Breslau Radio with Edmund Nick and Erich Kästner
by Dagmar Nick
In 1924, in May, seven months after the founding of the radio in Berlin, Breslau also got its own station, with the composer Edmund Nick being appointed the head of its music department. He was known in Breslau as a conductor at the city theaters, for which he sometimes also wrote stage music; he was known as a music critic for the Morgenzeitung and as an accompanist at song recitals.
Fritz Ernst Bettauer had the task of supplying the literary program at the station, which then was still called the »Aktiengesellschaft der Schlesischen Funkstunde.«
Alexander Vogt, a stockholder of this broadcast society, a former major, and not a man kissed by the Muses, functioned as its director.
The Breslau Radio of course did not yet have a radio building of its own. It was housed on three floors of the Mines Inspectorate. A mast had been installed on the roof, and from the mast the radio antenna was spanned over to the tower of St. John’s Church. The technological components had been placed at the very top, under the roof; below Major Vogt did his duties, and his wife, correcting the manuscripts, occasionally looked over his shoulder; the room for the program director was on the first floor next to a little control room and the studio space: one room, truly, had to suffice. Two desks at which the literary head and the musical head sat opposite each other, one secretary for the two of them, and a single telephone. Moreover, there was a woman who did the bookkeeping and the paying out of the fees. And a porter. The operation of the technological apparatus – from the hanging up of the one (!) microphone to the modulation of the broadcasts – was in the hands of a few postal employees – after all, the radio and the telephone belonged to the German Reichspost.
The broadcast studio consisted of a somewhat larger room in which the ceiling was padded with felt and the walls and windows covered with red plush to absorb the sound; the floor was also covered with a red felt carpet, divided into squares by white lines painted on the surface – this made it easier to control the distance to the microphone. The microphone then still hung from the ceiling in a white marble cube. The stuffy room was furnished quite well with a table, a couple of chairs, and desks, and, lest we forget, the gong to indicate the time and the alarm clock that had to tick as the identifying signal before the announcer stated, »This is the Silesian Radio Hour.«
There was of course no room for an orchestra in this space. But there was a grand piano, and every evening, after the broadcast was over, the music director, that is, Edmund Nick, played the German national anthem on this instrument. When it turned out that his literary colleague Bettauer, who modestly also termed himself the »first speaker,« could not possibly announce everything – even though the postal employees from the technical department often helped him – a second announcer was finally hired.
Tensions with the unmusical Retired Major Vogt were not unknown. The Major’s morally strict wife had once again got her red pencil going on a lecture that was supposed to be broadcast and had crossed out the syllable »Lust« each time it occurred in the manuscript on the topic of »Lustschlösser und Lustgärten des Adels« (Pleasure Castles and Pleasure Gardens of the Nobility). Bettauer flew off the handle, announced his resignation, and left the house stante pede.
Who could replace him? Who at all understood anything about the new radio medium?
He would have to be a man of letters, a man with a flexible mind, open to experiments. No time could be lost; the director was in a bind. And Edmund Nick said: I’ll ask the writer Bischoff.
Friedrich Bischoff, formerly a dramaturge at the Breslau Playhouses, had just completed his second novel and was eking out a living from the fees for occasional essays. He – not yet thirty years old, agile, and full of ideas – was the right man.
On the very same day in October 1925, a meeting was arranged between Bischoff and the Major at Nick’s home. Bischoff, eloquent and most highly interested in a new task, made the finest impression and was hired on the spot.
Bischoff recognized that »the radiocal« (as he was fond of saying) called for its own dramaturgical laws.
But he did not simply want to create something similar. It had to be something new. He imagined radio series, they were to be poetic but not faded; they were to be modern, as fast as the times in which people then were living.
Bischoff called on the writers of the nation to cooperate. And remained without a response.
Nobody wanted to set foot on this unknown terrain.
So Bischoff himself wrote the texts that he needed. He put together a sort of »audio newspaper« in accordance with the principle of the film montage, with information from Europe and overseas, lively intermediary texts, and occasional music that Nick had to supply as quickly as possible.
Bischoff also called for the construction of an apparatus with which fades could be produced. Since the tone then could be conserved only on wax discs, acoustic transitions were a problem. Bischoff did indeed get this device called the »Potentiometer« even though the director grumbled about the expensive acquisition – in the end the new radio building into which the staff was finally able to move was expensive enough.
In the meantime, the first writers had slowly begun to report for duty: Anton Schnack, Otto Zoff, Max Hermann-Neiße. When nobody reported, Bischoff filled the gap with a new text. Everything always had to be done quickly. No, not with a typewriter; Bischoff’s hand flew over the pages, swept each one of them from the table to the ground when he was finished – and in the adjoining room Edmund Nick was already beginning the task of composition. It was thus that a quodlibet entitled »Song« was produced from music and poems, from chansons and linking texts. It had such a success that the Berlin Radio presented it shortly thereafter in its own public performance.
Bischoff assumed the director’s role, and Edmund Nick conducted. Kurt Weill and Alfred Kerr were sitting in the first row, and it is possible that a young writer by the name of Erich Kästner was sitting a few rows behind them and immediately knew that this new art form would have a future – for him too.
Already in the autumn of the same year, in 1929, Kästner came to the Breslau Radio with a manuscript that he called Lyrische Suite in drei Sätzen (Lyric Suite in Three Movements). Nick and Bischoff read it with enthusiasm but found the title a bit too tame. So they renamed it Leben in dieser Zeit.
The music for this work of course had to be composed immediately. Edmund Nick had more than enough to do for the daily music program, from its planning to its production. But then there was Kurt Weill!
Nick was sent to Weill with the Kästner text in order to underscore the urgency of the commission. But Weill refused; he was occupied with another work, and since he had heard Nick’s »Song« setting, he said, »Nick, you do it!«
It was thus that Edmund Nick became the composer of Leben in dieser Zeit. The original broadcast took place on 14 December 1929 in the studio of the Breslau Radio.
Other stations followed with productions of their own, and soon concert and scenic performances were being held on almost all the larger German stages. Leipzig was first, and Dresden followed on 5 December 1931.
These were happy years. But they would not last. Already during the summer of 1932 Bischoff, by then the managing director of the Breslau Radio, found himself confronted with a problem. It involved defensive measures against the besieging of the radio by people who wanted to abuse the station as an instrument of propaganda: the Nazis. Bischoff insisted: We are a cultural institution; there is no place here for appearances by party functionaries.
This party steadily increasing in power launched an inflammatory campaign with help from the press. They attacked the lack of heroism in the programs as well as the cultivation of new music and the employment of Jewish artists.
The end of the Bischoff era could be foreseen. The last joint project involving Bischoff and Nick was a broadcast on New Year’s Eve 1932. The title was »Nachdenkliches Quodlibet.«
In March 1933, when a radio play by Rudolf G. Binding (in honor of World War I dead) was being rehearsed, the station was occupied by a horde of SA men.
They threatened to prevent the broadcast scheduled for the following evening if the Jewish actor Robert Marlitz, one of the best announcers, was not replaced by »an Aryan.«
Such a blackmail attempt could not be withstood. Already on the same afternoon Binding went to Marlitz to describe to him this predicament. Marlitz committed suicide.
Events now unfolded in rapid succession. On 15 March Hans Bredow, the »Father of the German Radio,« was relieved of his post; Friedrich Bischoff was fired on 1 April and Edmund Nick ten days later. He went to Berlin in order to sound out how things were there. In the Café Leon at the Kurfürstendamm he met Erich Kästner, as usual sitting at a little round marble table, writing poems – what else. They sat there now vis- à-vis and at the same time vis-à-vis du rien.
But there was still the »Katakombe« cabaret, which under the leadership of Werner Finck and Rudolf Platte so completely departed from the offerings at the other Berlin cabarets. Perhaps they could appear there with their songs? Yes – but only under pseudonyms. Kästner, whose books had burnt on the bonfires on 10 May, was prohibited from publishing his works. Nick’s compositions could no longer be performed. But Werner Finck encouraged the two to continue to work and in September 1933 named Edmund Nick the music director of the Katakombe. When Kästner wrote a couple of unsuspicious chanson texts, Nick (soon always called »Nicki« by everybody) immediately set them to music.
The composition of the tango song »Ja, das mit der Liebe,« which Kästner had just finished at his little table at the Café Leon when Nicki sat down beside him, remained unforgettable. Without a word Kästner pushed toward him what he had written in pencil; Nicki hurried home in order to set it at once. It was sung by Tatjana Sais already during the next show.
It also remained unforgotten that on that night some men from the Gestapo were sitting in the Katakombe and taking notes in which they recorded the specific politically suspicious jokes to which the public reacted with applause. But on one occasion Kästner and Nick, who as always accompanied at the grand piano there in the evening, enjoyed a bit of insider’s ironic pleasure: when a giant in an SA uniform came to the grand piano on New Year’s Eve 1933 and asked if the pretty song »Man müsste wieder sechzehn Jahr sein« might not be played. The favor was gladly granted to the unsuspecting man, who did not know that it was from Leben in dieser Zeit. He was the head of the Standarte I, which had burned Kästner’s books.
On 6 May 1935 the close season for the Katakombe was over. It was labeled a »breeding ground for Jewish and Marxist propaganda« and «closed by the police, effective immediately, for the protection of people and state.«
Edmund Nick believed that the smartest thing to do, at least for the time being, was to leave Berlin. With a libretto in his suitcase, he traveled to relatives in Slovakia and wrote the music for the comedy Das kleine Hofkonzert by Toni Impekoven and Paul Verhoeven there. Both authors helped the politically so harmless Biedermeier piece with Nick’s music to find its way to the stage.
It was premiered at the Munich Chamber Theater in November 1935, and a little while later Gustav Gründgens accepted the work for the Berlin State Theater. The performance prohibition seems to have been forgotten.
But not by the UFA, which offered Nick the opportunity to write the music to accompany a few short films and advertising films. Although he was allowed to compose them, his name could not be mentioned in the opening credits. He accepted these conditions; he had a wife and two children to support. Through the end of 1935 he was able to set the music for twelve short films.
One year later Edmund Nick was able to make a just as risky as successful leap back to the conductor’s podium. Walther Brügmann, a steadfast friend, hired him to serve as music director at the Large Playhouse, the later Theater des Volkes. But when managing direc- tor Brügmann, who had long been being watched closely by the Nazis because of his modern stage productions, was driven out of the country in 1940, the fateful hour had come. The newly hired managing director immediately examined the personal files and deter- mined that Nick’s wife did not have an Aryan certificate. Walther Brügmann had deliberately not asked for it. And since it could not be provided, Edmund Nick was dismissed from one day to the next. He now once again had to live from hand to mouth, to make ends meet with little stage compositions, and to play at the Schiffbauerdamm-Theater as a pianist in the evenings. It was also possible to contribute music for three feature films. Work in film signified financial salvation for many. And the finest thing about it was that in the Babelsberger Filmstudios one again and again had the opportunity to meet one’s comrades-in-arms from the Katakombe:
Erich Kästner, Rudolf Platte, Ursula Herking. Old friends stick together.
In March 1944 Erich Kästner was the next to lose his home; his residence with all his possessions was destroyed by firebombs.
Edmund Nick moved with his wife and daughter – his son Anselm was on the Eastern Front – to Bohemia, where he wrote a first biography about Paul Lincke for the Sikorski-Verlag and then a book about the history of the classical operetta, which was published in 1944 with the title Vom Wiener Walzer zur Wiener Operette.
At the end of February it was time to leave Bohemia on the last train with refugees. The Nicks found temporary lodgings in Lenggries, near Munich, and soon experienced how people there greeted the American tanks with white flags.
With marvelment people realized that they had survived the thousand-year Reich – and did not look back. The only question was: Where are our friends of whom we have recently lost track?
There were no more telephone connections. And no postal deliveries.
But there were drums in the wilderness, and suddenly everybody had some news about everybody else. Erich Kästner was supposed to have been seen in Munich, and Edmund Nick too, and of course they found each other again on a city street (the Maximilianstraße), where everyday the stragglers, the conspirators of earlier days, fell into each other’s arms with shouts of joy.
What would happen next?
The Americans founded the Neue Zeitung and chose Erich Kästner as its feuilleton head and Edmund Nick as the same newspaper’s music critic. Now the friends again worked side by side while living in the same boarding house, in adjoining rooms. A few months later they founded a cabaret in Munich together with Rudolf Schündler, an old companion from their Katakombe days. It was the first literary cabaret of the postwar period in Germany: the »Schaubude.«
»We are working day and night. Things are developing as during the creation of the world,« Kästner wrote in his notebook.
Edmund Nick ended up writing more than sixty chansons set by Erich Kästner.
Then the two died during the same year: Edmund Nick in April 1974 and Erich Kästner four months later.
© Script from CD Booklet
Born in 1926. Daughter of the composer and music writer Dr. Edmund Nick.
From 1933 in Berlin. After 1945 study of graphology and psychology in Munich.
Four years in Israel. From 1967 again in Munich.
Member of the PEN Club (since 1965), Deutscher Schriftsteller-Verband (since 1948), and Bavarian Academy of the Fine Arts.
Together with Rose Ausländer, Hilde Domin, and Ingeborg Bachmann, Dagmar Nick is one of the most important German-language women poets of the post–1945 era.
Dagmar Nick reads from her memories (Reduced)
Production: Dr. Steffen Lieberwirth
Record: München BR 2009