Weill, Kurt (1900–1950)

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WEILL, KURT (1900–1950)


German composer.

Born in Dessau, Germany, Kurt Weill was the son of the synagogue cantor, a man who also occasionally composed liturgical music. Kurt started composing at eleven; however, formal training began only at age fifteen, under the tutelage of Albert Bing. It was Bing who helped Weill realize his talents in that direction.

Exempted from military service in World War I, Weill attended the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, studying under Engelbert Humperdinck in 1918. After one semester, he pursued opportunities to develop as a conductor, music director, and composer. As staff conductor at the new Lüdenscheidt Civic Opera, he learned how to stage operas and musical theater and what literature was appropriate to adapt for music performances. He also became familiar with works that criticized social conditions.

Weill had always been interested in world literature. It was during this postwar period that he realized that his greatest talent was an ability to wed word and music in the service of performances. He used this preeminent gift in a multiplicity of forms: songs (including cabaret numbers), operas, music dramas, operas for students, pageants, operettas, and musicals. Musically, his works stood in the vanguard of modern composition. His postwar compositions were from the beginning attuned to American dance and jazz idioms, expressionistic melodies, and, albeit briefly, atonality.

His choice of literary works revealed a lifelong interest in societal concerns. After Weill returned to Berlin, Ferruccio Busoni accepted him into his class at the Academy of the Arts. This enabled Weill to receive supervision, which had been unavailable in the master class he had taken the previous year, 1921, when he wrote his First Symphony. His theatrical breakthrough came in 1926, when, with a leading German librettist, Georg Kaiser, he composed the one-act opera The Protagonist. Its success established Weill as the foremost theater composer of his generation. His collaboration with Kaiser continued, resulting in repeated successes, such as the one-act opera buffa The Czar Has His Picture Taken in 1927, and Silver Lake, a "winter's tale," which unleashed protests and disruptions by Nazi hoodlums in 1932.

Georg Kaiser introduced Weill to Lotte Lenya, who would become Weill's wife and one of the prime interpreters of his songs and arias. In addition to Kaiser, Weill found a productive if often contentious collaborator in the dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The partnership began with Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927), which was expanded two years later into the full-length opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny), a reckoning with capitalistic excesses and materialism. It ended in 1933 with the ballet Seven Deadly Sins, composed after both men had already fled Nazi Germany. But the collaboration had reached its apogee with The Threepenny Opera in 1928. Based loosely on John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), Weill's score for Brecht's social satire used a multitude of musical forms, ranging from songs to arias. It became the vehicle for Weill's global fame.

From Paris, to which he had escaped, Weill accepted Max Reinhardt's invitation to compose a biblical music drama in collaboration with Franz Werfel, to be presented in New York. The Eternal Road opened in 1937; it was an artistic triumph and a financial failure. In the meantime, Weill had begun to compose for American musical theater. He became the great pioneer of the concept musical, a model for many who followed him.

His first work, the pacifist musical Johnny Johnson (1936), written with Paul Green and backed by New York's Group Theatre, combined works of social criticism from his European period, thus establishing his characteristic social critique in the American musical theater. In Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), for instance, he collaborated with Maxwell Anderson to attack an overweening governor. Lady in the Dark (1941), written with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, achieved acclaim for its accurate portrayal of clinical psychoanalysis, previously an unmentionable subject on stage. With S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, Weill created One Touch of Venus (1943), a Broadway musical and a smash hit. It starred Mary Martin and added to the American songbook such hits as "Speak Low," "Foolish Heart," and "That's Him."

Weill wrote that he considered Street Scene (1947) a personal triumph, for in working with Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes he had achieved his dream of creating an American opera entirely in America and a work that completely integrated drama and music, spoken word, song, and movement. The score represents the new freedom of form and feelings he had discovered in his adopted country. It is also significant in that Weill wrote his own orchestrations and arrangements. "Down in the Valley" (1948) is derived from the melodies and stories of American folk songs. In it we hear Weill's American voice. It is said to have inspired a new genre of opera in America, for schools and amateur groups.

In 1949 Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country served as the basis for Lost in the Stars, which decries apartheid in South Africa and prejudice everywhere. The musical Love Life (1947), written with Alan J. Lerner, is a criticism of conformity to a materialistic society, a frequent subtext in Weill's work.

Toward the end of his short life, Weill found a voice attuned to American audiences. The talents he developed in the United States rivaled his skill, forged in Europe, at artistic communication. He excelled on two continents with his unforgettable melodies and a whole range of musical forms.

See alsoBrecht, Bertolt; Opera; Theater.


Drew, David. Kurt Weill, a Handbook. London, 1987.

Farneth, David. Kurt Weill, a Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, N.Y., 2000. Reprint, 2004.

Kowalke, Kim H. Kurt Weill in Europe. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1979.

Schebera, Jürgen. Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Guy Stern