The Weill Party

The 20th Century’s Most Influential Composer Turns 100

Fill in the missing term that links each of the following pairs: Ferruccio Busoni and Fred MacMurray; Jean Cocteau and Lee Strasberg; Fritz Lang and Langston Hughes. Hint: It's a composer whose music has been recorded by rock groups, avant-garde ensembles, lounge acts, Broadway stars, opera houses, and Anjelica Huston's grandfather. Second hint: I'm writing this on his 100th birthday. Final hint: Most people, misguidedly, only think of his name as coming immediately after "Bertolt Brecht." A hundred years ago, on March 2, 1900, Kurt Julian Weill was born in Dessau, a midsize city in eastern Germany.

Since another of Brecht's major musical collaborators was a composer named Dessau, you might say that the ironies and confusions around Weill began at his birth. But Paul Dessau did not write the tune of "Mack the Knife"—nor, for that matter, did Bertolt Brecht, though in later life he enjoyed hinting he'd had a hand in it. That sums up, in a way, the struggle Weill's had establishing his reputation: His tremendous force and originality as a composer were only equalled by his ability to subsume himself, as any theater artist must, in the collaborative act. He changed the face of theater music, and permanently altered the way we think about music in general, but people still think first of "Brecht and Weill." And yet he wrote with over 25 other lyricists, an astonishing array that includes everyone from Cocteau and Hughes to the Berlin cabarettist Walter Mehring and the Tin Pan Alley scribbler Sam Coslow. Brecht's may be the most lasting theatrical voice among Weill's librettists, but the others—Georg Kaiser, Franz Werfel, Jacques Deval, Maxwell Anderson, Alan Jay Lerner—make up a list from which you could easily build a course on the modern history of the popular stage. Wherever you go in music theater, from mass spectacle to surrealist caprice, Weill was there ahead of you, humanizing the didactic and bringing depth to the divertissement. "He was an architect," Virgil Thomson wrote when he died, "a master of musico-dramatic design, whose works, built for function and solidity, constitute a repertory of models." And he did it all in 50 years: The centennial of Weill's birth is also the 50th anniversary of his death (April 3, 1950, of heart failure). The ongoing celebration of his work is both a birthday party and a memorial.

Which is appropriate, because one reason Weill's career now looms so large in retrospect is that he himself appears as a model of sorts: the composer who survived everything. Born into the Wilhelmine Empire at its ostentatious peak, he lasted long enough to see the atom bomb and the Cold War. A principal target of the Nazi campaign against "degenerate art," he had to relearn theater practice and backstage jargon in three foreign countries and Hollywood to boot. His catalog teems with missing and unexplained items: One reason commentators wax pompous about "the two Kurt Weills" is that in America he downplayed some of his German achievements, under the impression that the scores had been irrecoverably destroyed by the Nazis; it isn't every tunesmith who gets personally singled out by Hitler as "a menace to Aryan culture." Two Weills? The miracle is that we have one. Besides, given the range of his creative personality and the number of situations in which he worked, the number is more like six.

And this, too, is part of what makes Weill the quintessential modern musician. His is the art of a man who saw that no institution was permanent, that instability was the structural center of modern life. A lover of Bach and Mozart, Busoni's prize pupil, he was educated to carry on the German classical tradition in symphony and opera; instead, he disrupted it with tango recordings, Dada libretti, and knotty, polytonal scoring. The final blow to his career in the traditional forms was Brecht, whose poetry lured him to attempt, through the marriage of cabaret and classical expectations, a political disruption to match the aesthetic one for which he was already becoming notorious. Commissioned to compose a chamber opera, he obliged with a plotless "songplay" (Songspiel) made of six poems linked by orchestral interludes. When he and Brecht built it into a full three-act opera, Mahagonny, the evening opened with a truck driving onstage. And when the word "opera" actually appeared in the title of a Brecht-Weill work, it played in an ordinary theater and had in its principal roles an operetta tenor, a singing actress, a cabaret diseuse, and a dancer whom nobody but Weill thought could sing at all—until opening night made Lotte Lenya the toast of Berlin and, soon after, the definitive performer of Weill's songs.

The Threepenny Opera, a work that can feel at home anywhere from dark subbasements to vast amphitheaters (including opera houses), is the unlocalized locus classicus of Weill's brilliant indeterminacy. Its form is as hard to pin down as its setting, which would be London at the time of Queen Victoria's coronation (1837), except for the 1890s costumes and Kipling quotations, the passages drawn from the work's 1728 source (John Gay's The Beggar's Opera), and the intermittent lapses into 1920s Berlin slang usage. Weill's score moves from scraps of realized folk song through long verse-and-chorus ballads to extended choral finales that are meant to remind you of Bach. And it's all orchestrated for a peculiar combination of instruments that happened to belong to one of Berlin's more popular dance bands.

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