Kurt Weill

Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic.  Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy.  The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were thus some of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression.

Kurt Weill was born on 2 March 1900 in Dessau into a Jewish family with a long ancestry in Germany.  Since his father was a cantor, Weill’s early musical leanings were supported by the family.  As a teenager Weill began studying music with Albert Bing, and soon began composing, displaying the early predilection for vocal music that was to lead him to musical theatre.  He later moved to Berlin to continue his studies, working with Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni.  Although generally a poor student, Weill managed to scrape by, supporting himself through private lessons and by directing synagogue choirs.

The aspiring musician quickly became a fixture in the vibrant cultural scene of 1920s Berlin.  In 1922 he joined the Novembergruppe, a group of leftist Berlin artists that included Hanns Eisler and Stefan Wolpe.  They primarily performed the works of modernist composers like Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky and Krenek.  He had some early successes, but it was his partnership with Brecht that transformed Weill into an international sensation.

The Threepenny Opera premiered on 31 August 1928, starring Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya.  It was a hit, establishing Weill as one of the most successful composers of Weimar Germany.  Weill’s powerful music, combined with the cynicism and social criticism of Brecht’s libretto, had produced one of the most important cultural creations of inter-war Europe.  In March 1930, their Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) premiered in Leipzig; by this point, tensions were high between Brecht and Weill, as the two strongly opinionated men came into increasing conflict with one another.  In addition, with the right wing growing in power, their work was increasingly coming under fire.  Although Weill’s operas continued to be popular successes, Nazi protests frequently interfered with performances, and the pressure of working under such conditions was destroying his marriage as well.  Theatre directors became ever more reluctant to stage his work.

Like many other artists in his situation, Weill repeatedly misread political developments, believing that things were bound to get better.  Eventually he learned that he and his wife were officially on the Nazi blacklist and were due to be arrested, so in March 1933 he crossed the border to France, still hoping that his stay in Paris would be temporary.  Weill’s continued collaboration with Brecht while in Paris was relatively unsuccessful, and soon after his marriage ended in divorce.  He then left for the USA, where he hoped to rebuild his career.  There, he was also re-united with his ex-wife Lenya.  He later recalled:

Lenja and I came here in 1935 and fell immediately in love with this country, and my success here (which people usually subscribe to ‘luck’) is mostly due to the fact that I took a very positive and constructive attitude towards the American way of life and the cultural possibilities in this country.

The confident tone of this statement belies the difficulty and struggle of his first few years in America, where his plays were unsuccessful and the young couple struggled to support themselves.  Early on, Weill collaborated with the playwright Paul Green on the anti-war play Johnny Johnson, and paid his bills by composing film scores.  It was not until 1938, with his hit musical Knickerbocker Holiday written with playwright Maxwell Anderson, that Weill finally gained access to the musical theatre scene of Broadway.  Weill’s two biggest Broadway hits were written during the war years: Lady in the Dark, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and One Touch of Venus, a musical comedy.  The composer, however, never forgot his roots, and unlike many other émigrés who struggled to downplay their Jewishness, was an early figure in memorialising the Holocaust and raising public awareness of the plight of Europe’s Jews.  Despite his financial success in the United States, however, he never achieved the sort of fame or influence that he had enjoyed during the Weimar years.  Always something of an outsider, he remained on the fringes of the musical establishment, and until his death was denied membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Traditionally, scholars have divided Weill’s oeuvre into two main sections: his early work, especially the collaborations with Brecht, composed in Germany, and his later material, written in the United States.  Some have argued that the earlier phase was superior, and have condemned the material written for Broadway and Hollywood as mass-driven and superficial.  Although the works produced after the collaborations with Brecht were not as directly political, however, during his career in the US Weill produced important works critiquing US optimism and the ‘American way of life’, and tackling such issues as the unequal distribution of wealth, segregation, and the effect of industrialisation on families.  Weill enjoyed an unusual level of control over the dramatic structure of his works, and used this to increase their power and social relevance.  Musically, he also composed many songs of lasting popularity, including the famous ‘Mack the Knife’.

Weill died at the age of 50 on 3 April 1950.

Sources

Farneth, D., 2000. Kurt Weill: a life in pictures and documents, Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press.  

Kater, M.H., 2000. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

Traber, H. & Weingarten, E. eds., 1987. Verdrängte Musik: Berliner Komponisten im Exil, Berlin: Argon.  

Portrait of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 1930-40. USHMM (66073), courtesy of Yale University Library.