February 18, 2020

The Enchanted Flute – A Song Blog

William Bolcom and The New Cabaret

Part 1

I don’t know how it could be that we haven’t delved into the Cabaret Songs of William Bolcom before now. Chalk it up to the inexhaustible world of song. (Truly, a lifetime is not enough…)

In case you haven’t encountered William Bolcom, do allow me a quick intro: He’s an award-winning American composer (National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize, and Grammy Award-winner) who composes music in all genres, and one who has substantially and wonderfully contributed to the American song and opera repertory. If we lived in a country where this kind of thing got its due, he’d be recognized as a living national treasure.

Anyway, Bolcom had the idea in the early 70’s to write Cabaret songs. (“Cabaret – a form of theatrical entertainment, featuring music, song, dance, recitation or drama, mainly distinguished by the performance venue, which might be a pub, a casino, a restaurant or a nightclub, with a stage for performances.Thanks, wiki.) This wasn’t a really new idea for a classical composer. Arnold Schöenberg wrote some, and Benjamin Britten, too, but both these composers’ cabaret songs were hidden after early performances, like closeted family secrets, only to be brought out again after their deaths. Not so with William Bolcom.

And just as Britten partnered up with literary heavy-weight, W.H. Auden, and Schoenberg with the poets of the German anti-establishment, Bolcom found the perfect word-partner in his friend, poet, playwright, librettist (and bon vivant), Arnold Weinstein.  A real singable writer, Bolcom would say.

Here is Bolcom (transcribed from a live speech) on how it all came to be…

“At one Point I’d asked Arnold – why don’t we do some cabaret songs? He said – ‘I don’t know, – Cabaret – what is cabaret!?’ This was back in the day,” Bolcom continues, “when, instead of having some critic tell you what you are supposed to like, you had instead a whole section [in the newspaper] of ‘cabaret’. It was sort of a catch all. Nobody knew what cabaret was, really, it had no shape. …So, we felt it probably was good idea to try to give it one.”

Over the next twenty years the two produced four volumes of songs. These are the tales of a whole cast of characters – from kids to murderers to daffy, lust-struck wannabe lovers, to drag queens to philosophers, soul-searchers and thrill seekers (just to name a few.) And as varied as their stories are, so then is the music – the really well-crafted, alternately complex or simple, wonderful, surprising music. Bolcom introduced them to the world with his best partner, his wife, Joan Morris. They toured. They recorded. They were wildly popular!

Here is just a sample…

They’re still at it, and we’re just getting started!

Join us for the Cabaret Songs of William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, just another delight to be heard on:



  • Saturday, February 29th, 2020 at 4:00 PM
    at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
  • Sunday, March 1st, 2020 at 3:00 PM
    at The Academy of Vocal Arts


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