Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Stylistic Guide to Classical Cabaret, Part 2: The Music of Weill, Britten, and Moore

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Stylistic Guide to Classical Cabaret, Part 2: The Music of Weill, Britten, and Moore

Article excerpt


KURT WEILL WAS BORN in 1900 to Albert and Emma Weill in Sandvorstadt, the Jewish part of Dessau, where his father worked as a cantor. Weill began taking piano lessons at the age of 12, and soon began trying his hand at composition. He enrolled in the Berliner Hochschule für Musik in 1918, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck and conducting with Rudolf Krasselt. Following World War I, Weill's family experienced financial hardship, causing Weill to leave his studies and return to Dessau in order to help his family. Returning to Berlin, in September 1920, Weill secured an interview with Ferruccio Busoni, who accepted him as a master student in composition. In 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht premiered at the Theater am Kurfurstendamm, the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of music theater. Weill completed his studies with Busoni in 1923. In the summer of 1924, he met Lotte Lenya, who became his wife in 1926. Their relationship was tempestuous at best, but after a divorce in 1933, they remarried four years later, and remained together until his death in 1950. Lenya, having always been a champion of Weill's music, took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation. Weill's music was extremely popular in Germany in the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, and his most famous work, The Threepenny Opera, created in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, made Weill the most successful German composer of his time. The opera was produced all over Germany and was performed 4,200 times.1 The Weill/Brecht association ended, however, in 1930 over differing political views, as Weill found it difficult to set music to the Nazi manifesto.

In March of 1933, friends warned Weill that he and his wife were on the Nazi blacklist and that their arrest was forthcoming. Michael Kater relays a story told by a friend of the Weills, Hans Curjel, about their decision to leave Berlin.

Weill and Lenya asked him to store a suitcase full of precious books for them. Discovering that this was incriminating leftist literature, Curjel dumped them, one by one, at the side of Berlin's municipal Avus freeway. As Lenya made her way to Vienna to join her present lover, Weill himself, assisted by Caspar and Erika Neher, crossed the border into France on 22 March.2

Upon leaving Berlin, Weill first went to Paris, where he worked once more with Brecht, and, after a brief time in Amsterdam and London, came to the United States in 1935, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1945. Having decided to devote himself to American entertainment music, Weill became one of the most influential composers in the development of the American musical. One of his most famous works, Street Scene, with lyrics by Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, won a T ony Award for Best Original Score. Some of Weill's famous songs include "Alabama Song" from Mahagonny, "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End, "Speak Low" from One Touch of Venus, "Lost in the Stars" from its namesake musical, "My Ship" from Lady in the Dark, and "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday.

In 1950, during the Lost in the Stars run on Broadway, Weill was taken ill and rushed to a City hospital, where he subseqently died of a heart attack. Weill's musical style continues to be heard on concert and cabaret stages all over the world. One of the few composers who not only crossed popular and classical genres but also enjoyed success in several countries, he significantly influenced jazz musicians, who in turn immortalized him by adapting "Mack the Knife" as a jazz standard. Singers such as Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Anne Sofie von Otter, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and Frank Sinatra have all recorded his songs. His stamp on popular and classical music is substantial and continues to influence performers and composers to this day.

Je ne t'aime pas

Text by Maurice Magre

In 1934, while he was in Paris, the Nazis had frozen his bank accounts, and he was in a financial crisis. …

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