Kurt Weill

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jun 6 09:43:55 MDT 2000


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

by David Schiff

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?

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.

Full article at:
http://www.theatlantic.com/cgi-bin/o/issues/2000/06/schiff.htm


Louis Proyect

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