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

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, Johnny Johnson, for the leftist Group Theater, Weill had his first success with the more conventional Knickerbocker Holiday (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 Firebrand of Florence, 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!, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Finian's Rainbow, 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, Rent, 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.

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


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

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