The Austrian composer, singer, pianist, and writer Georg Kreisler (1922–2011) created a large body of satirical songs in the German language as well as producing larger musical theater works. Sharply critical of the capitalist system and of his native Austria, Kreisler achieved wide popularity in Germany, although much of his work awaits wider appreciation.
An only child, Georg Kreisler was born in Vienna, Austria, on July 18, 1922. His father, Siegfried Kreisler, was a lawyer whose career was impeded by the anti-Semitism prevalent in Austria at the time. Kreisler remembered his childhood as lonely and isolated, but he enjoyed music and took lessons in piano, violin, and music theory at Vienna's New Conservatory. Although he later produced a substantial body of work in classical genres, he never had instruction in formal composition.
As a young man, Kreisler had the ambition of becoming a conductor, but this goal was placed out of reach by Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in March of 1938. With a cousin, Walter Reisch, already in the United States and available to serve as a sponsor, the Kreisler family decided to emigrate. Kreisler's passport was marked with a red “J” for Jüde, or Jew. Their departure proved timely; Siegfried Kreisler's name had already been placed on a list for eventual imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp.
The Kreislers’ trip to North America was eventful. They arrived in Marseilles, France, just before a large fire at the Nouvelles Galéries department store killed 80 people and spawned controversy over the local fire department's slow response. During their transatlantic ship crossing, the ship carrying Kreisler and his family rescued a lost yacht carrying Jewish-American gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, with whom Kreisler played chess on board—and who later interrupted a Kreisler performance in Los Angeles with the gun battle that killed him.
Finally arriving in California, Kreisler applied to study with Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California at Los Angeles. Schoenberg agreed to teach him, but the university, probably because Kreisler had no formal education beyond high school, declined to admit him. During this period, he also married Philene Hollaender, the daughter of a German film composer, but the marriage soon ended.
In 1943 Kreisler became a U.S. citizen, and soon after that he was drafted into World War II. He served in the army for two and a half years, avoiding trips to the front by organizing live musical entertainment for U.S. troops. After the war, Kreisler served as a translator for military intelligence agents interrogating, among others, top Nazi staffer Hermann Goering. Among his coworkers was future U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. After his discharge, Kreisler returned to Los Angeles and tried to make a living as a nightclub singer. He also collaborated with comedian Charlie Chaplin on the score of the 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, about a serial killer.
Kreisler moved to New York with the goal of becoming a nightclub singer but had little success; the black mood of such numbers as “Please, Shoot Your Husband” did not fit the upbeat postwar American mood. He and his second wife, Canadian-born model Mary Greenwood, lived in near poverty until Kreisler landed a regular job as a pianist at the Monkey Bar in Midtown Manhattan's luxurious Hotel Elysée. Unforntunately, it was too little, too late, and his marriage to Greenwood also ended in divorce.
Kreisler and U.S. mathematics professor Tom Lehrer were both active as cabaret pianists in the early 1950s, and controversy arose when similarities surfaced between Kreisler's 1957 song “Tauben Vergiften im Park” (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” ) and Lehrer's song of the same name (in English). Both composers strongly denied having plagiarized the other, and the issue remains unresolved. Several other Kreisler songs bore general resemblances to compositions by Lehrer and other composers, but the correspondence was never note for note; although the image of poisoning pigeons in the park is common to both composers’ songs, the melodies of the two works are different.
In 1955, the year the U.S. military returned to Austria, Kreisler returned to Vienna. He retained his U.S. citizenship, however, arguing that, since he had never relinquished his Austrian citizenship, he should not have to take steps to reapply for it. Kreisler joined a cabaret trio that featured Austrian performers Gerhard Bronner and Helmut Qualtinger; the group performed at the Marietta Bar and later at the Intimes Theater, experiencing some success before dissolving due to internal disagreements. In 1960, Kreisler married Austrian actress Topsy Küppers, for whom he wrote the one-woman show Heute Abend: Lola Blau (“Tonight: Lola Blau” ). Although that work would prove popular and is still frequently performed in Germany, Kreisler and Küppers divorced in 1973. Two years later he married Barbara Peters, and the pair worked together until the end of his life. Kreisler had three children, with whom he had little contact in later years.
Kreisler eventually left Vienna, living eventually in Munich and Berlin in Germany, Salzburg, Austria, and Basel, Switzerland. His love-hate relationship with his hometown (he wrote one song called “Wie schön wäre Wien ohne Wiener,” or “How Beautiful Vienna Would Be without the Viennese” ), where his harshly satirical songs were often banned on radio and television, perhaps fueled his creativity as a song composer, which reached its high point from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. “Tauben Vergiften im Park,” with its mordant lyrics, was typical and became one of his best-known songs with such couplets as “Der Hansl geht gern mit der Mali / Denn die Mali, die zahlt's Zyanali” (“Hans Likes to Go out with Mali / Because Mali Pays for the Cyanide” ). Other Kreisler hits included “Zwei alte Tanten Tanzen Tango” (“Two Old Aunts Dance the Tango” ), “Opernboogie” (“Opera Boogie” ), and “Der Musikkritiker” (“The Music Critic” ).
Written not only in German but often in Viennese dialect, these songs are best known in Germany, where they follow a long tradition of satirical song exemplified by the works of Hanns Eisler and the songwriting team of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Kreisler himself refused to be classified stylistically, saying, according to the London Independent, “I don't fit in any pigeon-hole.” As his songwriting progressed in his later years, it took on a stronger anti-capitalist orientation. For an American audience, Lehrer (whose work on later albums also grew increasingly political) is perhaps the closest comparison.
Kreisler was never exclusively a song composer. In the late 1940s and 1950s he wrote classical works including the “Three Pieces for Piano” (1947), the “Piano Sonata” (1952), “Five Bagatelles for Piano” (1953), and “Piano Concerto” (c. 1955). These pieces, rarely performed but published and revived in the 21st century by pianist Sherri Jones, combine elements of atonal music (music without a key) and Kreisler's cabaret idiom—something very rare in the classical realm, where music in modernist styles has often shunned popular influences.
Kreisler's oeuvre includes about 20 musical theater works, most of them comic satires in the vein of his songs but wider in scope. They included Sodom und Andorra (“Sodom and Andorra,” 1965), based on a novel by Swiss writer Max Frisch, and Ein Tag im Leben des Propheten Nostradamus (“A Day in the Life of the Prophet Nostradamus,” 1996). He also published volumes of poetry, a novel called Alles hat kein Ende (“Everything Has No End,” 2004), and an autobiography called Letzte Lieder (“Last Songs,” 2009).
In 2010 Kreisler received the Höderlin Prize, named for one of Germany's great Romantic-era poets; the prize brought him satisfaction. The following year, he and Peters mounted a farewell cabaret tour. Kreisler died in Salzburg on November 22, 2011, at the age of 88. In addition to his musical theater works, he published 28 books (including libretti) and was the author of nine theatrical adaptations. His songs, for which he remains best known, number in the hundreds.
Wallace, Ian, editor, German Monitor: Fractured Biographies, Brill, 2003.
Independent (London, England), December 15, 2011, p. 48.
Times (London, England), December 7, 2011, p. 47.
University of Hamburg website, http://www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00002618 (May 4, 2015), Frédéric Döhl, “Georg Kreisler.”❑