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?

Mr Sanders’s American publishers have commissioned a fine jacket design from Fred Marcellino. Its Art Deco graphics incorporate a darkly grainy and unsmiling studio portrait of the young Weill, circa 1927; and the impression is strictly European. Meanwhile the rather more opulent (and twice as expensive) British edition wears a sports jacket whose cut and colour the composer of My Fair Lady might well have selected for his biography.

Although one may suspect that two specifications worked out at a mid-Atlantic marketing conference have been accidentally switched, the American and the British designs reflect, in their sharp differences of character and aim, the problem central to any consideration of Weill’s oeuvre as a whole. Its solution, according to the blurb for both editions, lies in the special sort of inclusiveness which makes Mr Sanders ‘the perfect biographer for his subject’.

In a sense, the blurb is right. Inspired by manifestly genuine enthusiasms, Mr Sanders seems quite unaware of the conflicts, contradictions and dangers inherent in his task. Nothing is too big for him, nothing too small. Umbrella at the ready, he vies with the deathless Magoo in repelling the enemies of justice and snatching triumph from disaster. Whole armies of intellectual windmills are routed at a stroke; cratefuls of damsons in distress are rescued from unscrupulous street-traders and distributed to the needy. Only in the delicate matter of first-name familiarity does Mr Sanders betray any unease about the relationship between his protagonist and his readers. To meet Weill in one paragraph and Kurt in the next is sometimes disconcerting, but not altogether inappropriate: Mr Sanders knows that he is dealing with serious matters, but hopes that he can introduce them to the man in the street without too many formalities.

In that respect at least, the opening chapters promise well. The first deals with Weill’s Jewish background and his childhood in Dessau before the 1914–18 war, and the second with the war years. Both have been diligently and often perceptively researched; and both convey a considerable fund of information efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Grateful for that, the reader may not be altogether on the alert when Mr Sanders casually refers to Weill’s ‘relative lack of Jewish piety’ as if it were a fact already established and discussed. But the defensiveness of the qualifying epithet – relative to what? one asks – should serve as a warning signal. Not for the last time, Mr Sanders is begging a fundamental question.

Forced as he was to rely on secondary sources and a few supplementary interviews, Mr Sanders cannot be blamed for lack of comprehensiveness. A more circumspect author would, of course, have sounded appropriate notes of caution. But caveats are not the stuff from which popular biographies are customarily made, and The days grow short owes much of its readability to the unimpeded flow of the narrative, and the air of confidence conveyed by it. Speculations such as the singularly unhelpful one about Weill’s attitude to aristocracy which concludes the first chapter are an indulgence permitted and even encouraged by the genre at those cadential points where evidence of ‘serious’ thought is most likely to flatter the reader and least likely to delay him.

The general tone of the first two chapters is practical and informative rather than imaginative or interpretative. An author content to describe Carl Sternheim as ‘one of the newest and brightest lights of expressionism’ does not seem to be setting his critical sights very high. Yet in his third chapter Mr Sanders manages to give a detailed and generally reliable account of Ferruccio Busoni, who was Weill’s principal mentor during the early 1920s. Although some remarks about harmony and tonality suggest that he is inexperienced in purely technical matters, his portrait of a notoriously elusive figure is in itself clear and to the point.

Less happy are Mr Sanders’s excursions into popular psychology. Fearing perhaps that the material available to him is deficient in human interest, he sets great store by his notion of Weill’s three ‘fathers’. Busoni is proudly introduced as the third ‘father’, the others being ‘the one in heaven and the one back home’. Instead of allowing for the possibility that Weill’s early development may have been subject to other decisive influences – as indeed it was – Mr Sanders promotes Weill’s earthly father to a role that would have greatly surprised that kindly and tolerant gentleman. Portents of a screenplay in the Clifford Odets tradition are already discernible as the young Weill is discovered struggling to reconcile his free-thinking convictions (about which Mr Sanders becomes increasingly insistent) with his loyalties to a family noted for its long and pious history and to a father who was Cantor in the Dessau synagogue. What simpler way of leading the general reader along the treacherous catwalk between life and music? In next to no time Mr Sanders is fiddling on the roof for all he’s worth, as Cantor and badkhen fight for possession of Weill’s musical soul.

Mr Sanders proves a more trustworthy guide when he keeps to generally available facts about the public career. The main outlines of the story are already known to television viewers the world over: rags to riches with Lenya and Brecht in Weimar Berlin; escape from the holocaust; new rags to even greater riches in the America of Broadway and Hollywood. In Mr Sanders’s version, many details are capably filled in, and elements contributing to the success-story treated with due respect. Complex or controversial issues are, however, avoided, or else acknowledged with a friendly wave of the disengaged hand. At a few of the obvious points, political events are introduced and adequately summarised: but their significance in relation to Weill’s output and philosophy is never seriously investigated. As for ideological matters, these are pushed as far into the background as they will go without vanishing altogether.

One would hardly have expected such diffidence from an author whose preliminary credits include the co-editing of Socialist Thought: A Documentary History. But cynics who conclude that the interests of the broadest possible readership have once again exacted their customary sacrifice should ponder carefully the few passages where Mr Sanders ventures into the territory from which the young Weill derived so much of his creative energy. To claim that ‘Weill was, to begin with, not very much at home amid the language and commitments of Marxism’ is all very well in itself, but coming as it does only a few lines after a naive reference to ‘the most up-to-date Marxist aesthetics’, and two pages after Adorno has been introduced as ‘an eminent young Marxist theoretician’, the remark strikes an ominous note.

Sure enough, we learn that in a 1940 interview with the New York Sun Weill was able ‘to develop anew some of his ideas about cultural democracy and the role of music, this time stated with the relatively free flow of his American style and without the confinement of Marxian concepts’. Similarly unconfined, Mr Sanders is able to assure us that Brecht ‘could not have cared less than he did about opera’s future’, that the intentions of the opera Die Bürgschaft are ‘gently progressive’, that the Weill-Kaiser ‘Ballad of Caesar’s Death’ makes an ‘utterly Brechtian point’ and that Blitzstein’s The cradle will rock is ‘largely influenced by The Threepenny Opera’.

In assessing musical works, Mr Sanders relies on the free play of personal taste and received opinion. The former either lends a semblance of individuality to the latter or in its absence becomes the sole arbiter. The few works likely to be familiar to almost any reader are given the familiar treatment, with frequent recourse to the jargon of the candy-store. Mr Sanders is addicted to ‘the kind of bittersweet flavour the Brecht-Weill combination was uniquely able to achieve’: for him, the melody of the Polly-Macheath love duet remains, ‘even with its mildly satirical accompaniment...sweet and at times even sugary’; and the Barbara Song is ‘another characteristic piece of Brecht-Weill bittersweet’. The idea that structural ambiguities can be at the heart of expressive ones, and that their conjunction can be of a complexity far beyond the reach of catch-phrases, does not seem to have occurred to Mr Sanders. On the other hand, his response to a straightforward musical statement can be quite unpredictable unless he has the benefit of obvious guidelines or suitable clichés. He is surely the first writer to have discovered in the canonic opening chorus of the school opera Der Jasager ‘the benign quality of our Western image of Oriental sages’. But without any theoretical or critical disciplines to refer to, there is little point in arguing with his responses to individual numbers. One can simply agree or disagree.

Not so with works as a whole. Mr Sanders is entirely right to stress that Weill, ‘even when he wrote a collection of very good songs, was at all times a composer of scores’. While his view of the opening chorus of Der Jasager will strike many as eccentric, what he has to say about the work as a whole is generally reliable – no mean feat in the circumstances, for Der Jasager is one of the most problematic as well as inspired of Weill’s stage works.

Der Jasager was the direct precursor in style, and to some extent in tone, of the three-act opera Die Bürgschaft. But whereas the school opera has been recorded, frequently performed and widely written about in recent years, Die Bürgschaft remains almost unknown. Whatever its flaws, it is unquestionably the most highly developed of Weill’s stage works, and perhaps the one by which all the others should be judged. For even the most experienced critic it represents a formidable challenge. But Mr Sanders promptly loses the only key to the work which he possesses: instead of drawing on his knowledge of Der Jasager, he allows himself to be misled by a recorded performance which is in almost every respect a travesty. (The recording is wrongly listed in the appendix as deriving from the Berlin Festival performance of 1957: it is, in fact, the North German Radio production of 1958.) Confused as he is about the character and sense of the work, and hopelessly underestimating its stature, he ends by offering his shirt and trousers to some imaginary Brechtian tigers: ‘If Nehcr’s libretto seemed to the Brechtians to be a piece of petit bourgeois philosophy clothed in pseudo-Marxist terms, they saw the music to be a fulfilment of this in its utter decorousness and lack of the old Brecht-Weill stridency and music-hall vulgarity.’ A moment’s thought should have told Mr Sanders that his ‘Brechtians’ would hardly have been ignorant of Der Jasager, which is also the work of Brecht-Weill (if such an entity exists) and yet is without a trace of stridency or music hall.

This lamentable mishandling of an exceptional work is in itself exceptional: generally Mr Sanders exhibits too much courage rather than too little. But the underlying deficiencies of method and response remain constant throughout his endeavours, and are no less obvious when he turns from the European works to the American. Of Love Life, which was one of Weill’s most personal and innovatory musicals, he writes that ‘only two songs ... were both original and fully up to Weill’s standards ... Kurt’s hope of doing his first piece of old-fashioned Americana at last had resulted in one of the least artistically successful scores he had ever written.’ In every respect, this statement is demonstrably false. But who is to know, and how much does Mr Sanders himself know? Love Life is unrecorded and, apart from a few isolated numbers, unpublished. So, too, is the operetta The Firebrand of Florence, which contains some of the best music Weill wrote in America. According to Mr Sanders, there is only one song in The Firebrand which is ‘truly distinguished ... and has a distinctly Weillian flavour’.

Like many before him, Mr Sanders is easily persuaded that the interest and value of a Broadway musical is in direct proportion to its box-office success, and that the hit charts are a reliable guide to the excellence of individual numbers. He is on surer ground when dealing with Weill’s best-known shows, and has some useful comments on Lady in the Dark and the college opera Down in the Valley. But even here bravado can lead him astray; and as soon as the problem of continuity is sighted, he heads straight for the quicksands. ‘In a sense, Weill was doing in One Touch of Venus the same thing he had done in The Threepenny Opera – parodying popular music.’

The confusion is absolute; yet victory is at hand. Unencumbered by a sense of categorical distinctions, Mr Sanders is able to follow Weill to the point where the Broadway opera Street Scene can be seen as a culmination of his life’s work. ‘These humble New York types are his Brechtian beggars in a culturally translated form,’ he declares, citing the ‘specifically Threepenny-like intention’ of the arietta ‘When a woman has a baby’. Predictably failing to produce any real evidence for this most improbable of intentions, Mr Sanders ends his lengthy account of Street Scene with a quintessential statement: ‘The old Threepenny question (‘How is music – how, above all, is song in general – possible in the theatre?’) no longer had to be asked: now music could simply flow naturally, through the fabric Weill had woven out of his American experience. The days of American jazz parody, conceived and executed on German soil, had been left far behind; for Weill had achieved an American idiom all his own, developed primarily on Broadway and frankly rejoicing in its sounds.’

There can be no doubt that Weill himself would have been gratified by these sentiments – which echo his own so closely – and hence by the aim, if not the achievement, of the book as a whole. For it is a book addressed in the first place to the heirs and survivors of that larger American public for which Weill was writing in his last years. There is a real need for such a book; and until a better one appears, as it must and surely will, The days grow short will meet it adequately enough. The evasions, confusions and errors of judgment in which it abounds will sort themselves out in the course of time, and are of immediate concern only insofar as they may be digested by quite other kinds of reader who are equally entitled to information and equally hungry for it. Duly forewarned, they too will find much that is useful in The days grow short. But no one should rely upon the European chapters for any scholarly purpose without continual cross-reference to Professor Kim Kowalke’s Kurt Weill in Europe. Though based on a doctoral thesis and revealing its origins in ways that will not be to every reader’s taste, it is of far more than merely musicological interest. Close musical analysis is illuminated by much perceptive comment and supplemented by copious background material, including translations of many of Weill’s most important European articles. A comparable book dealing with Weill’s American work would be extremely welcome, both for its own sake and for the sake of those struggling in the slipstream of The days grow short. Perhaps Professor Kowalke can be persuaded to undertake it?