AMERICAN ICONS: Kurt Weill

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Though he claimed that he “didn’t give a damn about writing for posterity,” his music resonates in this century more prominently than he could have imagined – several of his songs are undisputed standards, such as “September Song” and “Mack The Knife,”-and his myriad musicals and operas, especially The Threepenny Opera, written with Bertolt Brecht, are alive as ever.

Though he claimed that he “didn’t give a damn about writing for posterity,” his music resonates in this century more prominently than he could have imagined – several of his songs are undisputed standards, such as “September Song” and “Mack The Knife,”-and his myriad musicals and operas, especially The Threepenny Opera, written with Bertolt Brecht, are alive as ever. His influence streams crucially through the work of countless rock icons, such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, Randy Newman, Marianne Faithfull and certainly Tom Waits-who couldn’t have become Tom Waits without Weill and Brecht’s precedent. Weill’s work reshaped the form and content of modern opera, and redrew the boundaries and enriched the content of popular song.

Weill scholars and enthusiasts have long described the dichotomy of the “two Weills”-the first being the serious composer making high art in Germany, and the second who sold out his artistic soul to become a hack songwriter for Broadway and Hollywood movie industry. Weill understandably detested this artificial delineation, telling Marlene Dietrich in 1942. “‘Never mind those old German songs,” he told her. “We’re in America now and Broadway is tougher than the Kurfürstendamm.”

Despite being born in Germany (Dessau, 1900), he long attempted to shed his German heritage. “I do not consider myself a ‘German composer,'” he wrote to Life magazine in 1942. “The Nazis obviously did not consider me as such either.” He then expounded on his impressive American resume of Broadway musicals Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday (from which sprang “September Song”), Lady In the Dark, One Touch of Venus and others. America, he said, was “the most decent place to live in… wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America.” He celebrated the democratic ideals of America, and proclaimed that there was no higher calling than popular art, which he equated with American art. “Art should belong to the people,” he wrote. “It should be ‘popular’ in the highest sense of the word. Only by making this our aim can we create an American art, as opposed to the art of the old countries.” Dedicated to injecting himself, not unlike Woody Guthrie, directly into the bloodstream of the American people, he registered for the draft, wrote four songs to texts by Walt Whitman, and said, “I have never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States….Those who come here seeking the freedom, justice, opportunity and human dignity they miss in their own countries are already Americans before they come.”

“For every age and part of the world, there is a place about which fantasies are written,” Weill explained. “In Mozart’s time, it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America.” The America they knew-which they pieced together from silent movies, songs, newspapers and books, was a realm of pure possibility where all nationalities were welcome. Their mythical city of Mahagonny, while not explicitly in America-touches on Florida, Alaska and California-and was populated not by natives but by immigrants.

Yet while Weill embraced America, Brecht rejected it so that the composer turned to a rainbow of legendary wordsmiths, including Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Langston Hughes and S.J. Perelman. At the time of his death he was headlong into a musical version of that essential American tale-Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Like Howard Arlen and other great American songwriters, Weill was the son of a cantor who started composing as a child. An accomplished pianist, he studied composition and took on many music-related jobs-even that of a music critic for German radio-as well as tutor, conductor, synagogue organist and beer cellar pianist. By 19 he was devoted to musical theater and opera, and composed his first opera at 26. He fleetly established himself as an original-injecting his music with the rhythmic vigor that sang of the unbridled spirit he found in the dance music of America. Like Gershwin, Weill propagated the unchained propulsion of jazz, which he called “an international folk music of the broadest consequence.” He and Brecht first teamed up in 1927 on Mahagonny, which sparked a longtime collaboration, defining a new fusion of opera with popular song and a distinctly dark, urban lyricism. They created the 1930 opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and perpetuated their style into a series of popular songs. They ultimately split when Weill objected to Brecht’s imposed restrictions on his music. The Nazis, outraged by the political color of his work, wove an intricate propaganda scheme against him, causing him to leave Germany in 1933.

He once said that every note he ever wrote was written with the voice of his beloved Lotte Lenye in mind. He first saw her at an audition in 1921, though since he was behind his piano, she didn’t see him. Most famous for her haunting, bawdy portrayal of Jenny in Threepenny Opera, they married in 1926. By 1933 they divorced, but eventually reunited and remarried in America, staying together until his death.

In his 1950 eulogy, Maxwell Anderson spoke about Weill with words now startling for their veracity: “It takes scores of years and centuries to sift things out, but it’s done in time-and Kurt will emerge as one of the very few who wrote great music.” And now in this young century, the notion of two Weills has mostly vanished, for which he’d rejoice, and his two former selves, and the whole of his unparalleled music, have merged into one.



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