Faultlessly fitting tuxedo, hair slicked back, a cheeky look and Max Raabe sings the best of the 20s and early 30s with amusing nostalgia. Songs, hits and couplets. Cuban rumbas, cheerful foxtrots and elegant tangos. Songs of amazingly serious, amusing yet melancholy simplicity. The ironic lyrics suit the times today as they did eighty years ago. In the concert halls of New York, Shanghai, Paris, Berlin and Moscow, in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Vienna, Amsterdam and Rome the audiences celebrate Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester with incredible enthusiasm. An attempt at an answer.
When Max Raabe with an incredibly straight face, ironically raised eyebrow and slightly bent elbow enters the stage almost carelessly, sends a sardonic look to the audience and with the greatest non- chalance and melodramatically rolling “r” admits: “I break the hearts of the most aloof women. I have such incredible luck with the ladies. My blood is lava and that is the trick”, well the man doesn’t only seem to be a strange otherworldly phenomenon to the delicate natures of the 21st Century.
Even a good twenty years after the founding of the Palast Orchester, after countless performances at home and abroad, from Luebeck to Los Angeles, from Munich to Montreaux, the singer who is always perfectly attired astounds his contemporaries with an amazing old-fashionedness. Very anachronistically as if from a far-away time he sings “My heart is only yours”, “My brother makes the sound effects in the talkies”, “Bel Ami” or “My little green cactus” – historic jewels, almost archaic seeming songs, hits and cabaret of the twenties and early thirties, a long lost era. The amazing thing is: He peforms them with such simply precise, dry and down-to-earth and yet at the same time excitingly present perfection that the eighty-year-old songs sound as fresh and vivid as they did at their very first performance. They’re therefore not just re-makes nor more or less well played old hits or bittersweet memories for the generation which grew- up with the old shellac records and rumba and foxtrott, but rather wonderful new interpretations which reveal the timeless moderness of this brilliant music. Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester want to keep the unique music of this epoch alive and let it shine night after night. Not as museum pieces, but rather as timeless entertainment whose skewed humor and mocking irony have no peer in Germany.
One doesn’t need to say much about the music of the Palast Orchester. The pieces speak for themselves. For the most part they were written towards the end of the Weimar Republic. In this open, contradictory time period new paths were forged in all of the arts. Culturally unglamourous times they were not when Josephine Baker danced across the stages of Berlin in a banana skirt. Jazz infected those hungry for entertainment during the roaring twenties.
The Pieces Speak for Themselves
Revues, variety shows, cabaret and dancing halls sprouted up everywhere. The Charleston became the hip-swinger of the season. An indispensible part of the great revues and the glittering Friedrich-straße was the hundred-meter-long well-formed legs chorus line of the Tiller Girls’, which seductively and at the same time threateningly precisely swung to the beat. Yet theater and political cabaret were also an expression of this incredible epoch. Dadaism, Surrealism, new functionalism and other avantgarde experiments to asthetically capture new realities alternated with the need for popular entertainment. Jazz, swing, slowfox, foxtrot – music in tune with all the rhythms of the times. And of course the hits, the modern medium back then, a fantastic combination of music, lyrics and dance. Composers such as Walter Jurmann, Friedrich Hollaender, Willy Rosen, Theo Mackeben and Werner Richard Heymann wrote their melodies for operettas and musicals just as finely as those for revues, cabaret, dance houses and theaters. Just a few measures in their songs and hits transport the feeling of the times. Some of their compositions were composed overnight and were sung all over Berlin the following day. Many became evergreens, transending horrible times the Weimar Republic failed. After 1933 Germany robbed itself of its culture, its talents were exiled or killed. The lyricists and composers, whose names were to be made forgotten, celebrate a quiet triumph today. They have found a young audience which has dis- covered and learned to love the skewed humor and mocking irony, the melancholy of these superficially harmless songs and their amusing nostalgia. Often they reflect the comedy and tragedy of human nature in their just three to four-minute duration.
Raabe is their most superb singer. This flexible baritone, which he can lead to the highest tenor hights and drop into a bottomless bass, unites it all: the cunning rasping of the cabaret singer, the confident belcanto hero, the oily melodiousness of the revue beau, the carefree timbre of early jazz, the falsetto of ragtime. Very lightly, softly yet vivdly his voice carries across the theater with Walter Jurmann’s “Ninon.” Whistled refrains alternate with frivolous-cryptic ambiguity; elegant pianissimo notes with the brilliant nonsense of his accompanying presentation. Flawlessly the music-ians of the Palast Orchester sing – when they step up to the microphone and enter the spotlight around Max Raabe – Werner Richard Heymann’s “Darling, my heart says hello to you.” Max Raabe’s art lies in revealing the enigmatic intelligent ambiguity in addition to the musical power and complexity of these “German chansons” from the turbulent Weimar Republic: Between melancholy and irony, rebellion and resignation, elegy and slapstick there is often only half a measure, sometimes just a single note, a mere word, a syllable.
Melancholy and Irony
As well as listening to the pleasure of these streetwise songs of love and loss, of looking for happiness, of falling prickly balcony vegetaion and the fear of other disasters, for those who desire to, a pithy analysis of social situations and a merciless diagnosis of human relationships can be seen, these have apparently changed much less than one would expect over the course of the years. Dissapoint- ment follows hope, disillusionment follows dreams and age follows youth – these not such uplifting life’s wisdoms on the transitoriness of life on earth however, sound like pure entertainment when performed by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester. Like a revue of ever crazy life, like a roller coaster of emotion. Simply indestructible is the belief, which never sounds as lovely as when Max Raabe quietly promises: “Somewhere in the world - there is a little bit of happiness. - And I’m dreaming of it right now…”
After all: He looked for it himself – and found it. Already in the children’s church choir of the Westphalian small-town of Lünen, where he was born in 1962, he learned about the wonders of music. In the third grade he was impressed by the operas of Wagner. And Beethoven’s 9th symphony floored him. “From this moment onwards I knew that I wanted to become a singer.” Later on in the church choir of his boarding school he further developed this early love and listened, in addition to Wagner and Beethoven, to the peculiar sounds of the roaring twenties – which were suddenly played on the radio – first and fore- most the famous old recordings of the “Comedian Harmonists”. “I’m Crazy about Hilde” was his first shellac record, which he found in his parents cupboard. A jovial, fast foxtrot, which at the same time exudes sadness. His very first performance he had at a boy scout social at the church where small sketches were supposed to be performed and jokes to be told. Berlin was one of the names that ran around in his head.
This made him leave tranquil Westphalia and the Catholic diocese of Paderborn for Berlin where he has lived since he was twenty. He then began taking voice lessons privately. In order to finance his seven-year studies of opera at the renowned Berlin University of the Arts young Raabe trimmed large green hedges, mowed the lawns of other people, cleaned dark house foyers and sang here and there for a bit of money and to the enjoyment of the other neighbors. He actually had really wanted to become an opera singer with his flexible baritone voice. Yet in 1986 first a seemingly distant yet also obvious possiblity opened up to finance his studies: to found a “palace orchestra,” to perform the hits from the 20s and 30s. But first the sheet music had to be found. With fellow students of the conservatory, who also enjoyed the old hits, Raabe dug through archives, flea markets and antiquarian bookshops, collected old records and films with whose help it finally became possible to create authentic polyphone sounding orchestral arrangements.
The First Shellac Record
Music which is so rigid, archaic and simple as the sound of the 20s, should sound the way one knows it from old records and films. “I love clichés, the intact world of the early talkies. Even if it never really exisited in reality. And its like that with our music. We tell the people something and that’s not nostalgia. But rather sweet frolic.” Rehearsals went on for an entire year, almost too long. Then at Berlin’s Theaterball in 1987 their premiere, the first live performance of the twelve member Palast Orchester and their charismatic singer, who looks like an incredibly well-dressed bean pole. They may have only played in the lowly foyer, but the people wound up staying instead of moving on into the main ballroom. They were so well-loved that they had to perform their program twice in a row. The crowd wanted it that way – and they still didn’t go home.
Max Raabe was still just a local legend, renowned in Berlin. Sophisticated, urban, certainly cosmo- politan, but the world didn’t know of him yet. The now certified baritone decided to take up his own pen. Picking up on his own deeply human ex-perience he wrote and composed the timelessly true lament “No one ever calls, no one has a care for me” in 1992 and captured the mood and feeling of thousands of people in the age of telecommunica-tion. Back then Max Raabe wrote the gag for a variety evening in Berlin where the audience expeced the usual homage to the music of the roaring 20s. “Its supposed to be elegant, tastefull nonsense,” the baritone says about his musical offerings. “I liked the idea of standing on stage in elegant tails with the orchestra and celebrating such strong language as “Schwein” (pig) and “Sau” (swine). It was an elegant way of snubbing. It was supposed to be a one-time gag.” Raabe landed a smash hit. What then came is generally called a “breakthrough. ”Concerts were overbooked to back, more and more engagements and bigger concert halls. Raabe was offered theater and film roles: In the new Berlin production of the cult operetta “Im weißen Rössl” he plays Dr. Siedler, in Peter Zadek’s “The Blue Engel” he performed on stage with Eva Mattes and Ute Lemper in the role of a pupil and in Sönke Wortmann’s film hit “Der bewegte Mann” he as well as the entire Palast Orchester could be seen as he could be seen in the TV movie “Charley’s Aunt” and in Werner Herzogs “Invincible.” In 1994 he recorded together with Hildegard Knef the single “That irritated oyster” and three years later ten years Palast Orchester was celebrated with an audience of 20.000 at Berlin’s Wald-bühne. In 2000 the album “Charming Weill” was re-leased, a homage to the great composer Kurt Weill (“Three Penny Opera”) which was awarded the “Classic Echo”. In Latvia the Palast Orchester’s “Super Hits” kicked the “No.1” Album of the Beatles from first place in the charts and in 2002 the Palast Orchester had the honor of opening the Viennese Festival Weeks for an audience of 40.000.
In the repertoire of the Palast Orchester, which now encompases more than 400 songs, classics such as “I’ll kiss your hand, dear lady” and the ever little green cactus can be found as well as many new hybrids: “Carmen, have mercy,” the story of a very lively lady, who tires out every man be-tween the sheets. In “Cloning could be worth it” Raabe threatens his lover: “Should you leave me, then I’ll clone ye, I have your double, you’re no longer trouble…”. When in August 2003 the lavish production “Palast Revue” with changing scenery, Palast ballet troupe and video backdrop premiered in Hamburg’s Thalia Theater the newsagency dpa prais-ed a “triumphant success.” More than 300.000 people have seen the show since its opening. What began with 20 performances in 1986 has blossomed with ten times as many concerts per year into a Berlin in- stitution – of international acclaim. In Spring 2004 the singer from Germany with the bewitching soft voice ellicited standing ovations from the cool New Yorkers. Following two completely sold-out solo concerts in the Neue Galerie on New York’s elegant Upper East Side: long waiting lines along Fifth Avenue for one of the coveted tickets for the additonally added con-cert; shortly thereafter an invitation to perform at the famous Carnegie Hall.
But now back to the original question of his success. Is it the music, is it the lyrics and the melodies? Could it be the pomp and circumstance of the 20s? Is it the musical seriousness? The ability to break up the poses with self-irony? Is it because of his charming manner, the elegance and smart- ness of his appearance? Perhaps it is because he understands in life as on stage to stylize himself to an artform? How? This too, remains his secret. Yet what a lovely one.