Weill, Kurt (Julian)

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Weill, Kurt (Julian)

Weill, Kurt (Julian), remarkable German-born American composer; b. Dessau, March 2, 1900; d. N.Y., April 3, 1950. He was a private pupil of Albert Bing in Dessau (1915-18); in 1918-19 he studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Humperdinck (composition), Friedrich Koch (counterpoint), and Krasselt (conducting). He was then engaged as an opera coach in Dessau and was also theater conductor at Ludenscheid. In 1920 he moved to Berlin and was a student of Busoni at the Prussian Academy of Arts until 1923; also studied with Jarnach there (1921-23). His first major work, the Sym. No. 1, Berliner Sinfonie, was composed in 1921. However, it was not performed in his lifetime; indeed, its MS was not recovered until 1955, and it was finally premiered by the North German Radio Sym. Orch. in Hamburg in 1958. Under the impact of new trends in the musical theater, Weill proceeded to write short satirical operas in a sharp modernistic manner: Der Protagonist (1924-25) and Royal Palace (1925-26). There followed a striking “songspiel” (a hybrid term of English and German words), Mahagonny, to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, savagely satirizing the American primacy of money (1927); it was remodeled and was presented as the 3-act opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1929). Weill’s greatest hit in this genre came with a modernistic version of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, to a pungent libretto by Brecht; under the title Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), it was staged all over Germany, and was also produced in translation throughout Europe. Marc Blitzstein later made a new libretto for the opera, versified in a modern American style, which was produced as The Threepenny Opera, the exact translation of the German title. Its hit number, “Mack the Knife,” became tremendously successful.

After the Nazi ascent to power in Germany, Weill and his wife, Lotte Lenya, who appeared in many of his musical plays, went to Paris in 1934. They settled in the U.S. in 1935; Weill became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. Quickly absorbing the modes and fashions of American popular music, he recreated, with astonishing facility, and felicity, the typical form and content of American musicals; this stylistic transition was facilitated by the fact that in his European productions he had already absorbed elements of American popular songs and jazz rhythms. His highly developed assimilative faculty enabled him to combine this Americanized idiom with the advanced techniques of modern music (atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms) and present the product in a pleasing, and yet sophisticated and challenging, manner. However, for all of his success in American-produced scores, the great majority of his European works remained to be produced in America only posthumously. The Kurt Weill Edition of his complete works began publ. in 1997 under the auspices of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., and the European American Music Corp.


dramatic: Zaubernacht, ballet (Berlin, Nov. 18, 1922); Der Protagonist, opera (1924-25; Dresden, March 27, 1926); Royal Palace, ballet-opera (1925-26; Berlin, March 2,1927; original orchestration not extant; reconstructed as a ballet by Günther Schuller and Noam Sheriff, San Francisco, Oct. 5, 1968); Na und?, opera (1926-27; not perf.; not extant); Der Zar lassi sich photographieren, opera (1927; Leipzig, Feb. 18, 1928); Mahagonny,“songspiel” (Baden-Baden, July 17, 1927; remodeled as a 3-act opera, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, 1927-29; Leipzig, March 9, 1930); Happy End, comedy (Berlin, Sept. 2, 1929); Der Jasager, school opera (Berlin radio, June 23, 1930); Die Burgschaft, opera (1930-31; Berlin, March 10, 1932); Der Silbersee, musical play (1932-33; simultaneous premiere in Leipzig, Erfurt, and Magdeburg, Feb. 18, 1933); Die sieben Todsunden der Kleinburger, ballet (Paris, June 7, 1933); Der Kuhnhandel, operetta (1934; Düsseldorf, March 22, 1990; rev. as a musical comedy, A Kingdom for a Cow, London, June 28,1935); Der Weg der Verheissung, biblical drama (1934-35; Chemnitz, June 13,1999; rev. by L. Lewisohn as The Eternal Road, 1935-36; N.Y., Jan. 7, 1937); Johnny Johnson, musical fable (N.Y., Nov. 19, 1936); Davy Crockett, musical play (1938; unfinished); Knickerbocker Holiday, operetta (Hartford, Conn., Sept. 26, 1938; contains the popular “September Song”); Railroads on Parade, historical pageant (1938-39; N.Y. World’s Fair, April 30, 1939); The Ballad of Magna Carta, scenic cantata (1939; CBS, Feb. 4, 1940); Ulysses Africanus, musical play (1939; unfinished); Lady in the Dark, musical play (1940; N.Y., Jan. 23, 1941); One Touch of Venus, musical comedy (N.Y., Oct. 7, 1943); The Firebrand of Florence, operetta (1944; N.Y., March 22, 1945); Down in the Valley, folk opera (1945-48; Bloomington, Ind., July 15, 1948); Street Scene, opera (1946; N.Y., Jan. 9,1947); Love Life, vaudeville (1947; N.Y., Oct. 7,1948); Lost in the Stars, musical tragedy, after Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (N.Y., Oct. 30, 1949); Huckleberry Finn, musical (1950; unfinished). F i 1 m : You and Me (1937-38); The River Is Blue (1937-38; discarded); Where Do We Go from Here? (1943-44); Salute to France (1944). ORCH.: Symphonic Poem (1920?; not extant); 1 unnumbered sym. (1920; not extant); 2 numbered syms.: No. 1, Berliner Sinfonie (1921; Hamburg, Jan. 17, 1958) and No. 2, Pariser Symphonie (1933; Amsterdam, Oct. 11, 1934; U.S. premiere as 3 Night Scenes, N.Y., Dec. 13, 1934); Divertimento (1922); Sinfonia sacra or Fantasia, Passacaglia, und Hymnus (1922); Quodlibet, suite from Zaubernacht (1923; Coburg, Feb. 6, 1926); Concerto for Violin, Woodwinds, Double Bass, and Percussion (1924; Paris, June 11, 1925); Berlin im Licht for Military Band (1928); Kleine Drei-groschenmusik for Winds, concert suite from Die Dreigroschenoper (1929). CHAMBER: 2 movements for String Quartet: Allegro deciso and Andantino (n.cL; N.Y., March 7,1977); 1 unnumbered string quartet (1919); 1 numbered string quartet (1923); Cello Sonata (1920). VOCAL: Sulamith, cantata for Soprano, Women’s Chorus, and Orch. (1920; not extant); Psalm VIII for 8 Voices (1921; partly lost); Recordare for Chorus and Children’s Chorus (1923); Das Studenbuch, 6 songs for Tenor or Soprano and Orch. (1924; partly lost); Der neue Orpheus, cantata for Soprano, Violin, and Orch. (1925; Berlin, March 2,1927); Vom Tod im Wald, ballad for Bass and 10 Wind Instruments (Berlin, Nov. 23, 1927); Das Berliner Requiem, cantata for Tenor, Baritone, Bass, Chorus, and 15 Instruments (1928; Frankfurt am Main Radio, May 22,1929); Der Lindberghflug, cantata after a radio score for Tenor, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (with Hindemith; Baden-Baden, July 28, 1929; rescored by Weill as totally his own work, Berlin, Dec. 5, 1929; rev. 1930 as Der Flug des Lindberghs and then later retitled Der Ozeanflug, without Lindbergh’s name, as a gesture of protest against Lindbergh’s militant neutrality toward Nazi Germany); Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen for Men’s Voices (1929); Song of the Railroads (1938); 4 American Songs (1939); Kiddush for Tenor, Chorus, and Organ (1946); many songs.


S. Hinton and J. Schebera, eds., Musik und Theater: Gesammelte Schriften (Leipzig, 1990).


H. Kotschenreuther, K. W.(Berlin, 1962); K. Kow-alke, K. W. in Europe (Ann Arbor, 1979); R. Sanders, The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of K. W.(N.Y, 1980); D. Jarman, K. W.: An Illustrated Biography (Bloomington, Ind., 1982); J. Schebera, K. W.: Leben und Werk (Leipzig, 1983); K. Kowalke, ed., A New Orpheus: Essays on K. W.(New Haven, 1986); S. Cook, Opera During the Weimar Republic: The Zeitopern of Ernst Krenek, K. W., and Paul Hindemith (Ann Arbor, 1987); D. Drew, K. W.: A Handbook (Berkeley, 1987); S. Hinton, ed., K. W.: The Threepenny Opera (Cambridge, 1990); J. Schebera, K. W. 1900-1950: Eine Biographie in Texten, Bildern und Dokumenten (Leipzig, 1990); R. Taylor, K. W.: Composer in a Divided World (London, 1991); K. Kowalke and H. Edler, eds., A Stranger Here Myself: K. W.Studien (Hildesheim, 1993); G. Diehl, Der junge K. W. und seine Oper “Der Protagonist: “Exemplarische Untersuchungen zur Deutung des frühen kompositorischen Werkes (2 vols., Kassel, 1994); N. Grosch, J. Lucchesi, and J. Schebera, eds., K. W.-Studien (Stuttgart, 1996); H. Geuen, Von der Zeitoper zur Broadway Opera: K. W. und die Idee des musikalischen Theaters (Schliengen, 1997); D. Farneth, K. W.: A Life in Pictures and Documents (Woodstock and London, 1999).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire