Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kurt Weill - Composing Threepenny

We are a week away from the start of The Threepenny Opera at Signature Theatre and could not be more excited to have Mack back in town. In previous posts we explored Berchtolt Brecht and his contributions to Threepenny. This time around we thought it would only be fair to explore the other major half of the Threepenny team, composer and longtime collaborator, Kurt Weill.

Kurt Weill
Kurt Weill was a German composer active in the early 20th century. A leading composer of the stage, he was known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. With Brecht as a partner, Weill helped create pieces and productions such as, The Threepenny Opera, his most well-known work, which includes the popular ballad “Mack the Knife”. Weill held the ideal of writing music that served a socially useful and direct purpose. 

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

Kurt Julian Weill was born on the 2nd of March, 1900. The son of a cantor and the third of four children, Kurt grew up in the Jewish quarter in Dessau, Germany. Displaying musical talent at the age of 12, he began taking piano lessons and writing music. His earliest composition was written in 1913 and titled “Mi Addir” (Jewish Wedding Song) In 1915, Kurt started taking private lessons with well known Albert Bing, who taught him piano, composition, music theory, and conducting. (The Bing family would eventually become like a second family to Kurt.)

Kurt graduated from secondary school  in 1918 and promptly enrolled at the “Berliner Hochschule fur Musik” at age 18. At school he studied composition with Engelbert Humperfinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt, and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch. Unfortunately, family hardships due the aftermath of World War I forced him to abandon his studies in 1919 and return home to Dessau to teach at the Friedrich-Theatre.

A dashingyoung Kurt.
During his time at the theatre Kurt found time to compos an orchestral suite, a symphonic poem of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as Schilflieder, a cycle of five settings of poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December of 1919, through the help of Humperdinck, Weill was appointed as Kapellmeister at the newly founded Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid, where he directed opera, operetta, and singspiel for five months, and also composed a cello sonata and Ninon de Lenclos, a now lost one-act operatic adaptation of a play by Ernst Hardt.

Upon his return to Berlin, Weill had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December of 1920. After examining some of Weill's compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of five master students in composition at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin. From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with him and also counterpoint with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin.  During his first year he composed his first symphony, Sinfonie in einem Satz, as well as the lieder Die Bekehrte (Goethe) and two Rilkelieder for voice and piano. In order to support his family in Leipzig while he was at school Kurt also worked as a pianist in a Bierkeller tavern.  

It was during his second year of schooling that Weill came more into the public limelight. Kurt joined the November Group's music faction of Berlin, a group of leftist artists. In addition to joining The November Group, in November 18, 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm. This would be the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of musical theatre. In December 1923, Weill finished his studies with Busoni.

The following year, the conductor Fritz Busch introduced him to the dramatist Georg Kaiser, with whom Weill would have a long-lasting creative partnership resulting in several one-act operas. At Kaiser's house in Grünheide, Weill also first met the actress and his future wife Lotte Lenya in the summer of 1924. Lenya and Weill were married twice; in 1926 and again in 1937 (following their divorce in 1933). Lenya took great care to support Weill's work, and after his death she took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation.
Brecht and Weill were frequent collaborators on
a number of different projects.
Weill’s best-known work was The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to an end over politics in 1930. Although Weill associated with socialism, after Brecht tried to push the play even further into a left wing direction, Weill commented, according to his wife Lotte Lenya, that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."

In March of 1933, Weill fled Nazi Germany for the United States of America. A prominent Jewish composer, Weill became a target of the Nazi authorities, who criticized and interfered with performances of his stage works.  Rather than continue to write in the same style that had characterized his European compositions, Weill made a study of American music, and his American output, though held by some to be inferior, nonetheless contains individual songs and entire shows that not only became highly respected and admired, but have been seen as seminal works in the development of the American musical.
Eastman Opera Theatre production of Street Scene 2013
Weill himself strove to find a new way of creating an American opera that would be both commercially and artistically successful. The most interesting attempt in this direction is Street Scene, based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. For his work on Street Scene Weill was awarded the inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Apart from "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera, his most famous songs include "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), "Speak Low" (from One Touch of Venus), "Lost in the Stars" (from the musical of the same name), "My Ship" (from Lady in the Dark), and "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday).

On the 3rd of April, 1950, shortly after his 50th birthday Weill suffered a heart attack and died in New York City. He was buried in Haverstraw, New York. The text and music on his gravestone come from the song "A Bird of Passage" from Lost in the Stars, itself adapted from a quotation from the Venerable Bede.
This is the life of men on earth
Out of darkness we come at birth
Into a lamplit room, and then –
Go forward into dark again.

Although Weill claimed that he "didn't give a damn about writing for posterity," Maxwell Anderson prophesied in his eulogy to Weill that "it takes decades and 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."

"The most original single workman in the whole musical theater, internationally considered, during the last quarter century... Every work was a new model, a new shape, a new solution to dramatic problems." – Virgil Thomson on Weill

Tune in next week as we explore Weill's influence on the world of music both on and off the stage and how his diverse and extensive career shaped the world of musical theatre and performance. 
 Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information. 


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