Not long ago, a New York Times critic presented his list of the 10 greatest composers of all time. Absent were Handel, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Puccini, and Strauss. Present, though, was Béla Bartók.
If you believe that melody lies at the core of the musical art, you may be inclined to wonder how such criticism could reach print in the pages of the Gray Lady. But, to be fair, this may be a case where the strange thinking it represents is merely a symptom of an affliction—groupthink—rather than a means by which a bacillus of thought spreads. A real reconsideration of 20th-century music remains overdue.
So, a useful step in fashioning a proper appreciation for the music of the last hundred years is an assessment of the relative importance of the two halves of the career of Kurt Weill, the tunesmith who serves as one of the paired subjects of Ethan Mordden’s fine new dual biography of the musician and his wife, actress Lotte Lenya.
Like so many of the greatest composers, Kurt Weill was short and homely. Born a cantor’s son in Dessau, Germany, in 1900, he was severely myopic in addition to being just five-foot-three. That may be why he managed to make it to his 18th birthday without being drafted into service of the kaiser. Regardless, as Germany’s armies retreated towards the Rhine in 1918, Weill matriculated at Berlin’s most prestigious conservatory, the Hochschule für Musik. Finances prevented him from staying long, though, and he soon drifted into work as an assistant conductor for regional orchestras and rehearsal pianist. From there, Weill moved to a masterclass with the great composer and keyboard virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni.
This was his musical salvation, for Busoni stood in opposition to the modernist currents of the day, teaching Weill never to undervalue a good tune. And, although some of Weill’s early pieces were irritatingly avant-garde, the principles that Busoni inculcated grew, and by the time Weill met playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1927, he was ready to write unabashedly catchy melodies. Here was the instruction that would lead to “Mack the Knife” and “September Song.” Brecht and Weill were already talked-about figures on the Weimar cultural scene, but this meeting was of vastly greater importance to the playwright than to the composer—and one of the many virtues of Mordden’s account is that he has few illusions regarding Bertolt Brecht’s character, politics, or the claims he made to authorship.
Had Weill not worked with him, it’s likely that Brecht would have been forgotten well before his death. Instead, his association with Weill brought him acclaim which drew better ghostwriters. Recent scholarship has shown that one of these (Margarete Steffin) was the principal talent behind The Life of Galileo and Mother Courage and Her Children, the only full-length plays with Brecht’s name on them that still hold up. (Needless to say, the timing of Steffin’s premature death coincides with the end of the meaningful phase of Brecht’s career.)
The partnership with Weill also generated a fortune, if one which Brecht consistently misappropriated from Weill. In spite of this—and the general ineptitude and plagiarism in Brecht’s adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera into the pretentiously confusing and haphazardly plotted Threepenny Opera—they would pair up on two more significant compositions: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the chamber opera, and a ballet, The Seven Deadly Sins. Both share the characteristic faults of everything Brecht wrote with collaborators other than Margarete Steffin: The stories make little sense and are contradictory, while the characters are off-putting and one-dimensional. As Paddy Chayefsky once remarked, Brecht wasn’t a playwright; he was a “scenewright.”
What stands out in all three works is not the Marxist slogans baldly inserted into the libretti, but the music, sometimes quite simple but often strikingly unorthodox. Thus, “Mack The Knife” is just a short melody repeated with variations in the accompaniment, while The Seven Deadly Sins features vocal accompaniment from a male quartet plus an ensemble including accordion and banjo.
These compositions also brought attention to Weill’s persistently unfaithful wife, Lotte Lenya (née Karoline Blamauer). A lapsed Catholic, Lenya was an Austrian of modest background who often boasted, in later years, that prior to her union with Weill she had supplemented her meager income as a dancer and actress by prostituting herself. Not surprisingly, she proved effective in portraying jaded, hard-bitten women, and, if not everyone was taken by her far-from-mellifluous singing voice, Weill was not alone in thinking it well-suited to Brecht’s takes on underworld life.
The major critical question concerning Kurt Weill is how to judge the music he wrote after he emigrated to the United States in 1936. Without Brecht’s anticapitalist bumper stickers (“Who is the greater criminal? He who robs a bank or he who founds one?”—The Threepenny Opera), Weill’s works purposefully assimilated popular American styles. And while a number display a left-wing political consciousness, they are not only crowd-pleasing but frequently and unashamedly patriotic.
A signal moment in Weill’s re-invention of himself was his attending a dress rehearsal for the first production of Porgy and Bess. He had been invited by Ira Gershwin, and afterwards commented, “It’s a great country where music like that can be written—and played.” In the years that followed, Weill and Lenya refused to self--segregate with other émigrés and made a point of speaking English when alone with one another. (To the same end, Weill asked that his name be pronounced “while” rather than “vile.”)
When commissions from opera houses ceased coming, he took pleasure and pride in writing Broadway musicals, which often prompts the vaguely derisive critical tone towards his later work. Yet Weill found more competent, if less prestigious, collaborators in America. One of his most important works was a thoroughly accessible opera based on Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic tragedy, Street Scene, with lyrics adapted by Langston Hughes.
Weill found similarly talented (though very different) collaborators in Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart (Lady in the Dark), Gershwin and Edwin Justus Mayer (The Firebrand of Florence), Ogden Nash (One Touch of Venus), and Maxwell Anderson (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars, and a gorgeous but unfinished Huckleberry Finn). The music improved as well: “Speak Low,” “That’s Him,” “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” “September Song,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” were all written in America. And while these songs present Weill’s special gift for adopting the mood and perspective of his characters, they possess a warmth often lacking in his work with Brecht.
Still, Weill’s music continued to have its bite, never drifting into the cloying cheeriness or maudlin vulgarity of so many show tunes. It is also why Weill grew to be such a favorite composer for rock singers like Jim Morrison and Marianne Faithfull.
In the past decade, “serious” aficionados have opened their arms to Stephen Sondheim: Thus, Sweeney Todd is performed in opera houses and Sondheim’s musicals are now the darling of summer stock and regional theaters. But cultural arbiters would do better to look to Kurt Weill: Although in need of a rewrite to its book, The Firebrand of Florence, Weill’s offbeat operatic musical about Benvenuto Cellini, has one of the best scores ever written for the American stage—and no cannibalism or cheap psychologizing about presidential assassins.
A reassessment of Weill ought to be part of a broader reevaluation of the music of his time. In Europe, there is a rapidly developing awareness that his contemporary, Erich Korngold, wrote one of the great romantic operas in Das Wunder der Heliane. And here in America, there is increasing acknowledgment of the importance of the operas of Leoš Janáček and Francis Poulenc, an appreciation that ought to go hand in hand with renewed respect for all of the century’s great melodists: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sir Edward Elgar, of course, but also Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter and Frederick Loewe.
The reawakening of interest in Kurt Weill has been a gradual phenomenon since his death in 1950. It needs to be a component in a broader shift in taste and understanding.
Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.