Kurt Weill was a German composer, mainly of theatre music, whose legacy includes some of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, including 'Mack the Knife' and 'September Song'. He is best known as the foremost practitioner of the classic sound of the Weimar Republic, working most notably with Bertolt Brecht on such works as The Threepenny Opera. He worked in many other genres, though, including the fully-fledged Broadway musical once he fled Nazi Germany for the US. His 'on-off' wife Lotte Lenya1 is famed as the foremost interpreter of his work.
As a composer of theatre music (his main interest and strength), Weill's ability to bring serious themes to 'popular' theatre by means of great music has been hugely influential on theatre composers who came afterwards, such as Bernstein and Sondheim.
The German Years
Born in Dessau in 1900, the son of a synagogue cantor, he was a brilliant student and already a much performed and published composer by his early 20s. He joined Berlin's flourishing avant-garde movement, and became fascinated by all things American, including the new music ('jazz' in the loosest sense), which he soon began incorporating into his compositions.
His first opera was a setting of The Protagonist2 by prominent playwright Georg Kaiser. It was during a visit to Kaiser that he met a young actress who was working as domestic help to Kaiser, a certain Karoline Blamauer, better known by a nickname taken from Chekov, 'Lenya'. They commenced a turbulent and unfaithful relationship and were married in 1926. Weill wrote another work with Kaiser at this early stage The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken, which gave rise to a hit record 'Tango Angèle'.
In 1927 Weill approached Bertolt Brecht, still a relatively unknown writer, with a view to setting to music a series of poems Brecht had written about a fictional city called 'Mahagonny'. This became the Mahagonny-Songspiel, in which Lenya appeared. Brecht was very pleased with the result, as well as with Weill's willingness to work with his (Brecht's) theatrical theories. Brecht was, of course, right: his theories of theatrical 'alienation' were a perfect fit with Weill's kind of music writing, and they soon became major movers of the Weimar Republic's creative zeitgeist. In Brechtian theatre, where songs are used they are often 'outside' the storyline, serving as commentary, or they may tell a seemingly unrelated story in order to heighten the emotional pitch. Strong, dramatic, self-contained songs work best in that context and that was exactly Weill's forte.
At this point Brecht received a lucrative commission, and his collaborator (and mistress) Elisabeth Hauptmann3 suggested working on a translation she had already partially completed of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. With a change of style and period and with new music by Weill, this became The Threepenny Opera, which features some thrilling music and is, in the view of many, a still unrivalled work. Weill's particular musical hallmarks first became evident here, using jazz-influenced arrangements and atonality; evocative rhythms (often 4/4 for a martial theme, or a specific dance rhythm: tango, waltz etc) mixed with catchy and deceptively simple and strong tunes that create an atmosphere of sleazy and world-weary revelry: this suits brilliantly Brecht's cast of cynical paupers on the make. The songs include 'Mack The Knife', 'Canon Song' and Lenya's trademark piece 'Pirate Jenny'. It opened in 1928 and was an immediate hit, bringing fame and wealth to its creators. Both, however, wished to use their art as a means of furthering their political agenda (and of proving the validity of Brecht's theatrical theories as a means of doing so) and they were not really happy to be known for a work without obvious political content.
When asked to repeat this success, they reluctantly agreed and set about work on Happy End based on a story by Hauptmann4. Weill provided the hit songs (such as 'Surabaya Johnny' and 'Bilbao Song') but Hauptmann never finished the book5, and when it went to stage a cast member, Helene Weigel, ended up reading from a communist pamphlet6. Both were more content artistically working on the full-length version of Mahagonny. Called The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, it turned out to be a wonderful, complex work about an anarchic utopia that descends into chaos. 'Alabama Song', deliberately written in English in a German-language show, is the only well-known song from Mahagonny, a work not really written to have 'hits'.
Premiering in 1930, the political content of Mahagonny, though ambiguous, was unacceptable to the increasingly powerful Nazis, as was the fact that it was written by a Jew and a Marxist. Weill managed to complete other works in Germany, such as the school opera The Yes-Sayer (again with Brecht), and the allegorical fairytale The Silver Lake (with Kaiser) but his position became increasingly risky and in 1933 he left for Paris. Lenya was living in Vienna with her lover by this point, and she and Weill were divorced.
Weill's stay in France was not happy but did yield some notable work, including the great 'sung ballet', Seven Deadly Sins. This had a libretto by Brecht, after a limited resolution to a great artistic falling out. The theme of two sisters attempting to make their fortune in (again) a mythical America is political but executed with remarkable subtlety for such a fraught time. Despite choreography from Balanchine it was not a success, not least because Weill and Brecht could not be performed in Germany by this point so it was played in German before audiences in Paris and London that understood not a word. The piece has no songs that really stand alone, but thanks to its short length and to Lenya's having created a version in a fairly low register (much later on in her life) it has become hugely popular, with female singers in particular.
The American Years
Weill originally went over to the US in 1935 as part of a project for an epic work about Jewish history, The Eternal Road. He did not expect to stay, but he and Lenya, who travelled with him (they remained on good terms), both became enamoured with the place and they not only resolved to stay, but became patriotic Americans and they soon remarried. The Eternal Road did make it to stage eventually, but in a pattern that would continue for the rest of Weill's career, was plagued by practical difficulties, and artistic differences between the various members of the creative team.
Weill's first Broadway musical was Johnny Johnson, with the influential Group Theatre, but this did not meet with much success. Things started to look up somewhat, when Weill approached Maxwell Andersen, already a famous playwright, who was to become Weill's closest friend and a regular collaborator (although, perhaps not the best at writing for musical drama). Their first work was Knickerbocker Holiday, a political satire about Peter Stuyvensant which was a big success, not least due to its inclusion of the classic 'September Song'.
The Big Time
In 1940 Weill finally met possibly his most successful collaborators in the form of Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin and they together created Lady in the Dark. Despite a quirky plot about psychoanalysis (which today makes the show seem rather dated) it was a huge hit - helped along by excellent stage performances from Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye. In Gertrude Lawrence, Weill was choosing to work with a great actress rather than a great singer (the same choice he had made with Lenya) and he had to consciously underwrite the music. Yet he still created some classic songs such as the joyous 'One Life To Live', and 'Poor Jenny' - a saucy showstopper. Ironically, it was Lady, Weill's first big success in America that prompted his most famous bad review - Virgil Thomson in the New York Herald-Tribune writing, in a now infamous phrase, about the 'Two Weills' (see below).
Lady was followed by One Touch of Venus - another hit - that had a weak book but some great songs (such as 'I'm a Stranger Here Myself', 'My Foolish Heart' and 'Speak Low' - lyrics were by Ogden Nash), and a star-making performance from Mary Martin. This show earned a place in the history of musical theatre for Agnes de Mille's groundbreaking choreography.
Less of a popular success at the time, but more satisfying to Weill was the 'Broadway Opera' Street Scene, based on an already popular play by Elmer Rice, where Weill came closer than ever to his ambition of definitively blurring the line between serious opera and popular musical. Street Scene has several classic songs such as the upbeat dance number 'Moonfaced, Starry-Eyed' and one of the all-time great ballads ever written, 'Lonely House'. Opinion varies as to whether Weill's near-operatic writing quite suits the play and vice versa, but it is now regarded as one of the great American operas. Other important works he completed included Love Life, a seminal 'concept musical' with Alan Jay Lerner; Down in the Valley, a much-performed work for children and Lost in the Stars, based on the famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country, which was his last completed work.
Weill died suddenly of a heart attack in 1950, aged only 50; Lenya was genuinely distraught. Although she had hardly worked since they reached America, in 1952 she was persuaded to reprise her role as Jenny in what was to become a landmark off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera. This was given a popular boost by Louis Armstrong, who just at that time had a massive hit with his version of 'Mack the Knife'. The production confirmed Weill's place in history, despite a translation by Marc Blitzstein7 that has dated rather badly, even if it was an improvement on anything else available at the time. After this, Lenya did not perform much more, although she made some famous recordings of Weill songs, and created the role of Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret8 before her death in 1981.
The 'Two Weills' debate was rather premature at the time, but in one form or another remains the crux of discussions about him. The original critic was an enthusiast (rare at the time) of Weill's German work, and maintained that nothing of that brilliance had lived through to his Broadway writing. Happily most critics nowadays consider it passé nonsense to criticise a composer for adapting to a time and place. It's fairly clear that such a 'German' style would not have been very popular in America in the 1930s and '40s, and for Weill it was a pleasure rather than a constraint to adopt a new style.
This has to remain a separate issue from the fact that Weill never had a collaborator as successful as Brecht, although other German writers like Kaiser came close. Weill, in fact, had a devotion to, and an acute sense of, all aspects of theatre and involved himself with plot, casting and certainly with the schmoozing necessary to secure the requisite finance. Nevertheless, he never overcame the constant problems of finding writers (of books and lyrics), producers, choreographers, stage designers and so on, that fit with his vision. This may be why his songs are very well known nowadays but not often the works they came from. The Threepenny Opera is an obvious exception to this, and Mahagonny and Street Scene turn up fairly regularly on the serious opera circuit. Other works enjoy the occasional revival, such as the Royal National Theatre's production of Lady in the Dark in 1997. As a composer who enjoys ever-increasing posthumous popularity, more and more of the complete works are being recorded and performed.
The songs have a more worthy history, but also continue to grow in popularity. The Doors famously recorded 'Alabama Song', and many famous performers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald have recorded 'Mack the Knife'. Some notable artists have made a speciality of recording and performing Weill, including Marianne Faithful and Ute Lemper. Teresa Stratas is another, and the only singer other than herself that Lenya considered able to interpret Weill correctly. Two highly successful records by various popular artists such as Sting, Lou Reed, PJ Harvey and Elvis Costello, titled Lost in the Stars and September Songs, did much to bring Weill to the attention of a wider public.
The Kurt Weill Foundation is now rights-holder for the music and official custodian of his musical legacy.