Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 2 March 1900, Dessau, Germany; d 3 April 1950, NYC) Composer. He was the third son of the Cantor of a Dessau synagogue whose family traced roots in Baden back to the 13th century. He studied piano, began composing and conducting in 1916, studied in Berlin 1918, became a vocal coach at Dessau Opera in 1918, conductor there in 1920. He returned to Berlin 1920; his music first performed in 1923 included a string quartet and Sinfonia Sacra; met Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) and through him Austrian actress/singer Lotte Lenya (b Caroline Blamauer, 18 October 1900; d 27 November 1981, NYC: they married in 1926, divorced '33, remarried '37).

Zaubernacht ('Magic Night') a dance pantomime for children, successful in Berlin in 1922, was his first USA production at Christmas 1925 in NYC. Weill/Kaiser one-act operas Der Protagonist '26 and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren '28 ('The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken') made him one of the most important composers of his generation. He began working with playwright Bertolt Brecht on opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, from which a songspiel was performed in 1927; in mid-'28 their Die Dreigroschenoper was premièred in Berlin: 'The Threepenny Opera' was immediately successful, based on Elizabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (popular in England since 1728, music by J. C. Pepusch). The complete Mahagonny was premiéred '30 in Leipzig, '31 in Berlin, considered scandalous in its amoral commentary on 20th-century attitudes; also 'school opera' Der Jasager ('The Yes-sayer'). A three-act opera Die Bürgschaft '32 ('The Pledge') with libretto by Caspar Neher and Weill was his most ambitious and dramatic work work to date, possibly a great opera which certainly deserves revival, was mounted by the State Opera in Berlin and was a rallying point for liberal art policies as Germany slid into chaos; a semi-staged performance of Der Jasager and the songspiel from Mahagonny was a fashionable success in Paris; the second performance of 'Wintermärchen' Der Silbersee ('The Silver Lake', with Kaiser) in early '33 was disrupted by Nazi demonstrations.

Weill went to Paris after the Reichstag fire and finished his second symphony in 1934. His Marie Galante based on a novel by Jacques Deval opened in December 1934 and closed the next month; described as a gritty shocker, one of its songs, 'J'Attends un Navire' -- 'I Am Waiting For A Ship' -- later took on a life of its own as a theme song of the French Resistance against the Nazis. The Opéra Français de New York revived this in 2008 at Florence Gould Hall.

Weill worked on Der Weg der Verheissung ('The Road Of Promise'), about Jewish history, and went to New York in 1935. The musical play Johnny Johnson with Paul Green was a moderate success '36; 'Promise' was finally put on at the Manhattan Opera House as The Eternal Road '37, a critical and public success but with running costs too high: it was considered the most expensive failure in history at the time. He worked in Hollywood (including a score for Fritz Lang's You And Me); in mid-1938 he wrote and orchestrated the music for Maxwell Anderson's book and lyrics for Knickerbocker Holiday, which opened in October: his first Broadway hit, including 'It Never Was You' (sung by Judy Garland in the film I Could Go On Singing '63) and 'September Song', which has become a standard. Music for the pageant Railroads On Parade at the World's Fair '39 was a hit; Lady In The Dark '41 with Moss Hart and Gershwin, One Touch Of Venus '43 with book by S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash were both hits (Lady with 'My Ship', others including patter song 'Tschaikovsky', the names of 49 Russian composers delivered by Danny Kaye; Venus included 'Speak Low', another standard).

The musical film Where Do We Go From Here? was followed by an operetta, The Firebrand Of Florence (play by E. J. Meyer about Cellini, Lenya in a leading role), both with Ira Gershwin; the latter was his only Broadway flop. Firebrand disappeared until a European premiére in 2000 in a concert performance in London, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and issued on CD by Capriccio; it was to be revived in a concert performance in March 2009 by the Collegiate Chorale at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Weill's 'Broadway opera' Street Scene was based on an Elmer Rice play, and was a critical and public hit '47 (lyrics by Langston Hughes) but had high running costs; Weill was angry because it closed too soon. His unpublished ballad opera Down In The Valley (written for radio '45) was premiéred to acclaim at U. of Indiana in Bloomington '48. Love Life with Alan Jay Lerner was a moderate success on Broadway; Lost In The Stars '49 with Anderson was a hit (adapted from Alan Paton's Cry The Beloved Country). He was working on a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn when he died (patched together and performed on Austrian TV '64, the lyrics by Anderson).

Lady In The Dark was about psychoanalysis, a play with the musical interludes illustrating dream sequences but with no sharp division between the scenes; starring Gertrude Lawrence, it played to standing room only '41, then went on the road for a year, but WWII intervened and the songs remain to be rediscovered. When it was mounted in London for the first time '97, Sheridan Morley pointed out that after the war Oklahoma! had seemed to be the next great step forward in American musical theatre, whereas in fact Lady In The Dark had been unique in being a classic with an original story rather than an adaptation, in the brilliance of its score and in the barriers it pushed back, demanding attention and intelligence from its audience. A superb studio recording with Risë Stevens '63 was reissued on Columbia '97.

Weill wrote a great deal of music, much of it still being rediscovered; he was a lifelong democrat, caring little for posterity, but Brecht, like many apparently committed left-wing artists, was said to have his eye on his posthumous reputation and seemed to have nothing good to say about collaborators, especially his most famous one. Brecht even hinted that he wrote some of the tunes from their collaboration, but the only evidence is Brecht's draft of 'Seeräuberjenny' ('Pirate Jenny', from Threepenny), re-composed by Weill, whose reputation continues to rise. (It is mainly in English-speaking countries that Brecht has had a poor reputation as a man and an artist; in 2014 a new biography, Bertold Brecht: A literary life, by Stephen Parker, aimed to put that right, highly praised in the Times Literary Supplement by Michael Hofmann.)

The English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein '52 of Threepenny was among the longest-running shows in Broadway history, with Lenya re-creating her role, including 'Mack The Knife', among the biggest hits of the century, with nine hit recordings '56-60 including instrumentals as 'Morität' ('Die Morität vom Mackie Messer' was the original title). 'Bilbao Song' (from flop Happy End '29 with Brecht and Hauptmann) was added to Threepenny by Blitzstein for the '56 London production as 'Bide-awee In Soho'; as 'Bilbao Song' with new lyrics by Johnny Mercer it was another pop hit. The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny was revived by Sadler's Wells (now English National Opera) in London '63, then at La Scala and in USA; its metaphor of the moral confusion in the Weimar Republic will be of permanant value, made more pointed by the tension between Brecht's didacticism and Weill's sympathy. Lost In The Stars was revived on Broadway '72; filmed Weill shows include Die Dreigroschenoper '31 (with Lenya, directed by G. W. Pabst, who also adapted it for the NYC stage in '33) and English/German production '64 with Sammy Davis Jr and Hildegarde Neff (Kurt Muehlhardt dubbed in German version for Davis, Martha Schlamme in English for Neff); Knickerbocker Holiday '44 (with Charles Coburn singing 'September Song'), Lady In The Dark '44 (with most of the songs cut), One Touch Of Venus '48 (watered down). Lenya became an international star as his interpreter: her recordings include songs from Threepenny and Mahagonny '28-30, now on Teldec; for CBS '56-60 she recorded September Song And Other American Theatre Songs and Berlin Theatre Songs, a complete Dreigroschenoper, complete three-disc Mahagonny, Happy End (including 'Surabaya Johnny', 'Bilbao'), Seven Deadly Sins (a ballet with music written in Paris '33). The original cast of the USA Threepenny '54 was available on MGM. (Her film roles included the SMERSH agent in the James Bond film From Russia With Love '63, with poisoned blades in her shoe tips.) An RCA LPV (Vintage series) LP '60s compiled Lady In The Dark on one side, Down In The Valley on the other. Hal Willner's tribute album Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill '84 on A&M included Marianne Faithfull, Van Dyke Parks, Lou Reed, Carla Bley, Phil Woods, Tom Waits, Todd Rundgren, Charlie Haden; other Weill works/collections (by Teresa Stratas on Nonesuch, etc) were listed in classical sections of record catalogues; EMI's Weill On Broadway '96 was highly praised; see also Marianne Faithfull and Ute Lemper.

Weill scholar David Drew helped with countless Weill projects/revivals; his Kurt Weill: A Handbook '87 was long needed. Weill's father's synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis, his birthplace by the DDR, but Dessau began to make amends: concerts of both Weill's secular and his religious music were accompanied '96 by a superb new production of Der Silbersee, illustrating why the Nazis feared him: in the words of the original producer, Douglas Sirk, 'ten times tougher than any Brecht play', ending with a waltz that leads straight to Broadway, wrote Rodney Milnes in The Times: 'Contrary to received opinion, there really was only one Weill.' Speak Low: The Letters Of Kurt Weill And Lotte Lenya '96 is revealing of both personalities and music history.

The British writer Drew (b September 19, 1930; d 25 July 2009) was the most important Weill scholar in English; he wrote in 1980 that 'Weill is perhaps the only notable artist to have done away with his old creative self in order to make way for a new one.' A younger generation is inspired by Drew, but will draw its own conclusions: Love Song by Ethan Mordden (2012) takes as its premise that Weill changed from work to work, not just when he crossed the Atlantic. Weill saw no contradiction in creating art that was popular: comparisons with Gershwin are inevitable.