

The next Vienna venture was more successful; the Fledermaus was able to win the support of painters and architects, including Kokoschka and Adolf Loos, and its premises were designed and furnished by the Wiener Werkstätte so that it really did provide a complete modern ambiance for its patrons and performers. The entertainment itself included, Professor Segel tells us, “the versatile Carl Hollitzer who never failed to delight an audience with his provincial farmhand songs,” and modern dances to music by Grieg and Schumann. But its main attraction seems to have been the sketches and stories of that cult figure of the Viennese bohème Peter Altenberg, who himself defined cabaret as “the theater of the art of Small Forms, the art of doing small things in the theater the way really big things are done.” (It must be said, though, that the examples Segel gives of the stories by Altenberg narrated in the cabarets confirm the opinion I have long held that he must have been one of the great bores of the early twentieth century.)


Nearly all the cabarets Segel describes included in their performances puppet plays and shadow shows (ombres chinoises), an art form which has now largely been forgotten in the West but which had a particular appeal in the age of the Symbolists. As one fan wrote,

They have made of the “Chinese shadows” the generalizing and philosophical art par excellence, an art that gives pleasure to children by its simplicity and supreme clarity, and to thoughtful mature minds by its power of synthesis…. The shadows…are truly the shadows of Plato’s cave. That is because the outlines and appearances of things are the things themselves. All reality is nothing but a reflection.

What many people were seeking in the cabaret was a combination of the popular, the intimate, and the subversive with the sense of belonging to an artistic avant-garde. The cabaret, Segel suggests, was to be simultaneously Kleinkunst and a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, providing an environment and performances in which all the arts would merge to produce in miniature and in an accessible popular form the emotional impact of a full-scale theater.

The last manifestation of this world was the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, founded in 1916 at a time when Switzerland provided a refuge for those who, for whatever reason, wanted to avoid or escape the war. It was started by the German writer Hugo Ball and it soon became the home of the Dada movement—a protest not only against the war but against the whole of bourgeois society and its artistic and social values. Dada, the sculptor Hans Arp wrote, “sought to jolt men out of their wretched unconsciousness.” And Ball himself, in a lecture in 1917, said, “An epoch disintegrates. A thousand-year-old culture disintegrates. There are no columns and supports, no foundations any more—they have all been blown up.” Performances at the Cabaret Voltaire became more and more wild and more and more fantastic, with a cult of the primitive and bizarre and exotic masks and costumes. Segel reproduces a photo of Hugo Ball in his “cubist” costume, which he wore to recite his “verses without words,” such as “Sea-horses and Flying Fish,” one verse of which runs:

zitti kitillabi billabi billabi
zikko di zakkobam
fisch kitti bisch
bumbalo bumbalo bumbalo bambo
zitti kitillabi
zack hitti zopp

By 1919 and the end of the Cabaret Voltaire, Dada was launched as an international movement, but the irony was that the cabaret entertainment that had set out to be a link between “advanced” art and popular culture ended by producing a movement in which language itself was to become unintelligible and which seemed to many to embody the split between a small avant-garde elite and the tastes and interests of ordinary people.


The cabaret in its various manifestations was for a short time a form of entertainment that linked the taste of the avant-garde to the popular taste for chansons, Bänkelsänger (who performed on benches at German fairs), and the grim German Moritaten, ballads of crime, punishment, and death. Elaine Brody includes in her Paris: The Musical Kaleidoscope an essay on café-concerts, cabaret, and music halls, covering, but on a broader scale, some of the same ground as Segel’s chapter on the Paris cabarets. She too shows some of the links between popular music and a more “elitist” art and the influence on serious composers of the music of the cabaret and music hall.

Debussy was a friend of some of the founders of the Chat Noir and even occasionally played the piano there, and Edward Lockspeiser suggested in his Debussy: His Life and Mind (1962) that he might have met Tchaikovsky at a performance of ombres chinoises in 1888. It was at the Auberge du Clou, where Miguel Utrillo, the father of the better-known Maurice and an original member of the Chat Noir circle, opened a shadow theater, that Debussy met Erik Satie, the resident pianist and composer of the music for a shadow play. Although Debussy was later to express contempt for the music of the chansonniers, his friendship with Satie, though by no means untroubled, lasted till the end of his life, by which time Satie, from having been regarded as an untalented eccentric, was becoming a revered figure for a new generation of composers and artists. The link between popular and serious composers may also have been a practical one, since it was, as Dr. Brody points out, Paul Henrion, a performer at café-concerts, who in 1851 launched the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM) to ensure payment of royalties on performances, a step from which serious composers presumably profited as much as popular ones.

Elaine Brody does not attempt a general account of music in Paris but has written thirteen essays on various aspects of French and Belgian musical life from the death of Berlioz to the heyday of “Les Six” in the 1920s. Some of the chapters—“Wagner in France and France in Wagner,” for instance—cover fairly familiar topics; others are more original. In the essay on the Russians in Paris, 1889–1914, she uses the periodical Le Guide musical to give details of the works by Russian composers performed in Paris, and although she seems a little apologetic about it—“While the following bibliographic essay differs stylistically from the others included here, the material in the Guide proved so rich that it merits inclusion”—it is in fact one of the most interesting sections of the book and chronicles a musical Franco-Russian alliance parallel to the diplomatic one. In “The Spaniards in Paris” she has used the journal of Ravel’s friend, the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes, to show what the life and economic situation of a gifted young pianist were like around the turn of the century—even if the author’s sketching of the historical background is a little unsure. (To say that President Félix Faure was “brutally killed” seems an odd way of describing death from a heart attack while entertaining his mistress in the presidential palace.)

One of the features of the period that both books illustrate is how close painters, writers, and musicians were to one another, especially in Paris. They not only frequented the same cabarets and salons, they also knew and were interested in each others’ work. They moved in the same world and some of them began to think that the barriers between their arts were breaking down. Debussy was fussy about the colors to be used on the covers of his published scores. He was, as Elaine Brody points out in the chapter “Le Japonisme et l’Orientalisme,” sensitive to the parallels between Japanese prints and some of his works and their titles. He suggested of Nuages, one of his orchestral Nocturnes, that it was the musical equivalent of “a greyness tinged with white.” And if composers were thinking of their work in terms of painting, many painters were eager to listen to music and some of them were amateur performers (Dr. Brody might have mentioned Matisse among her peintres mélomanes: he played the violin quite well and was very eager that his sons should become professional musicians). The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk was, as Elaine Brody frequently points out, given a new and rather un-Wagnerian turn by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, which brought composers, painters, and choreographers into active cooperation in which each was equally important.

Elaine Brody’s book is somewhat uneven. It suggests interesting cross-references and points of contact between music and the other arts, and occasionally it conveys some of the excitement she feels when looking at the “musical kaleidoscope.” Too often, though, we are given names without any indication of their significance, and there is surprisingly little about the actual music. I would have liked to learn something about the music that César Franck’s pupil Augusta Holmès wrote, and not just facts about her family relationships; and one wonders what Bourgault-Ducoudray’s Cambodian Rhapsody might have sounded like.

Dr. Brody writes somewhat dismissively of the late Martin Cooper’s pioneering book French Music From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951), but he at least gave an idea of what the work of little-known composers was like, and it is to him one must turn to find out more about, for example, Alfred Bruneau’s cooperation with Emile Zola, whom he used as a librettist, a subject to which Brody devotes two lines. Although she complains that Cooper “took the ‘great man’ approach, dealing with individual composers and their compositions,” the last chapter of her book is devoted to what seem to be rather routine program notes under the title “Masterpieces of French Music 1870–1925.”

Her own sense of excitement sometimes makes her write in a style reminiscent of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters: “Although fairly reticent as a young man, Fauré nevertheless frequented many salons.” There are some loose ends: the sheet music of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles “features a cover illustration by Toulouse-Lautrec,” and one would like to know where this came from, as it can hardly have been drawn especially for the purpose since the Ravel songs were published in 1906 and Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901. Dr. Brody cannot be held responsible for misprints, but it is confusing to be told that the Paris conservatoire received a score from Rimsky-Korsakov in 1847, when the composer was in fact three years old. (Both books have a large number of misprints: Has a misplaced confidence in the word processor killed off the proofreader?)

Still, Elaine Brody’s book is full of odd and fascinating bits of information (such as that Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah was performed in Hebrew in St. Petersburg in 1912 “before the top Jewish society of that city”). It is indeed like a kaleidoscope in that it consists of a number of brightly colored pieces of glass which do not always come together into a coherent pattern. But, like Turn-of-the-Century Cabaret, it reminds us yet again of the vitality and range of artistic activity in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century and the excitement of new forms and ideas, many of which were directed against the artistic tastes and social conventions of a dominant class that nevertheless by its money and patronage made the new art and the new music possible. And this in turn suggests that we still need to explore some large themes from the fin de siècle while we hunt for new topics in the world of Kleinkunst.

This Issue

February 18, 1988