Arnold Schoenberg's historical significance as the father of serialism often obscures the true variety of his output. It also tends to minimize the purely musical (i.e. non-theoretical) aspects of his compositions, regardless of their style. There is perhaps no better cure for this than his eight Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs), which showcase his most basic musical instincts and responses; these eight poems -- dressed, with humor and simplicity, in a tonal language that bears no special label or distinction -- give us a unique and amiable glimpse of Schoenberg's muse.
Schoenberg composed the Brettl-Lieder in 1901, before he moved to Berlin to work as a conductor with Überbrettl, part of Ernst von Wolzogen's Buntes Theater. Designed to use popular idioms to convey more "serious" ideas, Überbrettl (Variety Theater, or Cabaret) attracted literary luminaries of the time, including Frank Wedekind and Richard Dehmel. During the theater company's visit to Vienna in the fall of 1901, Oskar Straus had introduced Wolzogen to Schoenberg, who played some of his recently composed cabaret songs; it is certain that at least one of these, "Nachtwandler," was performed in Berlin before June 1902, when Schoenberg's association with the company ended.
The eight poems are taken in part from a collection, Deutsche Chansons (German Songs), published first in 1900 by Otto Julius Bierbaum. The contents of the volume were antithetical to the conservative literary trend at the end of the nineteenth century, and became an immediate success. Poets of the Brettl-Lieder are Frank Wedekind, Otto Julius Bierbaum, Hugo Salus, Gustav Hochstetter, Colly, Emanuel Schikaneder and Gustav Falke.
Most interesting among Schoenberg's eight settings is that of "Nachtwandler," by Gustav Falke, featuring piccolo, trumpet, and snare drum in addition to piano and soprano. The text calls for a drummer and trumpeter, who accompany the narrator on his nighttime escapes.
Other highlights include Wedekind's "Galathea," in which a narrator describes the desire to touch a young girl, Galathea. He (or she) wants to kiss, in turn, Galathea's cheeks, hair, hands, knees and feet -- but not her mouth, which is reserved for the realm of fantasy. He sets the six verses in a rondo-like fashion -- ABACAD -- closing the song with new music that is similar to the fourth verse.
Schoenberg's setting of Bierbaum's "Gigerlette" reflects both the humor of the poem and its alternating four- and five-line verses. Fräulein Gigerlette, dressed in snow-white clothing, invites someone to tea in a room as red as wine and lit by candles. Later, the two take a carriage ride to the countryside with Cupid as their driver.
Salus' "Der genügsame Liebhaber" (Easily Satisfied Lover) is a poem begging for interpretation. A man tells us that his lady-friend has a black cat with a soft, velvety coat, and that he has a shiny, smooth bald head. The woman spends all her time caressing her cat's fur, and when he visits her, the "kitty" is in her lap, and it shivers when he strokes it. Later, he puts the kitty on his bald head and she plays with the kitty and laughs. Schoenberg's setting, strophic but with significant variation from verse to verse, is full of suggestive humor.
"Einfältiges Lied" (Simple Song) is also by Salus and tells of a king who, without scepter or crown, goes for a walk like an ordinary person. The wind then blows the hat off of his head and out of sight. Schoenberg depicts the uneven, hesitant gait of the king in the opening verse accompaniment, later portraying the wind and flying hat with aggressive, swooping melodies.