Born Kurt Julian Weill, March 2, 1900, in Desau, Germany; emigrated to United States, 1936, naturalized citizen, 1943; died April 3, 1950, in New York, NY; son of Albert (a cantor and composer) and Emma (maiden name, Ackermann) Weill; married Lotte Lenya Blamauer, January 28, 1926. Education: Took piano lessons as a child with Albert Bing; studied composition under Krasselt and Engelbert Humperdinck at Berlin Hochschule, Germany, 1918; studied music theory and harmony under Ferruccio Busoni, 1921-24.
An intriguing figure in twentieth-century music, Kurt Weill was a unique composer who virtually closed the gap between "serious" and "light" music. He began his musical career composing complex modernist music that was appreciated by an esoteric elite, then shifted to creating music for the general public. Weill composed works ranging from symphonic music and opera to tangos, jazz songs, and pop hits for the theater, radio, and films. By combining different forms of music within his operatic scores, Weill, as John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times, "sought simultaneously to sustain the operatic tradition and to communicate with a contemporary audience through popular musical idioms."
Weill received early exposure to music from his father, Albert, who was a Jewish cantor and composer, and his mother, Emma, who studied the piano. He received lessons as a youth from Albert Bing, and by the time he was 17 he was already helping to support the family with money earned as an accompanist. After enrolling in the Berlin Hochschule in 1918 to receive training from noted proponents of nineteenth- century Romanticism Krasselt and Engelbert Humperdinck, Weill tired of formal teaching and left the school after only a year. He held a few musical directorship positions, then realized that he needed more training and returned to Berlin to study under the great Italian pianist and musical theorist Ferruccio Busoni. His compositions of abstract, disharmonic pieces from this time reflect the influence of Busoni's musical ideas.
Weill's musical perspective broadened with the widespread popularity of his music for Die Zaubernacht, a children's ballet performed in 1922. Pleasing a wider audience appealed to him, and he began to feel disdain for the practice of writing highly technical compositions accessible only to a small minority of listeners. He became especially interested in American jazz. His second opera, The Royal Palace, featured experimentation with various jazz forms, and he incorporated even more jazz into The Czar Has Himself Photographed, which was very popular with German audiences. Some German critics, however, felt that this work was a sellout of his talent to accommodate the tastes of the masses.
While working on the Czar score, Weill became acquainted with Bertolt Brecht, an avant-garde German poet and dramatist. In the late 1920s they began working on a modern version of John Gay's eighteenth-century play The Beggar's Opera, which had satirized society as well as the then-fashionable Italian opera. Reflecting Brecht's radical views, the resulting Threepenny Opera satirized virtually all aspects of modern culture and incorporated musical styles ranging from blues songs to tangos. The featured role of a prostitute named Jenny was played by Lotte Lenya Blamauer, whom Weill had married in 1926.
The opera at first found no backers among German producers, but when it was finally staged in 1928, it became the rage of Europe. Within a year after its first staging, the opera was performed more than 4,200 times in the major capitals of Europe. Although The Threepenny Opera was a failure with critics in its American debut in 1933, a 1954 revival ran for six years and became one of the most successful musicals ever staged in the United States. Weill's best-known song from the production was "Mack the Knife," which in 48 recorded versions sold over ten million copies. The song reached Number One on the Hit Parade in the United States in 1955. Collaborating with Brecht convinced Weill that he was through with traditional opera, and that musical theater was the one medium that allowed him to satisfy all his musical interests.
Weill and Brecht followed The Threepenny Opera with The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an even more scathing attack on society, that was presented as a full musical play in 1930. The story centers on three ex-convicts who establish an anti-utopian town in Alabama dedicated to serving man's basest instincts. Weill used a number of popular musical forms, including jazz, in his score, and his "Alabamy Song" from the show became a popular hit in Germany. Public reaction to the show, however, was mixed--while some loved it, others found it extremely distasteful and even threw stinkbombs on the stage in protest.
After the 1933 staging in Leipzig of Der Silbersee, which featured a song that was clearly an attack on Hitler and Nazism, Weill was labeled a communist, and his works were banned in Germany. Personal condemnation and the increasing persecution of Jews made it imperative for the composer to leave the country, and he fled to France. In Paris he wrote the score for the highly successful ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, a collaboration with Brecht choreographed by George Balanchine. The theme of the ballet, which focused on the split personality of its heroine, somewhat echoed Weill's dilemma of the time. During this period he wanted both to please his audiences and to be guided by his own creativity, regardless of his music's acceptance by the public.
Discussing Weill's score for the ballet, Edward Rothstein wrote in the New Republic, "Weill seems to anticipate precisely the debate over his attitudes and career that accompanied his move to America; it is a prescient chronicle of his consistent ambivalence about his work--an ambivalence that unites rather than divides his work." This "unity" is demonstrated by the daring score of the ballet that ventures from circus-like music and cabaret songs to popular dances.
After spending time in London, Weill was asked by Austrian theatrical director Max Reinhardt to go with him to the United States. Reinhardt wanted Weill to create music for his production of The Eternal Road, which was intended to be a history of the Jewish people. Once he had arrived in 1935, Weill settled into a new career in New York and wrote a number of popular scores for the theater.
His music for the 1936 play Johnny Johnson, written by Paul Green for the Group Theatre, received favorable reviews. News of his success reached Hollywood, and he was given a contract to produce music for films. Among his projects for motion pictures was the musical accompaniment for Fritz Lang's You and Me, released in 1938. He returned to Broadway that year to write music for Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday, and, even though the play was a failure, Weill's music was lauded. Weill was also commissioned to compose the score for the Ballet Theatre's The Judgment of Paris, which opened in 1940.
Weill continued to embrace American projects eagerly, setting Walt Whitman's poetry to music and writing a score for a railway pageant at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. In his new country Weill sought a closer relationship to the audience through a gentler form of satire. As Rothstein wrote, "Weill found a distinctly American way to be popular: he continued to use parody of popular song styles and mannerisms, as he had in his German period, this time not to mock his listeners, but to imply a 'sophisticated' perspective--a sort of snobbish populism, clubbishly kidding the audience about Broadway itself."
As a result of this new collusion with his audience, Weill's Broadway works lost the sharp edge of his German collaborations. For example, Lady in the Dark lightly mocks the growing practice of psychiatry, and One Touch of Venus presents a barber who wants to improve his social standing by bringing the ancient Greek goddess Venus to life, only to find that she feels threatened by life in the modern-day suburbs. Rather than court controversy, Weill's Broadway projects address nonthreatening subjects to which his audiences could readily relate.
Weill's background in complex composition gave him a style unique among musical theater composers. His scores deliver echoes of Handel choruses and Bach chorales, as well as idioms of grand opera, hymns, marches, music-hall numbers, and even Tin Pan Alley ditties. He could write a serious fugue as well as a song that made fun of a fugue. Most interesting of all was his ability to create songs that capture both high and low culture. As Lloyd Schwartz wrote in the Atlantic, "One of Weill's best jokes is the way his songs mix the elegant and the tawdry, the serious and the trivial, the cynical and the sentimental."
Although some critics lamented that Weill sentimentalized his music after moving to the United States, and that he had lost the daring of his German period when he had consistently challenged audiences rather than pleased them, Weill was less interested in creating music for posterity than in using everything he knew to reach people. He also refused to set any one form of music above another. "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' and 'light' music," Weill was quoted as saying in the New Republic. "There is only good music and bad music."
No other composer has so successfully blurred the boundaries between opera and musical theater, as evidenced by Weill's later scores for Lost in the Stars and Elmer Rice's Street Scene. Achieving great success as a composer of operas that defied all the traditions of the genre in Europe, he then moved on to set new standards for musical theater in the United States. When Weill died in 1950, Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times that the composer "stands as a sovereign example of the forces that merge in the American 'melting pot' toward a national expression, and the forces of this period which are working to create new forms of operative expression in our theatre."
by Ed Decker
Kurt Weill's Career
Composer of symphonic music, opera, songs, arias, and popular hits for theater, radio, and films. Coach at the Desau Theater, 1919; became director of the Ludenscheid Opera House, 1920; wrote first opera, The Protagonist, 1926; began long- term collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, late 1920s; wrote songs for The Three Penny Opera, late 1920s; became a leading spokesman of modernist movement in art and culture; went to Paris due to Nazi condemnation of his work, early 1930s; composed score for ballet The Seven Deadly Sins in Paris, 1933; moved to London, mid-1930s; wrote music for Johnny Johnson, a play produced by the Group Theater, 1936; was given a contract with a Hollywood studio; wrote songs for Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938, Lady in the Dark, 1941, Street Scene, 1947, and other theatrical works; collaborated on musicals with Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, and S. J. Perelman, 1930s-1940s.
- Fantasy, Passacaglia, and Hymn, 1923.
- The Protagonist (opera), 1926.
- (With Bertolt Brecht) The Threepenny Opera, 1928.
- (With Brecht) The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (opera), 1930.
- (With Brecht) Happy End (opera), 1929.
- (With Brecht) The Seven Deadly Sins (ballet), 1933.
- Knickerbocker Holiday (musical), 1938.
- Lady in the Dark, (musical), 1940.
- The Judgment of Paris (ballet), 1940.
- One Touch of Venus (musical), 1943.
- Street Scene (opera), 1946.
- Lost in the Stars (opera), 1949.
- Jarman, Douglas, Kurt Weill, An Illustrated Biography, Indiana University Press, 1982.
- International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
- Schonberg, Harold C., The Lives of the Great Composers, revised edition, Norton, 1981.
- Taylor, Ronald, Kurt Weill, Northeastern University Press, 1992.
- Periodicals Atlantic, December 1989; November 1992..
- Herald Tribune, April 9, 1950.
- New Republic, November 23, 1987.
- New Statesman & Society, June 22, 1990.
- New Yorker, October 19, 1987.
- New York Times, April 9, 1950; January 5, 1993; May 30, 1993; December 17, 1993.
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