Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Boundary- and Genre-Crossing Musicians

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Boundary- and Genre-Crossing Musicians

Article excerpt

Ethan Mordden's "Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya."


Love Song. The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. By Ethan Mordden. 334 pages. St. Martin's Press, $29.99; Pounds 21.99.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Kurt Weill was known mainly as the composer of a handful of hit songs, usually heard in versions far removed from their original, often transgressive contexts. Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald transformed "Mack the Knife" into an upbeat jazz standard, and Bobby Darin made it a smooth pop hit. Broadway fans knew "September Song," a survivor from the long-forgotten 1938 "Knickerbocker Holiday." And the rock generation knew the Doors' take on "Alabama Song," unaware that it was all the rage in Berlin, and the centerpiece of an opera, in 1930.

Nowadays, Weill holds a solid place in the pantheon of 20th- century composers, and the flexibility that had worked against him among genre categorizers during his lifetime -- is he a serious classical composer or a Broadway tunesmith? -- marks him as a harbinger of today's boundary-crossing musicians. Moreover, the long- held notion that Weill underwent a thorough style change when he arrived in the United States in 1935 has been largely, if not completely, discredited.

It is true, after all, that the shows he wrote for the Broadway stage -- "Johnny Johnson," "Lady in the Dark" and "Lost in the Stars" among them -- have a melodic opulence in which we sense the rosy aroma of the 1940s musical. But the American theater style was something Weill assimilated, more as an expansion of his vocabulary than a change of direction. And in most important details -- from the shapes of his melodies to the intricacies of his orchestrations - - these works have a rhythmic punchiness and a blend of lyricism and acidity that can be traced back to Weill's epochal Berlin works, "Die Dreigroschenoper" (The Threepenny Opera) and "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) -- the sources for "Mack the Knife" and "Alabama Song," respectively.

You would expect Weill to be an ideal subject for Ethan Mordden, a prolific author with a specialty in opera, musical theater and film, and a novelist whose 2008 historical fantasy, "The Jewcatcher," is set in the German milieu of Weill's early career. And indeed, Weill is treated sympathetically and knowledgeably in "Love Song," a dual biography of the composer and his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, whose unpolished soprano was an inspiring force for Weill.

Mr. Mordden covers the biographical essentials ably, and offers an overview of how Weill's works, large and small, made their way from the drawing board to the stage. Not surprisingly, given the turbulence of Weill's times, the early chapters actually have three distinct threads: there is Weill, born in 1900 to a musical Jewish family (his father was a synagogue cantor) in Dessau, Germany; Lenya, born Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer to a working- class Catholic family in Vienna, in 1898; and the troubled sweep of European history from just before World War I to the failure of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis, which spelled the end of Europe for the Weills.

Weill's crimes, in the Nazis' eyes, began with his Jewishness but were artistic too. …

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