A musical evening in North London recreates the spirit of the Weimar Republic
However hard the present-day Berlin Republic tries to recreate the spirit of the Weimar Republic, it could never hope to do as well as Lucasta Miller, the literary critic. On a balmy evening in June, she invited a small group of friends to hear her husband, the tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied by Julius Drake, sing Richard Strauss’s song cycle Krämerspiegel. These musical evenings at their beautiful Georgian home in North London should really be known as “Bostridgiads”, on the model of the Schubertiads given by Franz Schubert and his friends.
The audience was as eclectic as it was distinguished, including the writer Vikram Seth, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the columnist Catherine Bennett and other academic, artistic and literary luminaries. What made this musical soirée impossible to replicate anywhere else was not just the intimacy of the surroundings (Bostridge and Drake went on to perform the same cycle a few days later at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Strauss festival in the Bavarian Alps), but the presence of Judith Kerr. It was her father, the great German-Jewish theatre critic Alfred Kerr, who had written the lyrics for Strauss in 1918, just five years before she was born.
Beloved of generations of children as the author and illustrator of the children’s classics The Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr is still writing. Chez Bostridge, she reminded us that her father’s works, including Krämerspiegel, had originated at her family’s villa in the leafy Grünewald district of Berlin, a highly-cultured ambience doubtless not unlike the one in which we were sitting. The Kerrs had lost everything when Hitler came to power and the family fled to London. Alfred, who did not speak English, never really found his feet in exile; his children, however, flourished. Judith’s late brother, Michael, became the first senior judge in eight centuries to have been born an alien.
Krämerspiegel is a rarity these days: partly because satire dates faster than late romantic melancholy, Strauss’s usual stock-in-trade, but partly also because it is untranslatable: even the title (“tradesman’s mirror”) also implies a mean and philistine shyster. The songs themselves are a merciless mockery of leading publishers, including some which are still names to conjure with in the music business. One song, punning on the name of Schott Music, reminds us that the First World War had not yet ended when it was composed: “Unser Feind ist, grosser Gott,/Wie der Brite so der Schott.” (“The Scot, good God, is our foe/As much as the Briton.”) The then head of Schott, Ludwig Strecker, is lampooned as a “torturer” who stretches clients on his “Streckbett” (rack).
Occasionally Kerr goes over the top, denouncing publishers as “bloodsuckers” who “carry germs” and “stink”. Though such insults, innocent enough in 1918, now bring to mind the language used by the Nazis against Jews such as Kerr himself, his vehemence certainly struck a chord with one or two bruised writers in the audience.
Another nonagenarian present said afterwards that the evening recalled parties given by Sir Roland Penrose and his wife Lee Miller in Hampstead some 70 years ago at which the likes of Picasso and Henry Moore were guests. Thanks to the enduring intellectual legacy of the Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany — to which I trust the British Museum will give full recognition in its October exhibition about German history — the North London intelligentsia is easy to mock but hard to match.