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.

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