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Music Threepenny Composer

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

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

by David Schiff

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

MY favorite photograph of Kurt Weill captures the enigmatic quality of his life and music. At a rehearsal for the 1943 show One Touch of Venus, 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" Street Scene -- could restore balance to a reputation long skewed.

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The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music
"The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., is a not-for-profit, private foundation chartered to preserve and perpetuate the legacies of composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and actress-singer Lotte Lenya (1898-1981)." The site offers biographies of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, audio files, discographies, information about Weill performances and celebrations, suggested readings, and more.

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 The Threepenny Opera 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 Mahagonny Songspiel, Weill began the partnership with Bertolt Brecht that yielded his most famous works -- The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, Mahagonny, and The Seven Deadly Sins -- and also many others, such as the children's opera Der Jasager, 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 Der Weg der Verheissung, 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 online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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

Illustration by Andrea Ventura.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Threepenny Composer - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 98-102.