Legends of Songwriting: Kurt Weill

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“I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music. ” – Kurt Weill

Given his famous proclamation that he “didn’t give a damn about writing for posterity,” Kurt Weill would probably be a little stunned to know how much of his music remains. Here in the year 2020, his music is not merely unforgotten, it’s beloved. 

Some seventy years now since his death in the exact middle of the 20th century, 1950, songs written by this German composer are cherished standards in the Great American Songbook. Of these, “September Song” and “Mack The Knife” are the most famous. 

Also, several of the shows he created, especially The Threepenny Opera, written with Bertolt Brecht, are alive as ever. He created many legendary  Broadway musicals, including Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday (from which sprang “September Song,” written for the limited but charming vocal range of its star Walter Huston), Lady In the Dark, One Touch of Venus and others.

His influence streamed crucially through the work of many of our greatest songwriters, including Lou Reed, David Bowie and Randy Newman. Also Tom Waits, whom many believe never could have been Tom Waits without Weill and Brecht’s precedent.

Weill’s work reshaped the form and content of modern opera, and redefined and expanded the content of popular song.

Walter Huston, “September Song,” 1938

Weill scholars and enthusiasts have long described the dichotomy of the “two Weills”: the serious composer making high art in Germany, and his counterpart, the hack Hollywood/Broadway songwriter who sold his artistic soul.

Weill detested what he knew was an artificial delineation. To Marlene Dietrich in 1942, he said, “Never mind those old German songs. We’re in America now and Broadway is tougher than the Kurfürstendamm.”

Louis Armstrong, “Mack the Knife,” live, 1966.

He was born into a Jewish family in Dessau, Germany in 1900. Yet he can be seen as an American songwriter, a distinction he greatly preferred to that of his actual heritage, which he yearned always to delete. 

“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.”

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,” he explained. “In Mozart’s time, it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America.”

Their America was pieced together from silent movies, songs, newspapers and books. It was a vast and fantastic realm of pure possibility where all nationalities were welcome. The mythical city of Mahagonny, which he and Brecht created for A Threepenny Opera, while not explicitly in America, fuses aspects of Florida, Alaska and California and reflects a dynamic still at play in America. It was  populated not by natives but by immigrants. 

Yet while Weill embraced America, Brecht did not. Needing a new lyricist, Weill turned to many of the greatest wordsmiths America has known: Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Langston Hughes and S.J. Perelman.

At the time of his death in 1950, Weill was at work on a musical version of that essential American tale, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He completed five songs, with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. They had written the musical Lost In The Stars together, which was a hit show, and still on Broadway then.

Like Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen, Weill was also 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 George Gershwin, he was energized and inspired by 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 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 ideas about how music should be restricted in their shows. 

The Nazis were outraged by the political color of his work, and wove an intricate propaganda scheme against him which forced him to leave Germany in 1933. This was actually a quite fortuitous fate for him, considering that of other European Jews at that time who were not able to leave the country. Instead of relocation to the death camps of Auschwitz or Dachau, he went instead to New York City, and became a beloved Broadway composer.  

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. In 1933 they divorced, but eventually reunited and remarried in America, staying together until his death at 50 in 1950.

Lotte Lenye, “Pirate Jenny,” 1966

In his 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.”

Now, far into the future from when his life ended, that old notion of the two Weills has mostly vanished, for which Weill would rejoice. Those two selves – like the totality of his music, both the serious and the light – have merged into one.

This shift was triggered soon after his death.  First came an off-Broadway production  of The Threepenny Opera in 1954 featuring Lotte Lenya, which was a triumph. It was the start of a Weill revival, which hasn’t ceased. 

The next year the Weill flag was still waving more than ever, when Louie Armstrong recorded “Mack The Knife” in 1955 and it became famous again. Satchmo’s singular spirit and vocal verve lifted the song into the standard realm. It became one of his signature songs, and he sang and played it in his concerts always. 

Bobby Darin lifted it even higher with his version in 1959, which went to the top of the pop charts. Weill, dead almost a decade by then, became one of America’s hottest hit songwriters. 

Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife,” live, 1966.

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