Weill, Kurt (1900-1950)

by Hervé Roten*

Kurt Julian Weill is born in Dessau on March 2, 1900. He is the third of four children of Emma Ackermann and Albert Weill, cantor in the synagogue of Dessau (from 1899 to 1919) and composer, mainly of liturgical music.

His first composition essays go back to 1913. From 1915 to 1918, he takes piano lessons, as well as harmony, composition and orchestration with Albert Bing, chief assistant in the Theatre of Dessau’s court. In 1918, he starts to study music at the graduate school (Hochschule) of Berlin. In December 1920, Kurt Weill enters the class of the composer and pianist Busoni, at the Arts Academy of Berlin. He becomes quickly one of the brightest and most radical students.

It’s by relying on the revalorisation of the music’s role in theatre, on the notion of Spiel (play) that Kurt Weill approaches his opera projects in 1925. His first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht in 1927 (The Threepenny Opera) is essential for his future work. Engaged in a communist ideal, this encounter changes his way of writing. He says he wants to be the « Verdi of the poor » and leads his avant-garde expressionist style towards realism. He thus creates a new form of popular entertainment : half-way between theatre and opera, his music borrows to jazz and to cabaret.
It’s a pivotal moment for the composer: he works with the Austrian soprano Lotte Lenya, who becomes his muse and privileged performer. Now inseperable, the two get married and the couple becomes a legend.

In 1933, the Jewish origins of Kurt Weill force him to flea out of France. On November 26 1933, during a concert at the Pleyel Hall where excerpts from Der Silbersee are performed, the composer Florent Schmitt screams « Long live Hitler ! », supported by a part of the audience. Parisian newspapers go after Kurt Weill, in particular Lucien Rebatet who denounces in his newspaper « Action française » the « Judeo-German virus ».

In September 1935, he leaves for the USA. A major work of the early years of exile is Der Weg des Verheissung/The Eternal Road, a biblical piece, which presents the history of the Jewish people. A mixture of theatre, liturgy and opera. Kurt Weill then has success on Broadway, in particular with Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus. From October 1941 on, he participes to the war effort by entering the organisation Fight For Freedom ; he follows a civilian service as an air observer in 1942. He also does several works linked to the situation, in particular We Will Never Die, performed in New York and Los Angeles and radio broadcasted. In 1943, he obtains American citizenship, that he demanded since 1937.

The most remarkable works of Weill’s last creative time are the American opera Street Scene, which shows an interesting synthesis between European opera and American musical, and the musical tragedy Lost in the Stars, on the theme of the South African apartheid, with a certain African influence concerning the music.
Kurt Weill dies of a heart attack on April 3rd 1950 in New York, while he was working on the musical Huckleberry Finn, from Mark Twain’s book.

His contemporary, the composer Jean Wiener said about him: "What is unique and remarkable in Weill’s music is that he knew how to write for everyone... but not like everyone does... "

*Overview done by Hervé Roten from articles about Kurt Weill from France Musique, Musicologie.org et Wikipédia.

Biography, discography and catalogue of Kurt Weill’s works

In August1928, his opera Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) knew a phenomenal success. Also, Kurt Weill decided to take the music of this opera and create a suite for small ensemble (twelve wind instruments with two saxophones, timbals, piano and percussion, and banjo).

Mack The Knife - Louis Armstrong & Lotte Lenya

Lotte Lenya sings "Havana Song" (3:25) from the opéra Mahagonny and "Surabaya Johnny" (5:20), from Happy End. Introduction by Aaron Copland who comments the opera in the 1920’s.

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