Spanning the first fifty years of our century, Kurt Weill’s life, perhaps more than any other composer, seems inextricably bound up with the momentous and turbulent political events of the period – not least two world wars and the consequent mass movement of populations. Having experienced a meteoric rise to prominence, especially through his fruitful collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, Weill’s career in Germany’s Weimar Republic was brought to an abrupt close after the Nazi sweep to power in 1933. Lucky to escape the clutches of the barbaric regime, he first settled in France, but subsequently made a decision to start life afresh in America, becoming a successful composer on Broadway.
Commercial necessity forced Weill to soften his musical language, although his decision to assimilate into the culture of his new home made him more open to American influences than many other German émigrés. In a way, this fervent adoption of all things American, which even extended to a refusal to speak German, proved to be his most effective way of defying the Nazi machine – a machine whose censorial power was so complete that his works from the Weimar period were all but eclipsed until many years after his death. Indeed it’s somewhat ironic that when his music underwent a tremendous revival of interest, it was
the proscribed compositions of the Twenties, rather than those of the American years, that attracted the greatest critical acclaim.
This tendency to focus almost exclusively upon Weill’s early career has inevitably led to the belief that the products of his exile in America represent a sad decline in creativity. The argument is familiar, underlining snobbish inclinations to regard ‘serious’ music in a more favour- able light than anything composed for commercial purposes. But in this context, it might be more helpful to think of Weill as two almost distinct composers, each with different agendas. Such a view can still accommodate the connections between the two, not just in the realms of harmonic language, but also in a shared compassion for the victims of social and political oppression. In addition, it can recognise the fact that Weill achieved something of individuality in practically every chosen field of composition.
THE ROAD TO BERLIN
Born in the central German town of Dessau, Weill grew up in a musical environment: his father was the cantor at the local synagogue. Although his first steps in composition at the age of 13 appeared tentative, Weill’s potential was recognised by the Dessau Opera’s conductor, Albert Bing, who gave the boy a thorough grounding in all aspects of music during the latter years of the First World War. In 1918, Weill moved to Berlin, the city in which he would reside for the next 15 years. Initially, he enrolled as a pupil of Humperdinck at the Hochschule für Musik, but, although he was awarded the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize for composition at 19, dissatisfaction with the institution’s conservative musical outlook caused him to abandon studies there after only one year.
Weill’s departure from the Hochschule proved fortuitous, as he was accepted into Busoni’s masterclass at the Prussian Academy of Arts. The influence of Busoni was decisive. Weill
followed his mentor’s staunch advocacy of the so-called ‘young Classicism’ – an artistic credo which opposed the overpowering influence of Wagnerian Romanticism. Equally crucial, however, was Weill’s active participation in the Novembergruppe – an organisation of prominent Berlin intellectuals who were committed to revolutionary ideals, both in arts and politics.
Something of this revolutionary zeal can al-ready be gleaned in the First Symphony (1921). Despite the influence of Mahler and Schoenberg, this one-movement work, inspired by Becher’s Expressionist-pacifist play Workers, Peasants and Soldiers: The Awakening of the People to God, demonstrates an extraordinary mastery of symphonic argument. It also emphasises the degree to which Weill was already susceptible to the influence of the theatre even in abstract works.
In view of the Symphony’s highly charged musical language, it was hardly surprising that Busoni reacted somewhat unfavourably. Weill responded by withdrawing it (it only received its first public performance in 1957). Other works such as the String Quartet met with greater approval, however. Indeed, it was largely thanks to Busoni’s recommendation that in 1924 the Viennese publisher Universal Edition was prepared to offer a long-term contract to the young composer. The relationship proved to be mutually beneficial, for the performing revenues secured from Weill’s smash-hit Der Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) were in themselves substantial enough to guarantee the financial stability of the publishing house for many years to come.
LOTTE LENYA AND WEILL
It was also in 1924 that Weill met his future wife, the actress Lotte Lenya. According to her, their first encounter, on a rowing boat crossing a lake, culminated in an uninhibited steamy embrace in which he lost his glasses overboard – a scene worthy of a Woody Allen film. Soon they were to live together, but the relationship was stormy, with marriage, separation, divorce and remarriage punctuating their lives. Yet for all that, Lenya remained a stabilising influence, becoming a dedicated performer of the composer’s stage works, and after his death devoting all her efforts to reviving interest in his music.
Weill’s international breakthrough came with the Paris premiere of the Violin Concerto in 1925. In this work, Weill exhibited an individual, anti-Romantic approach to orchestration in tandem with an astringent harmonic idiom – typical features of the ‘new objectivity’ that became so fashionable in the Weimar Republic. To a certain extent, Weill’s outlook here appears close to that of Paul Hindemith, at the time the most influential of Germany’s younger composers.
Yet the ultimate goal for any aspiring composer of the day was to secure success in the opera house rather than in the concert hall. Weill had already completed a one-act opera, Der Protagonist, to a libretto by Georg Kaiser. First performed in Dresden in 1926, this disturbing tragicomic story set in Elizabethan England about an actor who fails to distinguish fantasy from reality, was received extremely favourably, the critics suggesting that the composer had al-ready forged a distinctive approach to writing for the stage. However, the tortuously chromatic musical language of Der Protagonist represents not so much a beginning, more a farewell to an increasingly redundant expressionist style.
In subsequent works, Weill was to react violently against the trappings of conventional grand opera. The simplified musical idioms of Royal Palace (1925) and the brilliantly satirical Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken, 1927) which pay conspicuous homage to the then current popularity of American dance rhythms, already represent a striking departure. But a more radical approach came in 1927 when Weill accepted a commission to compose a short opera for the Baden-Baden Festival. In considering a number of potential ideas, Weill alighted upon the recently published volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht entitled Die Hauspostille. The resultant work, the Mahagonny Songspiel, proved to be a milestone for both composer and dramatist, and it initiated a collaboration that left an indelible mark on musical life in the Weimar Republic.
Mahagonny Songspiel, which was later expanded into a full-length opera, represented a daring challenge to preconceived notions of musical theatre. Brecht’s scenario, depicting the fate of an imaginary American city controlled by money-grabbers and whores, was designed to outrage middle-class audiences. But the musical setting – a sequence of cabaret numbers which introduce for the first time Weill’s popular song-style – was equally provocative, not least for allocating the leading role to an untrained singer, in this case Lotte Lenya. Predictably, critical opinion of Mahagonny Songspiel was polarised, though it was the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Maha-gonny that three years later unleashed organised barracking and hostility from the Nazis.
After the Mahagonny Songspiel, Brecht and Weill collaborated on Der Dreigroschenoper, a 20th-century update of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Performed for the first time in Berlin in 1928, it continued the vein of social criticism encountered in Mahagonny. The music pursued a similar course as well, with self-contained numbers sung by actors accompanied by an ensemble featuring saxophone, guitar, harmonium and percussion. Der Dreigroschenoper was a resounding commercial success, its hit numbers, such as ‘Mack the Knife’, becoming immortalised in numerous arrangements. Yet its very success proved problematic for Brecht, who became increasingly suspicious that audiences had become seduced by the music, and were therefore paying insufficient attention to the implications of the text.
This dilemma underlined fundamental differences of approach, for although Weill shared similar social concerns with his collaborator, he was too much of a musician to subsume his gifts to serve Brecht’s political ideals. Ultimately the partnership broke up, although its legacy included a pioneering radio play, Der Lindberghflug, and the school opera, Der Jasager.
In the final years of the Weimar Republic, Weill returned to writing large-scale music
theatre works. The opera Die Burgschaft, with a libretto by Brecht’s friend Caspar Neher,
was premiered in Berlin in 1932, and Weill resumed collaboration with Georg Kaiser on the musical play Der Silbersee. First performed simultaneously in Leipzig, Erfurt and Magdeburg barely two weeks after Hitler came to power, it soon fell victim to Nazi proscription. As a left-wing Jew who had endured consistently vicious attacks in the Nazi press over a number of years, Weill quickly realised that he could no longer remain in Germany. In March 1933, he left the country, never to return.
Weill stayed first in Paris, but attempts to relaunch his career in France and England failed, though the brief resumption of his partnership with Brecht in The Seven Deadly Sins inspired a ballet score of great poignancy – a work now considered to be one of his finest.
In September 1935, Weill followed countless other German émigrés to America. He was now faced with the daunting prospect of having to establish his career in a wholly different musical environment. In the circumstances, Weill’s decision to turn his back both on the concert hall and the opera house was brave. Settling in New York, he became actively involved in the American musical theatre, writing music for plays that postulated a defiantly anti-fascist ideology. In no time, he had assimilated the conventions of the genre, producing memorable scores for a succession of Broadway shows including Lady in the Dark (1940), One Touch of Venus (1943) and Lost in the Stars (1949). Hollywood also beckoned with music for the Fritz Lang film You and Me (1938) and an extremely successful adaptation E
of the musical Knickerbocker Holiday (1944).
When America entered the war in 1941-2, Weill took a leading role in the propaganda campaign against the Nazis. His contribution included such powerful songs as ‘Schickelgruber’ and ‘Buddy on the Nightshift’. In comparison with his earlier, more biting style, these and other works of the period assume a more gentle, even nostalgic, quality. Yet Weill never lost his creative energies nor his quest for theatrical experiment. Both Street Scene (1947) – an attempt to create a genuinely American opera – and the school opera Down in the Valley (1948) attest to a continuing ability to write haunting melodies coupled with a subtle mastery of dramatic action. It was cruel that he died too early to witness his music’s rehabilitation in his native country. Yet Weill never became embittered. Writing to Lotte Lenya in 1947 he declared, ‘… You can imagine how disgusted I felt at events in Germany. But this feeling is allied with a great sense of gratitude and affection for the new home I’ve found over here.