Weill, Kurt

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Weill, Kurt

Kurt Weill (kŏŏrt´ vīl), 1900–1950, German-American composer, b. Dessau, studied with Humperdinck and Busoni in Berlin. He first became known with the production of two short, satirical, surrealist operas, Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren [the czar has himself photographed] (1928). More popular than these, however, was his melodious Dreigroschenoper (1928), a modern version of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, with book by Bertolt Brecht. Translated and adapted by Marc Blitzstein as The Threepenny Opera, it was first produced in New York City in 1933; revived in 1954, it ran for more than six years and has become one of the classics of the musical stage. Brecht was also the librettist of Weill's satiric opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [rise and fall of the city Mahagonny] (1927; revised and expanded 1930). All these works were condemned as decadent by the rising followers of Hitler, and, in 1933, Weill left Germany for France.

In 1935 he emigrated to the United States, where he began writing sophisticated musicals, the most notable being Johnny Johnson (1936), Knickerbocker Holiday (1938; written with Maxwell Anderson), Lady in the Dark (1941), and One Touch of Venus (1943; written with Ogden Nash). In these works Weill employed with great facility advanced techniques, including multiple rhythms and polytonality, combined with the idiom of American popular music and jazz. His last works, in a more serious vein, included Street Scene (1947), Down in the Valley (1948), and Lost in the Stars (1949; written with Maxwell Anderson). His wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, played many of the leading roles in his works and was his defining interpreter. Weill also wrote some instrumental works; a cantata, Lindbergh's Flight (1929); and The Eternal Road (1934), a pageant of Jewish history originally composed in German with text by Franz Werfel. Weill became a U.S. citizen in 1943.

See L. Symonette, ed., Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (1997); biography by R. Sanders (1980).

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