Kurt (Julian) Weill

Weill began his studies in his home town of Dessau with Albert Bing, a private tutor. He enroled at the Berlin Hochschule in 1918 under Humperdinck and Krasselt, but only lasted one term before leaving to work as an opera coach and conductor. In 1921 he took lessons from Busoni in Berlin and composed his first major work, the Berliner Symphonie. Lost for many years, the manuscript was only found after Weill’s death and the work was premiered in 1958 to great acclaim.

Weill began to write satirical operas, their cynical tone in keeping with the prevailing mood of the Weimar Republic. Der Protagonist (1925) and Royal Palace (1926) are still peformed, but collaboration with poet and playwright Bertold Brecht yielded one of his greatest works, Mahagonny (1927, reworked as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in 1929). Brecht and Weill became, and are to this day, names synonymous with satirical socialist music theatre. Mahagonny exposed the dark underside of the American dream, and the pair did much the same with Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), adapting John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera to their own ends. The work’s first song, known in translation as ‘Mack the Knife’, found a place in the jazz repertoire in interpretations by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Brecht’s renunciation of the orchestral string section in favour of banjos, saxophones and the like meant that this was not the leap of style one might expect.

Weill married cabaret singer Lotte Lenya, who he cast in many of his productions. As a socialist, an institutionalised hierarchy of singers was too bourgeoise for his tastes, and his works were designed to be singable by all. Most of the numbers require only a basic compass of notes, and their popular, easygoing style is immensely appealing. When Schoenberg described Weill’s works as the only music completely devoid of merit he perhaps could not see the wood for trees; their simplicity means that Weill’s sneakily angular turn of phrase is all the more effective.

As a Jewish composer, Weill could see that Germany would not be a good place to be in the thirties. He settled in the US in 1935, taking citizenship in 1943. He composed for Broadway with a number of eminent librettists including Ira Gershwin and Ogden Nash; until recently commentators have felt these works compared unfavourably to his works with Brecht, but they contine to find champions. In later years he began to incorporate atonality, polytonality and polyrhythms into his compositions.


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