Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

by Stephen Hinton

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In the first musicological study of Kurt Weill’s complete stage works, Stephen Hinton charts the full range of theatrical achievements by one of twentieth-century musical theater’s key figures. Hinton shows how Weill’s experiments with a range of genres—from one-act operas and plays with music to Broadway musicals and film-opera—became an indispensable part of the reforms he promoted during his brief but intense career. Confronting the divisive notion of “two Weills”—one European, the other American—Hinton adopts a broad and inclusive perspective, establishing criteria that allow aspects of continuity to emerge, particularly in matters of dramaturgy. Tracing his extraordinary journey as a composer, the book shows how Weill’s artistic ambitions led to his working with a remarkably heterogeneous collection of authors, such as Georg Kaiser, Bertolt Brecht, Moss Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, and Maxwell Anderson.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520271777
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/10/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 592
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Stephen Hinton is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. His publications include Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera.

Read an Excerpt

Weill's Musical Theater

Stages of Reform

By Stephen Hinton


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95183-9


Biographical Notes

Lately he has been asked to write in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan, or of Gershwin, and now of seicento madrigals. And this for a man who was notable for the curious individuality of his own style, for a man almost inflexibly remote from any other style but his own.


I think of Weill as a composer who was able to put on any clothes—ranging from Protestant chorale to Jewish melisma to Euro-tango to Schoenbergian atonality to Richard Rodgers' popcorn—precisely because he was so confident that he had centered his art on the fundamentals of expression: on legible music-figures. He was not a fake, but a serious composer adept at wearing any sort of frivolous musical drag.... To learn what is the common property of all music theater, listen to Weill.


How should Kurt Weill be remembered? The fact that posterity has been inclined to recognize him as the composer who didn't give a damn about posterity is an irony he would have acknowledged, if not entirely appreciated. Nor was he wholly blameless for this state of affairs. "As for myself, I write for today," he said in a much-cited and often paraphrased statement. "I don't give a damn about writing for posterity." It is hard to believe he was not protesting too much. Why else would he have brought up the issue in the first place? Those who really don't give a damn, frankly do not talk about it. Or perhaps he was not protesting enough. Posterity, after all—which has given a damn about Weill's statement—has been left to work out what he meant, and has done so in a variety of ways. The irony demands qualification, if not resolution.

The notion of his not having written for posterity contributes to the prevalent image of Weill as a composer without a stable identity, someone who "seemed to change styles more often than countries," to quote one of his biographers. Part of this image no doubt stems from his lifelong commitment to musical theater as opposed to concert or "absolute" music. As the situation required, he sought to adapt to the needs and demands of those involved in the creation of musical theater: co-authors, directors, singers, conductors, et al. The patchy transmission of the works is another factor. Despite the value that Weill attached to the "sonic image" of his compositions, as he referred to his own instrumentation, and hence to preparing his own orchestrations—including on Broadway, where composers customarily assign the task to someone else—not a single full score of any of his works for the musical theater was published in his lifetime. In fact, some of his best-known music has circulated in the form of popular arrangements, as hit tunes lifted from the theater works—a practice to which he himself was not averse, and on occasion actively promoted. yet he always made a distinction between, on the one hand, the control exercised by the composer over the integrity of the work as a whole, including its "sonic image," and, on the other hand, the mutability of individual songs. And in a few notable instances, such as "Mack the Knife" and "September Song," he achieved that rare thing among classically trained twentieth-century musicians: having his identity as a composer eclipsed by his own music's popularity. The more people there are who whistle his tunes, the less likely it is they will know who wrote them—a way, perhaps, of posterity not giving a damn?

The image of a chameleonic artistic identity has above all to do with Weill's having worked with conspicuous success on two continents, changing countries as well as styles. Many of his critics and not a few of his admirers have had a problem with that success, reluctant to embrace the move he made with apparent ease from 1920s and 1930s European to 1940s American culture. Because the crossover was both literal and figurative, Weill was charged with having abandoned the values of his earlier, European work and reinventing himself. No one captured this labile aspect of his profile more colorfully than the director Elia Kazan, with whom Weill worked on two of his American shows: "I did admire his ability to make good in a new country, this one, and to adapt himself to the requirements of our musical theatre. If, when he left germany, he'd landed in Java instead of the United States, within a year he'd have been writing Javanese temple music and receiving praise from their high priests. If he'd been dumped on an African savannah, he'd quickly have mastered the tribal drum!"

Some have even claimed that after leaving germany Weill "[attempted] to evolve a consistent secondary persona," as David Drew put it in 1975, adding that such an attempt "is unique in the history of significant composition"; it "requires a corresponding and difficult adjustment on the part of everyone who is accustomed to evaluate an artist's late works in the light of earlier ones." Along these lines, while also raising the question "concerning the calibre of Weill's American work when compared with the European," the composer robin Holloway has expressed the view that Weill "decisively relinquished" the European. The "two Weills" that emerge from this view are deemed mutually incompatible. Without my either wanting or needing to play down the tensions and apparent contradictions in Weill's life and work, one of the critical tasks of this study is to explore the reasoning behind such judgments.

To be sure, Weill's artistic positions were never entirely free of contradictions. Why should they be? The contradictions were challenges he set for himself as much as for his critics. Not surprisingly, his correspondence with his family tends to be much franker about such matters than the public statements. Of the early letters, which contain a wealth of detail about his career, none sets the stage better than one he wrote to his brother Hans on 27 June 1919. Here the nineteen-year-old writes about his sense of vocation as a composer and describes with revealing imagery his approach to composition. He compares himself to Beethoven, quite clearly the paradigmatic composer of instrumental music, but hardly one to be emulated: "I need words to set my imagination in motion," he declares; "my imagination is not a bird but an airplane." For someone who would spend almost his entire career writing for the musical theater, this statement is remarkably providential. Words would indeed continue to set his imagination in motion; purely instrumental music would be the exception rather than the rule.

His description of the compositional process in terms of modern technology adds a sense of historical context that is never far from the surface of Weill's art. A decade later, for example, he would celebrate Charles Lindbergh's epoch-making transatlantic flight with a cantata, originally conceived as a piece for radio written in collaboration with Paul Hindemith and Bertolt Brecht. Der Lindberghflug, as the 1929 cantata is called, is one obvious case. Another is Railroads on Parade (a "Pageant-Drama of transport," as it was billed), written for the New york World's Fair and performed there in 1939–40 as a celebration of the transcontinental railroad from its beginnings in the mid–nineteenth century through the present. And these are hardly exceptions. Very few of Weill's works conceal their connection to contemporaneous culture; indeed, most make a point of emphasizing it. Weill composed music that was both for and of its time.

Measuring himself against Beethoven was not just a question of instrumental or "absolute" versus vocal music or of establishing a vital link to the historical present, however. It was also a matter of racial identity. Wondering aloud in the letter to his brother whether he should abandon composition and turn instead to conducting, Weill mentions studying with Arnold Schoenberg as a solution. The following passage from the 1919 letter is nothing if not provocative, its layers of irony presenting a significant challenge, particularly where Weill invokes the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish artist. Hardly expecting posterity to eavesdrop, he is no doubt appealing to a sense of sardonic humor he knew his sibling would appreciate:

We Jews are just not productive, and if we are, then we have a subversive, not a constructive impact; if the musical youth declares the Mahler-Schoenberg direction to be constructive, that's because they consist of Jews or Christians with a Jewish accent. Never will a Jew write a work like the Moonlight Sonata. And the pursuit of this line of thinking wrests the pen from one's hand. I want to get to the point—and I could only do this through Schoenberg—where I write when I must, when it comes to me from the bottom of my heart; otherwise it is music of the mind, and I hate that.

If Weill accepts the stereotype—a stereotype notoriously promulgated by Wagner—it is less as a verdict on his own ability or productivity than as a fact of cultural life, as something he has to confront, not least politically. With youthful ardor he suggests that another solution would be to forget about everything else, including moving to Vienna, by "falling frantically in love." The latter course is the one he would end up taking. The plan to study with Schoenberg came to naught, a "what-if" scenario as tantalizing as it proved to be unlikely. But fall in love he did. The marriage to Lotte Lenya, for all its frantic and turbulent aspects, would provide the foothold he was looking for. As he writes to his brother in the 1919 letter, five years before he and Lenya first met: "People like us who are caught between two worlds need such a foothold." At which point in the letter, his musical paradigm reappears: "There is only one thing that has a similar effect on me to imagining what love must be like: Beethoven." Hearing the Kreutzer Sonata, he reports, moved him to tears; "that alone, if I were bad, could make me good." The characteristically self-deprecatory humor continues right up until he signs off: "My bed is waiting longingly for me in order to rock me soothingly to sleep, to face a new day, a new hope—a new disappointment. good night!"

The inspiration provided by texts; the engagement with contemporary life, including technology; the biographical issues connected to his Jewish identity coupled with a sense of being caught between two worlds; the vexed relationship to the german musical models (whether Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, or Schoenberg); the existential importance of marital ties; the pervasive sense of irony, in art as well as life; the painful proximity of hope and disappointment; the appeal to human goodness through love and through music; the ultimate belief in music's power to heal—all are evident in the letter and would remain so in one form or another throughout his career. The extent to which these aspects of Weill's life and work have informed posterity's image of him, however, is of course another matter.

Weill's attitude toward posterity and posterity's attitude toward him are sides of the same coin. At his own prompting, he is remembered as someone who wrote expressly for his own time, without regard for the future. That is part of the legacy, neatly summarized by one of his less charitable obituarists, Theodor W. Adorno, who remarked on Weill's singular ability not only to serve the present but to capture it in sound: "This most ephemeral aspect of him may endure." Endured it has. Again, the challenge is to describe how. How did Weill serve his time? How did he capture it in sound; how—to use a favorite verb of his from the late 1940s—did he "musicalize" it? How have his works—principally works for the musical theater—been transmitted for posterity to savor?

Placing those works in a biographical context, the present chapter has a twofold aim. As well as reviewing Weill's career in terms of its continuities and discontinuities, it subjects to scrutiny the models on which such terms are themselves based. Asking how Weill should be remembered is not just a matter of reviewing and reassessing his image. It is also about examining the methods of biography and criticism that helped generate the image in the first place.


Weill's posterity-shunning statement, inviting skepticism on account of its self-conscious appeal to posterity, first appeared in a newspaper interview in 1940. He had been in the United States for five years, after having escaped Nazi Germany in March 1933 and spent the initial exile years in Paris and London. His experiments in musical theater, on which his reputation in Germany was based, continued. In Paris he revived his soured collaboration with Bertolt Brecht to produce a theatrical mix of vocal numbers and dance, the "ballet chanté" Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). He also wrote songs and instrumental music for the theatrical adaptation of Jacques Deval's novel Marie Galante. In London he completed for the Savoy Theater his satirical operetta A Kingdom for a Cow, initially conceived in german as Der Kuhhandel and intended for performance in Zurich and Prague. His next project, the vast biblical pageant The Eternal Road, had likewise begun as a german-language work, Der Weg der Verheissung, again with performance in Europe in mind. But plans for the pageant's realization in New york in 1936 (the postponed premiere eventually took place on 7 January 1937) brought the composer to the United States in September 1935, where he would end up living for the remaining fourteen years of his life.

The time of the interview was a turning point in his career. Apart from The Eternal Road, which had enjoyed 153 performances but was a financial disaster because of the huge costs, his two main American stage works up to this point had been relatively successful. The musical play Johnny Johnson (1936), with 68 performances, was something of a succès d'estime; and its successor, the musical comedy Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), which received 168 performances, achieved genuinely popular acclaim, even by Broadway's demanding standards. But in 1939 Weill had produced no new major works for the musical theater—not for want of trying. After the Federal Theater Project (FtP) productions of Johnny Johnson in Los Angeles and elsewhere, Weill and book author Paul green received an FTP commission for a theater piece to celebrate the U.S. Constitution. Their "symphonic drama," entitled The Common Glory, remained unfinished, however, as did the plan to produce a work on the theme of Davy Crockett. Weill began work with Maxwell Anderson, book author of Knickerbocker Holiday, on a theater piece called Ulysses Africanus; although it was eventually abandoned, parts would be salvaged for Weill's last work for the stage, the "musical tragedy" Lost in the Stars. He worked on several films in an attempt to establish himself in Hollywood, but only one of them was produced with his music: Fritz Lang's socially critical gangster movie You and Me, starring george raft and Sylvia Sidney, which was released on 3 June 1938. He also supplied music for the historical pageant Railroads on Parade, performed at the New york World's Fair in the railroad Pavilion in 1939 and 1940, and allegedly described by the composer himself as a "circus opera." In addition, he contributed stage music to two plays, Madam, Will You Walk? (by Sidney Howard) and Two on an Island (by Elmer rice) and composed the songs "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (robert Frost) and "Nannas Lied" (Brecht).

The immediate occasion for the interview's publication was the first broadcast, scheduled for the following day, of the radio cantata The Ballad of Magna Carta, also written with Anderson. Weill was also just beginning work, this time with Moss Hart, on a musical play that would become one of his biggest theatrical successes and establish him as a major force on Broadway, Lady in the Dark. This, then, and the other works just mentioned are the practical purposes of which he speaks. And Schoenberg is still on his mind:

I want to use whatever gifts I have for practical purposes ... not waste them on things which have no life, or which have to be kept alive by artificial means. That's why I'm in the theater—the commercial theater.... I'm convinced that many modern composers have a feeling of superiority toward their audiences. Schoenberg, for example, has said he is writing for a time fifty years after his death. But the great "classic" composers wrote for their contemporary audiences. They wanted those who heard their music to understand it, and they did. As for myself, I write for today. I don't give a damn about writing for posterity. And I do not feel that I compromise my integrity as a musician by working for the theater, the radio, the motion pictures, or any other medium which can reach the public which wants to listen to music. I have never acknowledged the difference between "serious" music and "light" music. There is only good music and bad music.


Excerpted from Weill's Musical Theater by Stephen Hinton. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Biographical Notes
2. The Busoni Connection
3. One-Act Operas
4. “Songspiel”
5. Plays with Music
6. Epic Opera
7. Didactic Theater (“Lehrstück”)
8. Stages of Exile
9. Musical Plays
10. Stage vs. Screen
11. American Opera
12. Concept and Commitment

Appendix: Weill’s Works for Stage or Screen

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Eminently readable, with or without his music playing in the background. Professor Hinton is a fine writer who conveys what he knows and feels in terms insightful, intuitive and nuanced, yet accessible to those of us who are musically marginalized."—Washington
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"An in-depth view of the entire oeuvre of Weill's stage compositions. . . . A scholarly and thoroughly researched work. . . . Highly Recommended."—Choice

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