Kevin Clarke: Im Himmel spielt auch schon die JAZZBAND (Emmerich Kalman und die transatlantische operette 1928 – 1932)

Who is the moron who decided to give such a title to this book ? Is it the author himself? And if so, why did the publisher comply with it ? Any normal person buying books starts shopping by letting his eyes roam over titles and cover photo and what he will see is a photo of The Empire State Building and the words Jazzband in bold print. In most German book chains you have to read the title on the back of the book and there next to the big title in white readable letters is the information -in blue unreadable ones- that this book deals with Imre Kalman, one of the greats of the silver age of operetta. I therefore fear that a lot of operetta lovers will not look twice at the book and the loss will be theirs as there is a fascinating story to be told. Mr. Clarke doesn’t deal with the composer’s greatest successes Csardasfürstin (Gypsy Princess) or Gräfin Mariza though of course he often refers to those masterpieces. He concentrates on the four years in Kalman’s career and personal life which were a turning point, though definitely not for the better. Kalman’s personal life got into trouble when he met Maria Mendelsohn, a thirty years younger semi-prostitute who succeeded in blackmailing him into a marriage. This spendthrift nevertheless gave the composer three children and his son Karl (nowadays better known as Charles and a gifted composer himself) was a generous and reliable source. At the same time Kalman ran into trouble as his new creations Die Herzogin von Chicago (thanks Decca for the sublime  recording in the Entartete Kunst-series), Das Veilchen von Montmartre (remember the Jussi Björling recordings) and Der Teufelsreiter were less than successful. In almost 500 pages of narrative Clarke gives us a fascinating insight into the policies of a genre, whose obliteration I once called the greatest musical tragedy of the age. Everything you wanted to know about operetta is here: the way librettists and composer(s) collaborate and quarrel, the influence of singers, the theatre policies of entrepreneurs, the fierce competition and even hatred between composers and especially in Kalman’s case, the influence of personal troubles on a career. Operetta was still a commercial genre in the thirties and therefore money was the fuel of the whole system and the author is not shy, and right he is, to make comparisons with the musical scene nowadays. Clarke succeeds in bringing to life a whole age (happily sometimes stretching those 4 years in a way that often almost half a century is treated). So this book is obligatory reading and enjoyment for anyone who likes this music which is often more inspired and more rewarding than many concoctions by well known opera composers.

Clarke is one of the few young musicologists who takes the genre and everything around it seriously. Happily he is less conceited than the better known Volker Klotz; a man who nowadays is somewhat Mr. Operetta in Germany and a writer full of humbug who discards everything that is not Offenbach or comes near. Still on many a page Clarke parrots Klotz somewhat to the extent that operettas which are not parodies of the genre itself, which don’t make light of situations (like Lehar’s later wonderful tragic operettas) are not worth a discussion in depth. That attitude reminds me somewhat of the pretentious music writing of 60 years ago. I well remember a Flemish musicologist, devoting a whole book to praise Verdi’s Otello while sheepishly concluding that the opera almost reached the musical heights of Lohengrin and even Tannhäuser. Nowadays everybody would laugh at such a judgment which was still somewhat “risqué” at the time. No pretentious and long winding opera by Wagner or Strauss plumbs the depths of most Verdi and Puccini (then considered a vulgar tune smith)  and I would even add Lehar and Kalman to that list. In due time Mr. Clarke will realize that the later works of Lehar and even the works of Fred Raymond and Nico Dostal (not a vulgar copier at all) are not to be dismissed so easily as the young musicologist still does here. There is room for all of them and I’ve never known an operetta lover who didn’t like Gasparone and Fidele Bauer  and Zirkusprinzessin and Land des Lächelns and Clivia.

Mr. Clarke is especially good at describing Kalman’s search for new themes and his many uncertainties in not being able to chose between the old fashioned waltz-operetta or to continue his exploration of new dances like foxtrot and Charleston (hence the Jazzband of the title) which he did in Herzogin von Chicago. Still, I feel Clarke emphasizes too little the crux of the problem. In my opinion Kalman’s problems didn’t arise from his lack of sticking with parody and choice of new musical styles. Kalman in middle age, as most great names before and after him,  lost the gift of melody; of creating that irresistible tune one immediately recognizes after one or two hearings and which takes a few days to leave your system.  Lehar who lost out to Kalman from 1915 till 1925 could of course rebound back with the help of a singer of genius like Richard Tauber. But Tauber recorded dozens of operetta arias and songs which are now forgotten while any great tenor worth his salt has recorded the arias created by Tauber; just because Lehar till his Giuditta (1934) continued to pour out immortal melodies in old age. Though Mr. Clarke and this reviewer may differ on this point, I hope I made it clear this is a wonderful book and I sincerely hope Mr. Clark will continue to mine the genre. So many wonderful works remain to be discovered and we are still lacking good biographies of great masters like Leo Fall, Carl Millöcker, Nico Dostal. And Mr. Clarke, who I believe is half American, can be the author who bridges the real transatlantic operetta world. I’d love to read a book on Romberg, Friml, Herbert with the depth and scope Kevin Clarke brings to this Kalman one.

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia