During the 1930s composer Benjamin Britten and poet W. H. Auden had a rather contentious relationship. Auden’s leftist political leanings and, shall we say, “interesting” lifestyle were difficult for the shy composer to abide. However, as an artistic team, the two were able to produce compelling works, including their set of Cabaret Songs. These four songs were written over a two-year period for the singer Hedli Anderson, who would later become the wife of the poet Louis MacNeice. Composer, poet, and singer had all met while they were involved with the experimental theatrical company The Group Theatre. Though Britten was unsympathetic to the politics of the group, he was nonetheless placed in a position to hone his skills by turning out songs and incidental music in rapid succession.
Auden’s texts are a product of the times he enjoyed in the cabaret nightlife of Berlin in the early 1930s. “Calypso” tells the story of a man rushing to Grand Central Station to meet his new lover to an accompaniment articulating quasi-rhythms of an onrushing train. “Johnny,” on the other hand is a set of variations in which each stanza of the poem is set to a different style of music, from imitation folk-song to polka to slow waltz. “Tell me the truth about love” is reminiscent of Cole Porter in the sophistication of both text and music. “Funeral Blues” was originally composed as incidental music to the play The Ascent of F6, which was written by Auden in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood.