The Weill Party

The 20th Century’s Most Influential Composer Turns 100

Threepenny made so much money that its now famous authors inevitably attempted a sequel, Happy End, which did nothing for Brecht's reputation but enriched Weill's with a set of perhaps even greater songs. But even as Weill was immersed in Brecht texts, the two men's collaboration cracked open. It was partly a matter of contracts, on which Brecht notoriously took unfair advantage of even his closest friends; but it was nearly as much a question of music versus words. There may also have been a third issue in the contrast between Weill's firm but soft-spoken, invariably courteous behavior and the colleague-alienating tantrums that were such an important part of Brecht's tactical arsenal. The first word everyone who knew Weill personally uses about him is "gentle." But gentleness is often the velvet glove that masks an iron determination; under enough pressure, worms will turn. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 stage works together, Rodgers and Hart over 20, Brecht and Weill barely half a dozen. By the last of these, the masterful sung ballet Seven Deadly Sins (1933), they were on strictly formal terms. After that, Weill often helped Brecht out, and planned new works with him, but always guardedly.

Purest in structure and musically the most fully achieved of his works, Seven Deadly Sins is probably Weill's masterpiece. It's also a pivotal midpoint that seems to sum him up: Written in Paris, it's a German work set in America; it uses the form of traditional religious parables to transmit secular economic ideas through an image derived from Freudian psychology. For all its purity, it's a hybrid work—a ballet with principal roles for soprano and male a cappella quartet. For all its somber gravity, its central image has a trashy, popular source: The two sisters, practical singing superego and impulsive dancing id, are the good and evil twins of a thousand horror movies. Weill transfigures the tawdriness with his distinctive blend of objectivity and compassion: When dancing Anna's heart gets broken, her singing twin (who caused the break) gives the word "Schwester" (sister) a downward portamento, on a major sixth, that carries your ears straight back to Countess Almaviva's sorrows in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Tawdriness can't beat that.

Nor could tawdry America beat Weill's classicism. Fascinated by his adopted country's roiling, emergent culture, he turned each of his Broadway projects into an experiment in form—Thomson's "repertory of models" with a vengeance. While ideologues like Adorno moaned over his pursuit of commercial success, and highbrows like Elliott Carter fretted over his abandoning art music for hit tunes, he was stretching Broadway's modest tolerance for innovation to the limit: a satirical operetta about the corruption of democracy (Knickerbocker Holiday); a psychological drama interrupted by short surrealist operas (Lady in the Dark); a musical burlesque on modern art's dilemma of self-awareness (One Touch of Venus); a pageant of American history, told vaudeville style, as the story of one marriage's failure (Love Life); a naturalistic social drama transmuted to Puccinian heights (Street Scene); a choral cantata on the tragedy of racism (Lost in the Stars). If that's the track record of a "commercial" composer, then Emma Goldman was Cole Porter in drag. Lenya was right: There is, as she insisted to her dying day, only one Kurt Weill.

And who is he, exactly? Easier to say what he is in musical terms. He's that sighing downward sixth. He's the sensuous English horn solo in The Eternal Road. He's the unexpected D natural that nobody except Lenya gets right when they sing "Foolish Heart." He's the upsetting contrapuntal trombone in the last chorus of "Surabaya Johnny." He's the tango rhythm that crops up everywhere, the Mozart figured bass that shocks you awake in the hurricane scene of Mahagonny, the pennywhistle sound that slices through the lush train-station chorale in Lost in the Stars. Where there's a bittersweet tune, a rhythm that clutches your heart, a propulsive sense of something big being built, and a startling flash of orchestral color, there's Kurt Weill. "Everything he wrote," Thomson's obituary said, "became, in one way or another, historic." He literally didn't know the half of it. Fifty years later, on his 100th birthday, we're still discovering Kurt Weill.

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