Weill Fest Explores Music’s Advocate For Social Progress

Kurt Weill on his property in Rockland County, New York, in 1947. (Photo by Stone)
(Photos courtesy of the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Weill Foundation for Music, New York)

BREVARD, N.C. — Few composers of the 20th century have left behind as wide-ranging a legacy as Kurt Weill. A glance at the catalog of his stage works reveals a staggering variety, with eleven operas (two of which were lost), seven plays with music, and nine Broadway musicals — not to mention pageants, operettas, and a Songspiel. Before devoting himself to the theater, Weill cut his teeth on instrumental music whose modernist contours may seem a world away from singable hit numbers such as “September Song.”

Tilly Losch and Lotte Lenya as Anna II and Anna I in ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ in 1933.

As musicologist Kim Kowalke explained in a curtain-raiser to the Brevard Music Center 2017 Summer Music Festival’s Kurt Weill Festival, which continues through Aug. 4, the composer’s “bifurcated output” has historically created a kind of mandate to advocate for “either Berlin or Broadway, Brecht or Whitman, as if you really had to make such a choice.” Perhaps only in the current age of stylistic pluralism may it be possible to reconcile the distorted, at times surrealist harmonies of Weill’s German period with the Tin Pan Alley style he absorbed after landing in the U.S.

The Brevard Festival’s mix of scholarly talks and performances explores Weill’s oeuvre in all its breadth, from the 1923 song cycle Frauentanz to one of the Walt Whitman songs (“Beat! Beat! Drums!”) he penned in 1947, works which are rarely performed. 

More than fellow exiles such as Brecht, Eisler, or Adorno — who never embraced the American way of life and returned to Germany — Weill’s story presents a series of “what-ifs”: What if he and Brecht had not had their falling-out and continued to collaborate after Die sieben Todsünden? What if early works such as the children’s pantomime Zaubernacht or Das Stundenbuch — a song cycle based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke — had survived in their entirety? What if the composer had lived past the age of 50: Would he have traveled back to Germany and given his country of birth a second chance?

But as much as the rupture of exile undeniably sent Weill’s career on an altered course, his gravitation toward American musical theater was in many ways a natural development. Each stage work was an opportunity to experiment with form and stylistic material, to confront the audience with pressing social issues in new ways, or to comment on his own output and the wider landscape of music history. If Weill was criticized for becoming a tunesmith, parody of opera seria occurs in both Die Dreigroschenoper and Street Scene — his attempt at a full-fledged “American opera,” which for Weill could only take place on Broadway — even if the references lost their bite on the other side of the pond. (Street Scene is to be performed at the festival July 27-29.)

Norman Cordon, center, as Frank Maurrant in the 1947 world premiere of ‘Street Scene.’

“The special brand of musical entertainment in which I have been interested from the start is a sort of ‘dramatic musical,'” Weill told the New York Times shortly before Street Scene‘s premiere in 1947, “to write music that is both serious and light, operatic and popular, emotional and sophisticated, orchestral and vocal. Each show of this type has to create its own style, its own texture, its own relationship between words and music, because music becomes a truly integral part of the play — it helps to deepen the emotions and clarify the structure.”

The theater provided Weill with the most fertile ground for creating music “of use” (Gebrauchsmusik), even if that early 20th-century movement ultimately did not make it past World War II. “The first question we must ask ourselves is: Does what we do have a general purpose?” Weill wrote in the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt in 1929. “A second question is if that which we are creating is art; for that decides the quality of our work.”

He famously told the New York Sun that while “modern composers” such as Schoenberg were writing to the benefit of future generations, “the great ‘classic’ composers” had contemporary audiences in mind: “They wanted those who heard their music to understand it, and they did. As for myself, I write for today. I don’t give a damn about writing for posterity.”

Ironically, a work such as Street Scene would be so valuable to posterity not because of its immediate success but because of the way Weill dared to create a kind of musical melting pot in which Puccini rubs shoulders naturally with Gershwin in a tale about the fatal consequences of adultery at an apartment house in New York.

The road to America was to some extent already paved in the Brecht collaborations, where a post-World War I fascination with the country’s dance music and entertainment forms took hold of both creators’ imaginations. The split protagonist of Die sieben Todsünden, Anna I/II, may embody an identity crisis on many levels. The one is a singer with a “practical” nature, the other a beautiful dancer. United as one person, Anna is torn between the moral confines of bourgeois life and the urge to indulge to excess in America’s big cities. In Brecht’s text, Anna I/II returns to her little house in Louisiana but without having resolved her neurotic conflict: She still exists as two different people. Weill, meanwhile, ends the piece with four measures of pure C major, as if finding peace in the idea of settling down far from Europe’s borders.

The Lewis Ruth Band, pit ensemble for the 1928 premiere of ‘The Threepenny Opera.’

In all his works, with and without Brecht, Weill was interested in the prospect of social progress, of liberating the downtrodden from the unjust mechanisms of society. The religious pageant Der Weg der Verheißung, premiered as The Eternal Road but better translated as “The Road of Promise,” grapples with the fate of the Jewish people through biblical tableaux while serving as an allegory of larger dimensions. According to a New York Times reporter, Weill understood the Old Testament as “a great human document” that transcends time. The score includes allusions to both Jewish liturgy and the Bach Passions while working with tremendous rhythmic variety.

As in Street Scene, Weill’s ability to weave together such a wide swath of material into a personal statement makes it easy to overlook any dramaturgical quibbles. His virtuosic command of form would in turn lay the groundwork for the sophisticated musical theater of Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, for example, is in many ways a response to Die Dreigroschenoper, which the composer translated into a highly successful version (his 1954 The Threepenny Opera). The character of the prostitute Moll is Blitzstein’s version of Jenny, Reverend Salvation his Peachum.

Kurt Weill in 1933. (Photo by Fayer)

As Adorno wrote in his obituary of Weill, Die Dreigroschenoper became a paragon that composers “fed on” as they strove to be both modern and popular. Not unlike Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, the stage work changed the course of operatic history by challenging social norms with music whose appeal almost no listener could deny. But it is also flexible enough to endure bawdy versions such as Simon Stephens’ new Threepenny Opera, which premiered last year at London’s National Theatre, reimagining both Mrs. Peachum and Tiger Brown as one-time lovers of Macheath.

In any age, Weill’s works provoke questions about the hypocrisy with which society clings to certain moral principles. But by defying conventions of genre and style, whether in his German- or American-period works, Weill delivers a message that is free of dogma. Does Macheath deserve to be liberated from his death sentence? Will Anna I/II be able to settle down in Louisiana? Can and should life go back to normal at the apartment house in Street Scene? We are left to arrive at our own answers — without judgment.

For information about the Brevard’s Kurt Well Festival, go here.

Rebecca Schmid a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.

The ‘Ice Cream Sextet’ in the 1947 world premiere of ‘Street Scene’ at New York’s Adelphi Theatre.