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Dance Music in Weimar Republic

Updated on January 11, 2014

WHEN we think of the Weimar Republic, – as the Germany of 1920s is known, – the names of Bauhaus, Einstein, Nosferatu and Metropolis may come to our mind. Below that high art and science roared the savage entertainment of cabarets, restaurants, pleasure gardens and dancing rinks. Deprived of carefree leisure during four years of war and five more years of domestic unrest and economic crisis, Germans avenged as hard as they could and surrendered themselves wholly to “a heady mixture of sex, smoke and satire,” as the entertainment of that time was described. Exuberant alcoholics and depressed bankers alike found it cool to dance, as if dusting themselves off the heavy wartime memories.

Otto Dix. Big City. 1927.
Otto Dix. Big City. 1927.

African Beat: False Start

In 1916 the Dadaist and drummer Hugo Ball performed Negro songs (‘Chant negre’), accompanied by African drums, at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. It was before reggae and hip hop. Thus, bypassing America, German noise makers established a direct contact with African dance culture during the First World War. However, the syncopated rhythms fell on ears deafened from shrapnel and revolutionary speeches, or more likely the performer himself did not take it seriously.

Erich Borchert. A Couple in Cafe.
Erich Borchert. A Couple in Cafe.

Shall We Dance?

After the First World War a new dance craze swept across Europe – foxtrot – but unlike previous dance fads (cakewalk, tango) that passed Europe like shadows, this new music was embraced by all levels of society and retained its mass appeal until the advent of rock’n’roll. At the time Germany was still paralyzed by revolts and economic crisis and entertainment industry was hardly blossoming. At one point in 1923 to buy a record one would have to pay probably several hundred million marks, such was the inflation! But the following rapid recovery saw an unprecedented explosion in all fields of arts and most importantly mass culture. Dance bands were springing up all over; usually they played as resident orchestras at restaurants, hotel drawing rooms and refined cafes. Around the same time (1924) first attempts to record jazz in Germany were made, and it’s interesting to note that domestic jazz recordings appeared in Germany earlier than in Britain, the country first exposed to foxtrot in Europe.

Paul Godwin - In Paris, in Paris sind die Mädels so süß (1929)

Meine Damen und Herren!..

The eclectic and international nature of pop music in Weimar Republic was stipulated by the enormous influx of émigrés. Native-born cabaret singers Rudolf Nelson and Claire Waldoff, comic Otto Reutter, composer Friedrich Hollaender, bandleader Oskar Joost and others were joined by gifted and ambitious musicians from the outskirts of European fallen empries. Composer Mischa Spoliansky was from Russian Poland; bandleader Marek Weber – from Austria-Hungary; Dajos Béla, lja Livschakoff, Paul Godwin were all from the former vast Russian Empire. Bandleader Barnabás von Géczy came from Budapest. One of the most popular German singers Leo Monosson had a complicated cosmopolitan background: born and raised in Moscow, he moved to Warsaw after the Great War and then to Paris, finally settling in Berlin (later on he moved again to various countries and eventually died in Jamaica in the 60s).

Classically trained, these musicians kept their ear on what was happening in mass music and they were able to produce any sort of music, – an important nuance, for jazz and ultramodern foxtrots were far from being the only dance music in the 1920s Germany. The typical dance orchestra repertoire also included tangos, waltzes, polkas, light classical music as well as oldtime folk favorites, gypsy and Eastern European songs. Singers sang in German, English, French, Polish, Russian and other languages. Thanks to the bandleader and virtuoso violinist Barnabás von Géczy's arrangements for his own orchestra, many salon bands strengthened the role of strings in their performances. The German music was (and still is) imbued all over with somewhat humorous elements, apparently coming from cabaret satire tradition.

So who was who? The most popular dance orchestras in Weimar Republic were those of Dajos Bela, Marek Weber and Paul Godwin. The latter, for example, alone had over nine million records released within ten years, making him and his orchestra the leader of the domestic recording industry. At the time a professinal orchestra would release up to dozen records per month (that is about 24 songs). Not all dance music on records was performed by orchestras: many songs were simply accompanied by piano only. Germans could also hear and see genuine American dance orchestras that toured Germany (Sam Wooding Band was one of the first Negro jazzbands to perform in Berlin).

The Party Is Over

1933 marked the beginning of an end to artistic freedom, including popular music. Direct restrictions came after February 14, 1934 when all performers and musicians had to register with the Ministry of Culture. By the time most of the musicians mentioned above had left Germany for good.

The history repeated itself somehow after the Second World War when swing, previously forbidden in Germany, became a new craze among young Germans and laid foundation for a new generation of band leaders, such as Bert Kaempfert, James Last, Werner Müller, Horst Wende, whose orchestras were very popular in 60s and 70s, despite the increasing success of rock music.

German singer Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester revived the 1920s sound and look in 1990s. True to the spirit of the genre, they perform their own compositions along with authentic oldtime schlagers and renditions of contemporary tunes of the likes of Britney Spears, Eiffel 65, Tom Jones and Lou Bega (his covers of ABBA and Queen are also worth to mention). Since then they have played several times at Carnegie Hall.

This hub brought back memories of one birthday party in the 90s. Three of my friends were born on the same day and we turned the event into a 1920s party. We danced to German foxtrots and drank to Romanian gypsy songs. A German student that was present could not understand what was going on but approvingly watched the debauchery.


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    • moncrieff profile image

      moncrieff 7 years ago from New York, NY

      carolina muscle, I know it makes me sad sometimes, as we go further and further away from the gritting of streetcars, that the memory of such a relatively recent past becomes unknown. Thanks.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Another cool hub on an obscure but very interesting topic!!

      I wonder how many people these days even know what the Weimar Republic was?

      We have got to fix the educational system in this country.

    • moncrieff profile image

      moncrieff 7 years ago from New York, NY

      ValerieH, thanks, I will to write a hub in an hour where there won't be a single obscure meaning or event!

      Rob Hanlon, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your kind words. It makes me upset that what happened in 1933 sealed the burgeoning culture of the Weimar Republic so hard, that even Germans barery know anything about it and it's doomed for good to be in the shadow of the following darker events.

    • Rob Hanlon profile image

      Rob Hanlon 7 years ago from Epicentre of everywhere

      Well written Hub on a not too well-known Topic, well done !

    • ValerieH profile image

      ValerieH 7 years ago

      I love the way you write moncrieff but I never know what you are talking about lol. Nice hub anyway. Peace


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