A socialist by nature and a music composer by profession, Kurt Julian Weill believed that music should serve a social cause. This is exemplified by the fact that Weill's works contributed immensely during the Second World War and plenty of his works are based on Judaism. Born as a German, Weill was forced to flee from his own land during the War due to his Jewish origin and socialistic views. However, his adopted home, United States, welcomed him with open arms and provided constructive space for his music. Both Germany and America owe it to Weill for popularizing German and European music in America. His contributions to the German music and American music are in bounty, thanks to his fruitful collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. It was with Brecht that he composed some of the well-known works such as 'The Three Penny Opera' that is a Marxist critique of capitalism. Even sixty years after his death, Weill's music continues to be performed in classical and popular contexts. However, for this, we have to thank Kurt Weill Foundation, which was started by his wife, Lenya, to pass on the great legacy that he left behind.
Early Life And Childhood
Kurt Julian Weill was born in Dessau in Germany as the third son of Albert Weill and Emma Weill Nee Ackermann on 2 March 1900. He grew up in a highly religious Jewish family in "Sandvorstadt", the Jewish Quarters where his father worked as a cantor. When Kurt was twelve, he started attending piano lessons and tried his hand in composing music. In 1913, he had his first composition titled ‘Mi Addir. Jewish Wedding Song’. In 1915, Weill started taking private lessons from Albert Bing who taught him composition, piano, conducting and music theory. In the same year, his first public performance occurred, both as an accompanist and as a soloist. The following years witnessed him composing plenty of songs to the lyrics of poets such as Joseph von Eichendorff, Arno Holz, and Anna Ritter. In 1918, he completed his graduation and enrolled at the Berlin University of Arts where he studied composition, and conducting along with personalities such as Rudolf Krasselt and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch. He also attended philosophy lectures by Max Dessoir and Ernst Cassirer. In the same year, he composed his first string quartet.
Weill’s family had to endure severe monetary hardships as a result of World War I. In July 1919, he discontinued his studies and returned to Dessau where he worked as a repetitor of the Friedrich Theatre under the direction of Hans Knappertsbusch. It was during this time that he wrote an orchestral suite in E-flat major, which is a symphonic poem by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Lay of the Love’ and ‘Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke and Schilflieder’, a cycle of five songs and poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December 1919, with the help of Humperdinck, he got the job of a chapel master where he directed an opera and song play for five months, and composed a cello sonata. From May to September 1920, Weill spent a couple of months in Leipzig, where his father became the new director to a Jewish orphanage. Before he came back to Berlin, in September 1920, he composed ‘Sulamith’, which was a choral fantasy for soprano, female choir and orchestra.
Back in Berlin in 1920, he had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December. After examining Weill’s compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of his master students in composition at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with him and counter point with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin. In the first year, he composed his first symphony for voice and piano. In order to support his family financially, he worked as a pianist in Bierkeller Tavern. In 1922, Weill became part of November Group’s music faction. In the same year, he composed a psalm and a composition for orchestra. In November in the same year, his work ‘The Magic Night’ was premiered, which was his first public performance in a musical theatre.
Flourishing Phase Of The Career
In 1922, he joined November Group, a group of Berlin artists which included Hanns Eisler and Stefan Wolpe. In 1924, conductor Fritz Busch introduced him to dramatist Georg Kaiser, with whom he shared a long lasting partnership which led to many several one-act operas. In Kaiser’s house in Grunheide, he met his life partner Lotte Lenya in 1924. They got married twice; in 1926 and again in 1937 after they got divorced in 1933. Lenya was a great moral support for Weill and his work as following his death, she took the initiative to increase the awareness of his music and work by forming Kurt Weill Foundation.
From 1924 to 1929, Weill penned hundreds of reviews for a radio program guide. Though he was successful in non-stage works, which were mostly influenced by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Weill turned closer to vocal music and musical theatre. His musical theatre compositions became extremely popular with the public in Germany in 1920’s and in the beginning of 1930’s. Composers such as Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky admired Weill’s music greatly. At the same time, his works drew criticism from Anton Webern and Schoenberg, who later changed his opinion.
His renowned works include ‘The Three Penny Opera’ (1928), which he wrote in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. It contained his famous song ‘Mack the Knife’. The play was filmed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst in two languages. Weill and Brecht tried to stop the filmy adaptation of the play through a much publicized law suit – the case which Brecht lost and Weill won. Though highly successful, the association between Brecht and Weill ended due to politics in 1930. Though Weill got associated with socialism after Brecht tried to give the play a left wing touch, he could not continue composing the music as per ‘communist party manifesto’.
Fled From His Own Land
Weill had to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 as he was of the Jewish origin and was condemned for his populist sympathies and socialist views. He was targeted by the Nazi authorities who damned and hampered his later works such as, ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’. Having no other option left but to leave Germany, he moved to Paris where he worked along with Brecht once more on the ballet ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’. In 1933, April 13, his musical opera, ‘The Three Penny’ was premiered in Broadway, but was stopped due to mixed reviews. In 1935, the production of his opera ‘A Kingdom for a Cow’ took him to London and later that year to United States with another work ‘The Eternal Road’, which is a biblical drama by Franz Werfel. It was commissioned by the members of New York’s Jewish community and was premiered in 1937 at the Manhattan Opera House, and ran for 153 performances. In 1935, he along with his wife moved to New York City in United States. Weill believed that most of his works were destroyed and seldom spoke or wrote in German except the letters, which he sent his parents who had shifted to Palestine.
Contributions In Later Phase
Instead of contributing in the same style which he possessed from the European compositions, Weill studied American popular music and stage music in depth. He insisted on writing his own orchestrations and worked with writers like Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin and also wrote a film score for Fritz Lang (You and Me, 1938). He also attempted to create an American opera, which is artistically and economically successful. The most crucial attempt in this regard was ‘Street Scene’ based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics from Langston Hughes. For this work, he was honoured with ‘Tony Award’ for best original score. The age of 1940’s witnessed him becoming active in political movements, encouraging United States of America to enter World War II. Following America’ entry, he became associated with numerous artistic projects which supported the war effort both abroad and at home. He along with Maxwell Anderson volunteered to work as air raid wardens and Weill became a naturalized citizen of United States in 1943.
Weill wanted to write music that served a social cause. In United States, he penned ’Down in the Valley’ an opera which included a song of the same name along with other American folk songs. The works also included songs in moral support of American war effort such as ‘Buddy on the Nightshift’ (along with Oscar Hammerstein) and ‘Ballad of the Nazi Soldier's Wife’ (along with Bertolt Brecht). The latter was narratives of the progress of a Nazi war machine through the gifts send to the wife from the war front. The narrative progressed until the wife gets her widow’s veil from Russia.
Some of his works during this era included ‘Mack the Knife’ and "Pirate Jenny" from (‘The Three penny Opera’), his famous songs include ‘Alabama Song’ (from ‘Mahagonny’), ‘Speak Low’ (from ‘One Touch of Venus’), ‘Lost in the Stars’ (from the musical of that name), ‘My Ship’ (from ‘Lady in the Dark’), and ‘September Song’ (from ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’).
In 1926, he married Lotte Lenya whom he divorced in 1933. However in 1937, Weill married her again.
Shortly after his 50th birthday, Weill passed away due to a heart attack on April 3, 1950 in New York. He was buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw, New York.
Weill’s legacy and estates went into the hands of his wife Lenya, who nurtured his career till her death in 1981. An English version of ‘The Three penny Opera’ appeared in 1954, the production which turned out to the corner stone of a phenomenon known as ‘Off-Broadway’ and which bought Lenya some unexpected prosperity. After a few years, Louis Armstrong made the song ‘Mack the Knife’ into a hit, which was followed by Bobby Darrin (1959)which became one of the all time hits in Germany.
Kurt Weill has composed songs for stage, concerts, cantatas, chamber music, piano music, orchestra, Lieder, Lieder cycles, songs and chansons and for films. Some of his works and compositions include Oh the Rio Grande (1936), Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed (1947), Oh, Heart of Love (1936), Here I'll Stay (1948), September Song (1938), Big Mole (1949), Jenny (1941), Lost in the Stars (1949), My Ship (1941), Who'll Buy? (1949), Foolish Heart (1943), Mack the Knife (1955), Speak Low (1943), The Bilbao Song (1961), All at Once (1944), Westwind (1971), Lonely House (1946), One Touch of Venus (1972), What Good Would the Moon Be? (1946), You and Me (1938), Where Do We Go From Here? (1945), Buddy on the Nightshift’ (along with Oscar Hammerstein), ‘Ballad of the Nazi Soldier's Wife’ (along with Bertolt Brecht), ‘Mack the Knife’ and "Pirate Jenny" from (‘The Three penny Opera’), ‘Alabama Song’ (from ‘Mahagonny’), ‘Speak Low’ (from ‘One Touch of Venus’), ‘Lost in the Stars’ (from the musical of that name), ‘My Ship’ (from ‘Lady in the Dark’), and ‘September Song’ (from ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’).
In 1962, Kurt Weill foundation was established by his wife Lenya to pass over the legacy which was left behind by Kurt Weill. The foundation possesses the copyrights of all the scores and recordings of Weill and offers advises regarding the availability of his works to producers and performers who inclines to perform his music. The foundation has also initiated Weill-Lenya Research Center, which holds archival collections and conducts oral history interviews. Kurt Weill foundation publishes Kurt Weill newsletter, which sponsors conferences and symposia and funds projects in countries like United States, Western Europe and South America in areas like research, dissertation assistance and performance. Thus, in many ways, Kurt and his works have an indispensible influence on the second half of 20th century.
Awards And Accolades
Tony Award for Best Original Score for ‘Street Scene’