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.
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.