Kurt Weill b Dessau, 2 March 1900; d New York, 3 April 1950 was a German composer and an American citizen from 1943. He was among the prominent composers following the devastation of World War I, and a significant figure in the evolution of contemporary forms of musical theatre. His thriving and influential work for Broadway during the 1940s was a development in commoner terms of the exploratory stage works that had made him one of the world-class avant-garde theatre composers of the Weimar Republic. Weill’s music and the Weimar Republic’s influence cannot be understood without understanding the political, historical, economic and cultural aspects of the Weimar Republic, and similarly a brief history of his life during the Weimar Republic.
Kurt Weill grew up in a devout Jewish family in the quarter in Dessau, Germany, (Sandvorstadt) where his father was a cantor. By age twelve, Kurt Weill had started piano lessons and it was during this time that he attempted writing music. By 1915 Weill was being privately tutored in composition, piano, music theory and conducting; and with this training, in 1918 he enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik at the age of 18, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch. Due to hardships in the aftermath of WW1 he stopped his studies and during this time, he composed an orchestral suite in E-flat major, Schilflieder, a cycle of five songs to poems by Nikolaus Lenau and a symphonic poem of Rilke’s The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as. From 1921 -1923 Weill returned to Berlin to study with Ferruccio Busoni, and on November 18, 1922, his pantomime for children Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm; it was the first public concert of any of Weill’s works in musical theatre.
While Weill was studying music a period of political, economic and social turbulence was occurring. Following Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the abdication of the Kaiser, a democratic republic was forced on the German people by US president Woodrow Wilson and his fourteen points. The new government had the responsibility of signing the treaty of Versailles and the new government would always be accountable for all the issues that Germany faced, which when the aftermath of the war clear would be many. Backed by the legend of dolchstoss (stab-in-the-back) the German people hated the Weimar government and attributed all their troubles to the republic. Hyper-inflation, reparations, loss of the Rhineland, dependence on foreign loans and pressure from extreme right and left wing political parties were key aspects of the turbulence experience in the Weimar Republic, but above all was the treaty of Versailles. It is this treaty that has multiple historians, Bessel (1990), W.Conze (1954), K.Borchardt (1982), theorising that the Weimar political system was doomed to failure because of its association with the treaty and the knowledge that signing it was a betrayal of the German people and their values.
While Weimar Germany was politically and economically unstable, Weimar culture (the aspect that Kurt Weill was directly involved with), was one of the most progressive and vibrant in the world during the years of 1919 to 1933. The republic was considered by the majority of Europe as a place of greater sexual liberty and acceptance. In particular, Berlin, became a thriving centre of many new art movements such as expressionism. Its status in the world of the arts was of the same if not greater importance then New York after 1945.
Cultural freedom in Weimar was not widely accepted by all. To the right, the new Weimar culture was repugnant, immoral and self-indulgent and produced and image of Weimar that encouraged new political and social thinking. The abundance of composers and performers that were associated with the communist party, which had become a “fashionable” aspect of intellectual Europe, violated traditional aspects of German culture, (this would later be restored during the Nazi regime with the introduction of censorship of composers like Kurt Weill). In the post-war Weimar Republic, a more realistic view of art was obtained, which influenced a clearer sense of the artist’s social/moral abilities. The war had killed ‘aestheticism’ and the musical world had already been stripped to its foundations, Weimar did not need traditional music. Kurt Weill provides an insight into this view,
‘I have just played to you music by Wagner and his followers. You have seen that this music consists of so many notes that I was unable to play them all. You would have liked now and then to join singing the tune, but this proved impossible. You also notice that the music made you sleepy, and drunk, as alcohol or an intoxicating drug might have done. You do not wish to go to sleep. You wish to hear music that can be understood without explanation. You probably wonder why your parents attend concerts. It is, with them, a mere matter of habit; nowadays there are matters of greater interest to us all; and if music cannot serve the interest of all, its existence is not longer justified.’
Despite the social freedom, the noticeable representation of Jews in the new artistic movements of Weimar raised this hostility. As an ambitious musician Kurt Weill rapidly became a feature in the energetic artistic scene of 1920s Berlin. In 1922 he joined the ‘Novembergruppe’, a group of left-wing Berlin artists that included Hanns Eisler and Stefan Wolpe. They mainly performed the works of modernist composers like Berg, Schoenberg,Hindemith, Stravinsky and Krenek. He had some early successes, but it was his partnership with Brecht that changed Weill into an international sensation.
Weimar is truly represented in ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’ or ‘The Threepenny Opera’ which debuted on 31 August 1928 at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. The 1928 play is an adaptation of the original English Eighteenth-century play, The Beggar’s Opera written by John Gay. Brecht’s and Weill had heard of the English play, and thought it was something that could be adapted for the people of Weimar. They found character in its promising political themes so they had The Beggar’s Opera translated into German for them. With newly discovered Marxist theory in mind, another aspect of Weimar’s extreme political spectrum, Brecht and Weill then rewrote the play, creating what was to become the “the hit of the season.”
The new German title was an allusion to the meagre amount of wealth with which the working class could use to see theatrical performances. This epic theatre style was performed in the round, evocative surroundings of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre with its style also aimed at its working class audience. The name references not only the price of admission, thus the economic status of the Weimar Republic, but is also alludes to the political issues of capitalism national socialism and the working class on which the play itself is based.
It was ironic that while Brecht attempted to make a social commentary on the evils of capitalism, the musical score composed by Weill became an immediate success across Germany. Its jazzy features and sharp satire were fuel enough the make it provoke love among the Weimar jazz fans of the day and Weimar’s obscesion with America. The character Mackie Messe is the anti-protagonist of the play and only one of the countless colourful performances of Brecht’s original play. However, Weill’s original score did not include this popular jazz hit until only a few days before opening night. “The actor performing Mackie Messe refused to go on unless his character received an appropriate introduction for his character. It was in haste that the lyrics to the introductory song describing Mackie’s despicable crimes was penned”. (“theatre and Art”, 2010)
The Mahagonny opera is most probably to the best-known of Weill’s works from the Weimar period, its historical affect defines, alongside that of Die Dreigroschenoper, as the most frequently performed works of musical theatre of the Weimar Period. Here Weill alluded to a large amount of “found-art”, from broadside ballads and parlour melodies to operatic recitative and ensemble-finales. The ‘song’ forms, for which the work has become rightly renowned, are simply one aspect of the score whose strength lies in the stylistic levels as much on its cautiously selected variety of the emotional and the sarcastic alusions. Weill’s handling of the band was immediately recognized as definitive for jazz orchestration in art music, and his use of harmonizations came to be a feature not only with his own unique voice but with the Weimar jazz age as a whole.
Weill had become the most recognised theatre composer to have emerged in the Weimar Republic. This fact, regardless of his Jewish ancestry and leftist political standings, was inevitable that they would become clear targets when the Weimar Republic started to collapse in 1929. The unruly première of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in Leipzig in 1930 was the lead up to a determined movement to drive his works from the state-subsidized theatres. By the start of the 1932-1933 season this campaign had largely achieved its ends:” despite the critical and public acclaim for his opera Die Bürgschaft (1930-32), the most ambitious of his pieces for the German stage, the work was shunned by most theatres. The enthusiastic reception given to a concert of his music at the Salle Gaveau in Paris (December 1932) confirmed his feeling that he should do more to promote his works outside Germany”. (“Kurt Weill”, 2010)
Like the majority of the Jewish artistic population, Weill continually misapprehended various political developments, believing that Weimar could not get worse and would only get better. Upon learning that he and his wife were officially on the Nazi blacklist, at which stage the Nazis had gained power, and were due to be arrested, so in March 1933 he crossed the border to France, still hoping that his stay in Paris would be temporary. It is clear that Kurt Weill was influenced by the social, economic and political characteristics of the Weimar Republic. Like so many artists, director and composers he was affected by the political and economic instability of the Republic and in response used his music to comment on social change. His major works, particularly Die Dreigroschenoper (the threepenny opera) were popular during Weimar (until the Nazi regime) because they represented and were influence by the society and politics of Weimar Germany.
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