Threepenny Composer

Kurt Weill did not, as most critics would have it, sell out to Broadway after his early Berlin brilliance
Andrea Ventura

MY favorite photograph of Kurt Weill captures the enigmatic quality of his life and music. At a rehearsal for the 1943 show Mary Martin sits atop an upright piano, her shapely legs dangling in front of the composer's face. Weill seems to be somewhere else. Baby-faced and bald, his eyes half closed, he seems to be playing for himself alone. His blank expression could mask humiliation or contempt or delight -- you can't tell. What is this professor doing on Broadway?

This year is Kurt Weill's centenary, so the calendar is full of Weill events -- and for once there seems to be a real urgency to the commemorative festivities. Weill remains a cult composer, known mainly for a handful of songs; most of his complete works are rarely performed, and critical opinion is still unsettled. Hearing his works again -- particularly the revelatory early Second Symphony and the overpraised "Broadway opera" -- could restore balance to a reputation long skewed.


The standard view of Weill divides his career into two distinct and unequal phases. The European Weill defined the dancing-on-the-volcano zeitgeist of pre-Hitler Berlin in collaborations with Bertolt Brecht such as and Mahagonny. The American Weill composed a series of Broadway shows remembered mainly for a few hit tunes, such as "September Song" and "Speak Low," which seem indistinguishable in style and intent from the standard fare of Tin Pan Alley. Weill is seen as a composer who lost his way in America, who sold his artistic birthright for the pottage of commercial success -- save, perhaps, for a too-brief return to his honorable musical roots with Street Scene, which was based on Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1929 play.

Today Weill's embrace of popular music seems prophetic rather than opportunistic. When so much classical music aspires to the condition of pop, Weill -- the first classical composer to reject high for low -- seems a model of crossover. His music is performed by symphonies trying to lure tune-starved audiences and by lounge acts that want to give themselves an air of world-weary sophistication. On either side of the classical-pop divide there is something pretentious about Weill's adulators. If Weill anticipated anyone of note, it was Stephen Sondheim, another cult composer of popular music for the chosen few. Like Sondheim, Weill is fascinating, and at times maddening, for the unromantic and intellectual quality of his popular-sounding music. His willed simplicity sounds like the real thing -- but is not at all.

BORN in Dessau, Germany, in 1900, Weill displayed musical talent at an early age. He received a fine musical education and was soon recognized as a wunderkind. His first symphony, written when he was twenty-one but not performed until after his death, is astonishingly precocious, showing a mastery of orchestration, counterpoint, and form. Its advanced harmonic idiom demonstrates that Weill had already come to terms with the music of Strauss, Max Reger, Mahler, and even Schoenberg. When he wrote the symphony, Weill had just begun studies with the pianist, composer, and musical guru Ferrucio Busoni, who urged his students to reject Romantic bombast and discover a new classicism. By the mid-1920s Weill and Paul Hindemith, five years his senior, were established as the bright young things of German music, linked by an anti-Romantic, objective attitude. They intended to make their music part of everyday life by taking advantage of the new media of recordings and radio. With the 1927 Weill began the partnership with Bertolt Brecht that yielded his most famous works -- The Threepenny Opera, and The Seven Deadly Sins -- and also many others, such as the children's opera that are less familiar but equally pungent.

Despite the perfect fit of their music and words, Weill and Brecht were not composer and lyricist on the George and Ira Gershwin model but collaborators in the European fashion of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss. Weill was in a secondary position -- that is, carrying out the political agenda of the poet. But he also developed a musical ideology parallel to Brecht's aesthetic theory of nonrealistic, didactic "epic theater." Brecht's plays exposed the immorality of capitalism and the sins of the bourgeoisie. Weill set Brecht's Marxist analysis to music that similarly scraped away romantic effusions.

Working with Brecht, Weill radically simplified his style, rejecting the complexities of concert-hall art music in favor of the clear melodies and harmonies of American-style popular tunes. Unlike such contemporaries as Darius Milhaud and Ernst Krenek, Weill did not just have a brief fling with jazz. He found in popular song a way to purify the language of art music: "Mack the Knife" is even simpler in harmony and structure than most Tin Pan Alley songs, making do with a minimum of harmonic changes and contrasting ideas. In the "Cannon Song," from The Threepenny Opera, and "Surabaya Johnny," from Happy End, Weill distilled the subtlety and sophistication of art music down to tunes that all of Germany could whistle -- a fact deplored by Brecht, who wanted listeners to remember the politically charged words, not the melodies.

Weill's synthetic "pop" style was an intellectual construct, like the imaginary America of Brecht's librettos. European modernist that he was, Weill spelled out the precise ideological purposes behind his music in a series of essays that presented the concept of "gestic" music. "Gestus" meant the simplification of musical means to express the realities, as Brecht and Weill saw them, of modern society. Although gestic music imitated the simple dance rhythms of popular song, it had its roots in the traditions of art music. Like other composers of the 1920s, Weill was bringing to classical music the clarity and directness of popular music -- but he had no intention of becoming a "popular" composer.

We tend to forget Weill's reverence for the classical tradition, both because of the Jazz Age color of his most famous music and, more particularly, because of the decidedly unclassical timbre of his defining interpreter, Lotte Lenya. Weill met Lenya in 1924. Her serrated-edge baritone-range voice (George Gershwin termed it "squitchadickeh") soon came to stand for the Brecht-Weill partnership. Weill and Lenya married in 1926 and remained true to each other artistically, if not connubially, ever after. Many of the Brecht-Weill lead roles were conceived for Lenya or transposed down to fit her voice; the recordings she made in the 1950s of Weill's Berlin and Broadway songs (now on CD: Sony Classical SK 42658) put her indelible stamp on much music not written for her -- to the consternation of musicologists. It often comes as a shock when a legitimate soprano sings a Weill song in its unfamiliar original form; Weill had composed most of his Berlin songs for operatic voices, but Lenya's voice gave much of his music a cabaret feeling. Weill fled Berlin as soon as Hitler came to power, and went first to Paris, where he quickly composed three of his most important scores -- The Seven Deadly Sins, the Second Symphony, and a Jewish pageant that would have its premiere in New York in 1937 as The Eternal Road and was recently produced, in a widely publicized restored version, by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ever since I first heard Weill's Second Symphony, in the 1970s (in a performance led by Gary Bertini that has been reissued by EMI on a low-priced CD), it has struck me as the pinnacle of his career and one of the great works of the century. Even though I have run into Weill enthusiasts who share my view, it is apparently wrongheaded, for the work is still barely known and as far as I can tell has never figured in anyone else's top-ten list for twentieth-century music.

THE Second Symphony has been cursed by bad luck. It was commissioned in Paris by the Princesse de Polignac, the American heiress to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, composed in 1933, and given its premiere in Amsterdam by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, under Bruno Walter, in 1934. Despite enthusiastic audiences, some critics -- perhaps expecting the acidic tone of The Threepenny Opera -- found the work merely conventional. Its lack of pretense led some to claim that it was not a symphony at all; Walter changed the title to Three Night Scenes, with Weill's acquiescence, although the music is not at all impressionistic. After performances in Vienna and New York it dropped from sight.

In fact the symphony sums up the musical revolution that Weill had begun as an enfant terrible in the mid-twenties -- a revolution that glorified the tunefulness of popular song and the catchy rhythms of the fox trot and the tango as an alternative to the hyperbolic excesses of music from Wagner to Schoenberg. Over the preceding hundred years music had become increasingly complex in syntax, form, and expression -- an evolutionary trend that culminated just before World War I with the dense, atonal counterpoint of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and the asymmetric, unpredictable rhythms of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. After the war, with the musical language dismantled like much of the European landscape, young composers -- in effect the first postmodernists -- had to rebuild the language and re-establish its social function. First under Busoni's tutelage and then under Brecht's, Weill returned to simple harmonies and rhythms. He did not go back to Bach, as did the neo-Baroque Hindemith, or to Pergolesi, as did the neoclassical Stravinsky: if Weill had any musical model, it was probably Mahler, but Weill removed all traces of Mahler's nostalgia, grandiosity, and bombast, and also his contrapuntal complexity and elephantine structure. What remained was Mahler's ironic and tragic sense of life, to which Weill added a sharply bitter aftertaste that captured the contemporary mood.

In the early 1930s, as German politics became grim, Weill's music began to take on a greater warmth of expression, mainly in two operas that are just becoming familiar today: Die Bürgschaft and Der Silbersee, neither written with Brecht. The nihilism of Mahagonny gave way to a more poignant pessimism.

The Second Symphony continues the mood established in the two late operas, but in purely instrumental terms. It is both despairing and humane. The modest scale and accessible idiom result from a technical mastery so sophisticated that it is nearly invisible. Weill scored the symphony for an orchestra that could fit into a theater pit -- yet at times it has the sonic grandeur that Bruckner could elicit only by enlisting a small army of brass players. The harmonies sound perfectly familiar yet rarely settle into a single key, and the themes are memorable even though they are altered on every reappearance instead of simply restated.

The symphony has three movements, with a funeral-march introduction that anticipates the second movement rather than the first. This Mahlerian ploy soon leads to a fast movement of Mozartean lucidity. Written in triple time, it is not quite a waltz and not quite a march, variously bittersweet, menacing, and militant -- close in mood to the spiritual exhaustion of The Seven Deadly Sins. The second movement, as leisurely as the first movement was concise, is closer to Bruckner than Mahler, for there is no grotesquerie or irony even when a solo trombone carries the melody. The music makes its mournful way like a procession slowly crossing a ravaged city, becoming sadder with every return of its themes. The third movement juxtaposes jubilation and mockery. The music recovers its rhythmic life and then with two shrieking piccolos takes on the sound of an army band -- or is it the sound of militant resistance? Toward the close the movement turns into a frantic tarantella, a dance of death punctuated by a prophetic chant from the trumpet. It whirls toward triumph or disaster, all the more terrifying because we cannot decide which it will be.

The neglect of this remarkable work would be almost incomprehensible today were it not for the fact that Weill continues to be thought of merely as the composer of "Mack the Knife" and "Speak Low." Anything but trivial, the symphony seems in retrospect to be Weill's farewell to Germany -- a triptych of nostalgia, loss, and defiance that marks the death of a civilization. EMOTIONAL complexity and formal elegance, the transformation of familiar gestures into an original narrative pattern -- these are the particular achievements of art music, though only a small number of works achieve them as economically as does Weill's Second Symphony. The loss of Brechtian acidity marked a gain in Weill's expressive range that already pointed toward a wider audience. Out of idealism or necessity or both, Weill would now direct his talents to the popular theater.

In 1935 Weill and Lenya arrived in New York. One of Weill's first experiences of American culture was the dress rehearsal of Porgy and Bess. The score of Street Scene, which is set in a New York tenement with obvious similarities to Catfish Row, is the best evidence of the powerful impact Gershwin's opera had on Weill. Porgy and Bess made him think that the time for American musical theater to pursue higher artistic and political aspirations had arrived -- a perilous misunderstanding. The rest of his career moved back and forth between those aspirations and the realities of Broadway economics.

Unlike many other émigrés, Weill made a deliberate break with his European past, choosing to speak English at all times, even with Lenya, and to pronounce the first letter of his name as a W, not a V. He now composed not for the concert hall or the opera house but for the Broadway stage, radio, schools, even the 1939 World's Fair. Weill's politics evolved from Brecht's hard-line European Marxism to American liberalism -- and it was this shift that led Brecht and others to accuse Weill of opportunism. Although he wrote his first American show, for the leftist Group Theater, Weill had his first success with the more conventional (1938), the source of his first American hit tune, "September Song." Weill found himself economically secure, and remained so through a series of hits and flops, from the long-running Lady in the Dark to the disastrous both with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

When Weill died of a heart attack, in 1950, critics hailed him as the leading craftsman of the American musical theater -- a backhanded compliment. The impression remains to this day that the Broadway shows were unworthy of the composer of The Threepenny Opera -- which, ironically, became Weill's biggest American hit a few years after his death.

The unflattering comparison of the Broadway Weill with the Berlin Weill is misleading, because there is so much continuity in the style and ideas of Weill's music. For all of his career he remained a man of the theater, and much of the music he wrote for, say, Lady in the Dark is interchangeable with passages from his German music of the 1920s. The context changed more than the music: Weill's tunes, like his speech, retained their thick German accent even when they set the idiomatic American lyrics of Ogden Nash (One Touch of Venus) or Langston Hughes (Street Scene). Weill remained as innovative in his approach to musical theater as he had been in Germany, but instead of simplifying the overdeveloped forms of European opera, he turned the song-and-dance format of the American musical into more-complex shapes, to suit issues such as psychoanalysis (in Lady in the Dark) and apartheid (in Lost in the Stars).

Musical Broadway was evolving quickly in the years Weill was turning out shows, and he was by no means the lone innovator. Street Scene (1947) competed with Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, and Brigadoon. Neither was Street Scene unique in its lofty aspirations: several new operas opened on Broadway in that era, including Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul, Marc Blitzstein's Regina, and Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia. Broadway in the 1940s mixed Balanchine and burlesque, light revues and romantic operettas, in a diversity of form and style never equaled before or since. Even so, Street Scene stood out for its somber realism. On paper Street Scene should be the missing link between Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. In fact, though, that link was provided by the one composer Weill viewed as a real rival, Richard Rodgers, and his new collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II. When Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim conceived West Side Story, they followed the path of South Pacific like a treasure map. Street Scene is more accurately viewed not as a brilliant but flawed parallel to what Rodgers and Hammerstein were already doing better but as a precursor of quirky musicals that broke ground on Broadway twenty years later.

Weill himself called Street Scene a Broadway opera, and wrote that it was the summation of all of his work since Mahagonny. Elmer Rice's overtly Marxist play had been a success when it was produced in Germany in 1930, and it may have appealed to Weill as a return to the social concerns of his collaborations with Brecht; the participation of Langston Hughes as lyricist further strengthened the politically progressive aspects of the project. But there were problems from the outset. Rice insisted on adapting his play and resisted making room for musical numbers. The play itself had not worn well. Its unlikely combination of ethnic characters -- Jews, Italians, Irish, and Swedes (to which Rice added a black janitor) -- speak in exaggerated radio-show accents and fill their conversation with racial epithets. The show's producers wanted a commercially viable product, with hit songs and without the explicit Marxist message. Such conflicts are nothing unusual on Broadway, but Weill's show was. Listening to Street Scene, I'd better admit here, always makes me squirm. Much of it seems either perky or sappy, and Weill, unlike Rodgers, did not do perky or sappy well: he could never have written "When I Marry Mr. Snow" or "You'll Never Walk Alone." But that comparison may show that the problem is mine, not Weill's. Street Scene is not put together like the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. It is not a linear drama of character but a disjointed "gestic" portrait of contrasting human relationships, each one presented in a distinct musical idiom. Heard in these terms, it becomes a fascinating, flawed prototype for today's musical theater. Street Scene did not contain a hit tune -- but neither does Passion, or Marie Christine, and like these recent shows it attempted to create a form somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

Elmer Rice's play is a grim slice of life that recounts the miserable existence of the inhabitants of a New York tenement. Much of Weill's music, however, is surprisingly upbeat. Although this disjuncture may be attributed to commercial pressure, I suspect that Weill was attracted by the seriousness of the story but found himself at odds with its harsh view of American life. Wittingly or not, he undermined Rice's social criticism, and so the show seems uncertain in tone. The opera interrupts the unfolding of Rice's melodramatic plot (jealous husband shoots wife) with a series of breezy musical numbers that lovingly parody many forms of American popular music, from a high school anthem to a jitterbug.

The shifts in style and tone form a sequence of events that translate the techniques of gestic music into the American vernacular while extending the forms of popular music in the direction of opera. There is only one conventional song in the whole score; all the other musical numbers are complex arias and ensembles. Unlike other Broadway composers, Weill orchestrated his own scores and wrote all the connecting music. The brief overture, for example, immediately sets the urban mood and then segues to a trio of housewives -- Rhine maidens on the Bowery -- who gradually break into their bluesy refrain, "Ain't it awful, the heat, ain't it awful?" The music is no more complicated than the "Fugue for Tinhorns" that opens Guys and Dolls, but Weill established the three gossiping women as a Greek chorus that would reappear throughout the show, sometimes for comic relief and sometimes to embody the pettiness that seems to doom all the characters.

Perhaps a postmodern production could turn Street Scene's stylistic inconsistencies into strengths; it needs to be performed like a Sondheim show. Weill was no Hammerstein-like romantic, and a realistic approach to Street Scene that just tries to tell the story would probably seem as corny as Kansas in August. The show needs a director with an intelligence as finely honed as Weill's to free it from the self-pity of its main characters. Weill's strong suits -- the qualities that give him a unique place in the music of the past hundred years -- were economy, irony, and a capacity to express incongruous emotions in the simplest terms. Bring out these elements in Street Scene and it might sound as fresh, and disturbing, as the Second Symphony.

As musical Broadway has grown ever more tourist-oriented, Weill may have become relevant to the concert hall rather than to the theater. Composers may speak of reaching a wider audience, but few are willing to subject themselves to the intellectual discipline that gave Weill's populism its integrity. Weill did not aim to please: he pleased so as to make the audience think and feel in unaccustomed, and often uncomfortable, ways.


David Schiff is a composer and a professor of music at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.


The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Threepenny Composer - 00.06 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 6; page 98-102.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In