Kurt Weill in Europe and America

David Drew

  • The days grow short by Ronald Sanders
    Weidenfeld, 469 pp, £14.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 297 77783 1
  • Kurt Weill in Europe by Kim Kowalke
    UMI Research Press/Bowker, 589 pp, £25.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 8357 1076 9

When Weill died in New York 30 years ago at the age of 50, his reputation in America rested almost entirely on his major contribution to the development of the Broadway musical during the 1940s, and on the popularity of such hit-songs as ‘Speak low’ and ‘September Song’. Little was known of his European work apart from the fact that The Threepenny Opera had been a failure on Broadway in 1933, and was none the less, or all the more, respected as some kind of classic by those who had witnessed its European success, or seen the Pabst film, or even, if they were lucky, attended the Group Theatre’s summer camp in 1936 and heard Weill talk about it.

The Threepenny Opera was indeed the only one of Weill’s European works in whose future Weill himself seemed at all interested during his last years. Unlike the young Leonard Bernstein, who was then his closest rival among the ‘classically’-trained composers working on Broadway, the Weill of 1950 had long since severed his links with the world of serious music. As far as he was concerned – if his public pronouncements during the previous decade are anything to go by – the tradition of Western ‘art’ music had run its natural course: Modernism, which was to have revived it, had squandered its resources, and the general public was irrevocably alienated. That there had been, and continued to be, valid alternatives to Modernism was something Weill was certainly aware of, having himself been a leading figure in the post-Modern movement. But that movement presupposed conditions and criteria which, for Weill, no longer had any reality.

The significance of Weill’s American persona has been furiously debated ever since his old admirers on the American Left took offence at the hit musical of 1941, Lady in the Dark. Recently, the argument has developed some entertaining new twists: while certain sections of the Left are finding hitherto unsuspected merit in the Weill who was once stigmatised as ‘commercial’, refugees from the crumbling fortresses of music’s avant-garde begin to wonder whether the American Weill does not, after all, deserve a share of the approbation which Schoenberg bestowed upon Gershwin.

Any case to be made for Weill in America must, of course, be related to a precise valuation of his European work. If, as most of his American obituarists believed and some critics still maintain, The Threepenny Opera was his one lucky strike in Europe and a few songs from other Brecht collaborations were the sparks that flew from it, his transformation in America was certainly no more profound than the one discerned by Marlene Dietrich in 1942, when Weill played her his first sketches for One Touch of Venus. Her surprised reactions to the music’s ‘sweetness’ (compared to what she remembered from the Berlin years) anticipated those of countless latterday writers, critics and journalists. They, too, miss in Weill’s American music the ‘acid bite’, as Mr Sanders calls it, of the Berlin songs. But even if the flavour of a composition were an accurate guide to its musical quality, The Threepenny Opera and a handful of famous songs from other Brecht collaborations would not constitute so rich a feast that any subsequent change of ingredients would have had major implications. If, on the other hand, the real importance of Weill’s European work derives from a continuous growth over the whole range of his considerable output – from the very beginnings, through the early successes, to Brecht and (especially) beyond – the contrast with his American work is not superficial but organic. It is, indeed, unprecedented in the entire history of music, and could only have occurred at a time when music, more than any other art, reflects an acute and conceivably final crisis in Western culture.

Mr Sanders has taken his title from the lyrics of ‘September Song’ and his cue from Weill’s own insistence that there was no fundamental break in his development. According to Weill, the Broadway musicals were not merely a logical continuation of what went before, but represented the fulfilment of an ideal towards which he had been working ever since he first dedicated himself to the musical theatre. For writers about Weill, and even more so for their publishers, it is an alluring thesis. At once stimulating and sedative, it promises an ‘upbeat’ ending, while offering house editors a swift release from the kind of questions they are paid to agonise over: how, for instance, can the readership implicit in the audience for Weill’s German works be reconciled with the one which buys biographies of successful Broadway composers? Or, in less crass terms, what approach that is suited to Weill’s European years will do justice to the American ones, and vice versa?

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