They Shall Have Music

When the cultural history of the first half of the twentieth century comes to be written, among its most distinctive and durable landmarks may be the musical plays of two young Germans driven from their native land for their genius. It may be a footnote to history that in the United States, at least, their renown — and their works — really began to flourish only after their deaths, and that it was the widow of one of them who tended and nurtured their fame.

Kurt Weill was a child of the halfcentury in a literal sense, for he was born in 1900 and died in 1950, and he divided his creative years almost equally between Europe and America. Bertolt Brecht was two years older than Weill and died six years later. Being a poet, he was wedded to his native tongue, and was never truly at home unless using the German language and living in Germany, although for years the Nazis turned him into an exile.

Although Brecht was one of the great figures of the European theater to the end of his life and Weill among the most successful composers of Broadway musicals during the 1940s, the work by which both will be longest remembered is generally accounted to be The ThreepennyOpera, a transformation of an eighteenth-century British operatic lampoon into a jazzy, witty, and devastatingly savage musical satire on human civilization, 1928 vintage. Having created a scandal in Berlin, it swept through Germany and middle Europe, triumphantly survived translations into French and most of the other languages of the Continent, was made into a movie by G. W. Pabst, and underwent one of the first original-cast recordings in history; Die Dreigroschenoper might reasonably be concluded to have led a full life, even for a work that had attained classic status.

But the United States remained singularly impervious to it. A Broadway attempt in 1933 was a total failure, with critic Percy Hammond denouncing it as “a torpid affectation, sluggish, ghastly, and not nearly so dirty as advertised.” (Perhaps unconsciously, Hammond was echoing what Dr. Samuel Johnson had said about the original Beggar’s Opera of John Gay: “There is in it such a labefactation of all principles that it may be injurious to morality.”) But Weill never lost confidence that his and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera would win its way in America, and he was vindicated four years after his death, on March 10, 1954, when it became an overnight sensation at the tiny, shabby, not at all lilylike Theatre de Lys in the Greenwich Village section of New York. The Threepenny Opera filled the 299-seat auditorium night after night for nearly seven years, running an original investment of $8789 into a gross of $2,800,000 — by far the most successful enterprise in the annals of the New York off-Broadway theater. Its catchiest song, “Mack the Knife,” became a national hit, sung by everyone, from opera stars to teen-age idols, and recorded spectacularly by Louis Armstrong. And lest anyone fear that the seven fat years would give way to seven lean years, The Threepenny Opera was followed almost immediately at the Theatre de Lys by a show called Brecht on Brecht, with six players alternately reciting, narrating, singing, and enacting passages from Brecht’s poetical and dramatic works, with music mostly by Weill. Brecht on Brecht was booked tentatively for a six weeks’ run when it opened in January of this year, but it played to packed houses and quickly sailed past its scheduled expiration date. Next fall a complete work by Brecht, Mother Courage, is expected to have its first New York presentation.

Aside from the genius of its two creators, the common denominator of The Threepenny Opera and Brecht on Brecht, as well as the link between the Germans of the 1920s and the Americans of the 1950s, is Lotte Lenya, who was Weill’s wife during his life and his voice after death. There might have been a Threepenny Opera without her, just as there would have been a Hamlet without Dick Burbage and a Cyrano de Bergerac without Coqucelin. But it could hardly have been the same. Miss Lenya, herself an actress of rare sensitivity and serenity, is not a singer in the ordinary sense of the word. But neither are Weill’s compositions ordinary. They are a blend of cabaret songs, street tunes, and jazz rhythms, touched by just a trace of the eighteenth-century sentimental ballads of which John Gay constructed his Beggar’s Opera. And Lenya’s voice, almost childishly direct and artfully innocent, is the perfect instrument for conveying their poisonous sweetness and grim charm. Audiences at Brecht on Brecht have responded warmly to the poet-playwright’s thought and wit — to a dramatic depiction of a Jewish woman about to leave her Gentile husband in Hitler’s Berlin and to an acidly imaginative poem about the indispensability of little men in a big world, in which Brecht wonders where the masons went the night the Great Wall of China was finished. But in Brecht on Brecht, no less than in The Threepenny Opera, it is Lenya’s singing of the “Pirate Jenny” song that has the most power to hush an audience.

What underlies the recent American fascination for Weill and Brecht? Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, which has been in the forefront of Weill and Brecht’s revival on records, has expressed the view that “we are in a period which feels some kind of special affinity for the Stimmung of Berlin between two disastrous wars” and people today, as were those of thirty years ago, are responsive to a blending of “ironic disenchantments with brittle optimism.”

Lotte Lenya herself takes a somewhat different approach. She talked about it a few weeks ago in her Manhattan apartment, its white walls decorated with bright paintings, which included the originals of record-jacket portraits of her strongfeatured face.

“This question interests me also,” she said. “So while I was playing The Threepenny Opera I used to ask young people, ‘Why are you so interested? Why do you like it so much?’ Because people kept coming to the theater long after all the people who knew it in Germany and had nostalgia for it had been to see it. People came back two, three, ten times. When I asked them why, they said, ‘Well, first of all, it’s the music that talks to us — the jazz element.’ And they’re right. It’s a composer’s score, not a songwriter’s score. A young musician could learn from that score. And people came, too, because the libretto is so different from the rest of the shows they saw. It’s about corruption and poverty, and they don’t go out of fashion.”

Miss Lenya insists that there is a continuous line between Weill the German operatic innovator and Weill the American showsmith, although to many ears there is a distinction between the acerbities and brashness of Die Dreigroschenoper and the blander tunes of Knickerbocker Holiday and One Touch of Venus. Is there, she was asked, a significant difference in the Kurt Weill of Berlin and of Broadway?

“Not for me there isn’t,” she replied stoutly. “The difference is in the subject matter. In Germany he wrote at a time of inflation, of political upheaval. The same background was not to be found here. His subject matter shaped his music. Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars could not be written the same as The Threepenny Opera, but they are by the same composer.”

Weill sank artistic and personal roots into the American soil. After fleeing Germany, he made brief stops in Paris and London, then settled here with his wife in 1935, becoming an American citizen in 1943. Few musical works are more authentic embodiments of the American spirit than his Down in the Valley, a forty-minute folk opera designed in 1948 for production by amateur and college groups and played by them gratefully ever since, from one end of the country to the other.

But Bertolt Brecht never found the spiritual repose and sense of Heimat that Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya knew at their Hudson Valley home at New City, New York. Brecht left Germany in 1933 and, after much wandering in Europe, came to the United States in 1941. In 1948 he returned to Germany — East Germany — where he established a flourishing theater, wrote prolifically, and died in 1956. When it was suggested to Lenya that perhaps Brecht had been wrong in returning, she said: “Brecht was right to go back. A poet must have his language. A musician can sit in a tree and sing a song anywhere in the world. Brecht wasn’t a Communist. He made a politics of humanism. His art was his politics; he wanted people to see it would be possible to have a better world. He was for the underdog, for tHe underdog over and over again. He even had trouble with the authorities there over one of his plays. The Trial of Lucullus. His will shows he died as a poet with a free mind. He didn’t want to lie in state, he said. He ordered his coffin closed and nobody at the grave except his family. The speeches can come later, he said.”

Through the records she has made, Lenya has been able to sing not only Weill’s music but Brecht’s humanism throughout the world. The Threepenny Opera is one of the bestdocumented operas in history. Its first recording, dating from 1930, which was long out of print, has just been reissued in this country by Telefunken (Tel. 97012). The cast is that of the original Berlin production, with Lenya herself singingseveral female parts, a necessity dictated by the failure of another cast member to appear for the session on the grounds that the songs were too “immoral” to record.

The New York Threepenny Opera of 1954, in Marc Blitzstein’s skilled and sympathetic adaptation (originally made for a Brandeis University festival two years earlier), has been well recorded by Lenya and the Theatre de Lys cast (MGM E3121). But the heart of the Weill-BrechtLenya canon is on the Columbia label in two complete Germanlanguage albums of Die Dreigroschenoper (02L-257 and 02S-201, stereo: two records) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (K3L-243, monaural only: three records). For Columbia, Lenya has also recorded a superb one-record anthology of Berlin Theater Songs by Weill (KL5056) and The Seven Deadly Sins, a “ballet in song” (KL-5175). There is, moreover, a complete recording of Happy End, the musical play from which “Surabaya Johnny” and “Bilbao Song” come, which Lenya made in Germany two years ago, but Columbia has yet to release here.

If there is one more act of devotion Lenya wishes to perform for Weill and Brecht, it is an American stage production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, their longest, fullest, and perhaps most challenging work. Mahagonny, which dates from 1930, demands a cast of nine principals, full chorus, and large orchestra; it is more tragic and bizarre than The Threepenny Opera, with characters that might come from another world. Indeed, they do come from another world, a never-never land Brecht and Weill created and placed in an America they had never seen.

In this mythological Mahagonny (meaning “city of nets”), on the “Florida Gold Coast,” human liberty turns into a travesty, and the opera ends in catastrophe and terror, with the chorus intoning, “We cannot help ourselves and you and anyone.”

Mahagonny is a grotesque, bitter, and melancholy work, which seems strong medicine even after the acidulous Threepenny Opera. Yet it unquestionably contains some of Weill’s most insinuating, powerful, and unforgettable music. Listening to it on records is a spellbinding experience, and Lenya is certain it will be even more effective in the theater. But she expects to wait until she is certain it will be done properly.

“Mahagonny is timeless,” she says, “even if I am not. But I certainly have the hope of doing it. I remember when I was singing in The Seven Deadly Sins at the New York City Center, two young boys came up to me with tears in their eyes. ‘What’s the matter?' I said. ‘Oh, Miss Lenya,’ they said, ‘it was beautiful, but who is going to sing these songs ten years from now?’ What could I say? I told them, ‘Thank you very much for letting me live at least another ten years.'”

Record Reviews

Franck: Symphony in D Minor

Ernest Ansermet conducting L’ Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; London CS-6222 (stereo) and CM-9290 Lorin Maazel conducting Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin; Deutsche Grammophon 18693 and 138693 (stereo)

Pierre Monteux conducting Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LM-2514 and LSC-2514 (stereo)

Eugene Ormandy conducting Philadelphia Orchestra; Columbia AIL-3697 and MS-6297 (stereo)

Paul Paray conducting Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Mercury 50285 and 90285 (stereo)

Is it dereliction of critical duty to recoil, even momentarily, in the face of five almost simultaneous releases of the Franck D Minor? However, it turns out there is something in each of these to engage the attention of a Franckophile. There is Ansermet’s reserve, Maazel’s ardor, Monteux’s tenderness, Ormandy’s sonority, Paray’s drama. Yet none of these versions offers the sense of revelation or reappraisal to entitle it to the status of the Franck D Minor, so there still is room for another. Pending its arrival, one vote for Ormandy and the “Philadelphia sound.”

Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words;

Seventeen Variations Serieuses in ! Minor, Op. 54

Rena Kyriakou, pianist; Vox VBX-411

(monaural): three records

Liner notes are seldom a mine of information; but one could wish these said more about this interesting pianist than that she was born in Crete, studied in Vienna and Paris, composed a concerto, and has played under various conductors. Whatever else is unknown about her, Miss Kyriakou here demonstrates an affinity for Mendelssohn, whose Lieder Ohne Worte she plays with sensitivity and songfulness. To sustain a listener’s interest in the forty-eight pieces, so easily oversentimentalized, is no simple task, but Miss Kyriakou makes it seem so. The Songs are said to have been among the favorite music of Queen Victoria, who, incidentally, had no need of records: she played them herself.”

Verdi: Aida

Georg Solti conducting Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra with Leontyne Price, soprano; Rita Gorr, mezzosoprano; Jon Vickers, tenor; Robert Merrill, baritone; Giorgio Tozzi , bass;

RCA Victor LM-6158 and LSC-6158 (stereo): three records This brilliant Aida is a great argument for operatic internationalism. Price, Merrill, and Tozzi are American; Vickers, Canadian; Gorr, Belgian; Solti, Hungarian; while the orchestra and chorus, to say nothing of the opera, are 100 percent Italian.

The blend is superb. Aida, with its resounding “Triumphal” scene, its massed choruses, its lively ballet music, is a stereo natural, but this recording is blessed also with a deep sensitivity to artistic values. Miss Price, though not the silkiest sounding of Aidas, probes the human as well as the musical depths of the character. Vickers, who in the past has seemed a fugitive Wagnerian in Verdi, matches her tone for tone, phrase for phrase in an exquisite “Tomb” scene duet. Merrill and Miss Gorr bring strength and subtlety to their parts. Solti’s conducting abounds in drive and drama; the Act I Prelude and a few other passages seem unduly symphonic, but elsewhere the lyricism is irresistible, and the sound, radiant.

A Concert at the White House: Mendelssohn: Trio in D Minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 49; Couperin : Con - cert Pieces for Cello and Piano; Schumann: Adagio and Allegro in A-flat for Cello and Piano, Op. 70; Songs of the Birds (Catalan Folk Songs) for Cello and Piano, arranged by Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals, cellist; Alexander Schneider,violinist; Mieczyslaw Horszowski, pianist; Columbia KL-5726 (monaural) One is tempted to add to the list of credits above: John F. Kennedy, President; Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady; for these two were participants, not to say prime movers, in this performance. This is an on-thescene recording of the celebrated recital of November 13, 1961, when the great Spanish cellist and two esteemed colleagues performed by invitation before a distinguished gathering at the White House. A photograph of the eighty-fouryear-old Casals, cello in hand, gravely bowing to the applauding audience, decorates the cover, while the jacket notes are given over to newspaper accounts of the event. As usual when Casals is concerned, however, the music speaks most eloquently of all, even though the program exacts the ultimate from neither performers nor audience. The Mendelssohn Trio is not a powerful work, but beneath the fingers of Casals, Schneider, and Horszowski it glows with warmth. In the Couperin and Schumann pieces and his own little set of Catalan folk songs, Casals displays his expressive phrasing, his rich and ample tone, his strength, his delicacy. The all-hearing microphone has two unexpected revelations to make: Casals emits an astonishing variety of grunts, groans, and wheezes as he plays, and White House audiences applaud between movements.

A Cozy Conception of Carmen

Cozy Cole, drums; with Bernie Privin, trumpet; Bob Hammer, piano; Al Klink and Jerome Richardson, saxophones; Milton Hinton, bass; and others; Charlie Parker Records 403 and 403-S {stereo), distributed by MGM Records A jazz version of a “classic” occasionally has its points, and this rhythmic, syncopated transmutation of Bizet’s Carmen has vivacity, imagination, and taste. An eleven-man band plays the Overture, “Habanera,” “Gypsy Song,” Sextet, and other numbers with a freewheeling inventiveness that is amusing and invigorating. There are no vocals, the closest thing being a flügelhorn solo of the “Flower Song,” one of the less successful numbers. Most enjoyable of all are a perky “Chorus of Street Boys” and two very evocative, blues-in-the-night types of entr’actes. Fun, at least for the broad-minded.