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Kurt Weill

[wahyl; Ger. vahyl]

Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900April 3, 1950), was a German, and in his later years American, composer active from the 1920s until his death. He was a leading composer for the stage. He also wrote a number of works for the concert hall.

Life and Work

Kurt Julian Weill was born on 1900-03-02 , the third of four children to Albert Weill (1867–1950) and Emma Weill née Ackermann (1872–1955). He grew up in a religious Jewish family in the "Sandvorstadt", the Jewish quarter in Dessau, Germany, where his father was a cantor.. At the age of twelve, Kurt Weill started taking piano lessons and made first attempts at writing music; his earliest preserved composition was written in 1913 and is titled Mi Addir. Jewish Wedding Song.

In 1915, Weill started taking private lessons with Albert Bing, Kapellmeister at the "Herzogliche Hoftheater zu Dessau", who taught him piano, composition, music theory, and conducting. Weill performed publicly on piano for the first time in 1915, both as an accompanist and soloist. The following years he composed numerous Lieder to the lyrics of poets such as Eichendorff, Arno Holz, and Anna Ritter, as well as a cycle of five songs titled Ofrahs Lieder to a German translation of a text by Yehuda Halevi.

Weill graduated with an Abitur from the Oberrealschule of Dessau in 1918, and enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik at the age of 18, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt, and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch, and also attended philosophy lectures by Max Dessoir and Ernst Cassirer. The same year, he wrote his first string quartet (in B minor).

Weill's family experienced financial hardship in the aftermath of World War I, and in July 1919, Weill abandoned his studies and returned to Dessau, where he was employed as a répétiteur at the Friedrich-Theater under the direction of the new Kapellmeister, Hans Knappertsbusch. During this time, he composed an orchestral suite in E-flat major, a symphonic poem of Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as Schilflieder, a cycle of five songs to poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December 1919, through the help of Humperdinck, Weill was appointed as Kapellmeister at the newly founded Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid, where he directed opera, operetta, and singspiel for five months, and also composed a cello sonata and Ninon of Lenclos, a now lost one-act operatic adaptation of a play by Ernst Hardt. From May to September 1920, Weill spent a couple of months in Leipzig, where his father had become the new director of a Jewish orphanage. Before he returned to Berlin, in September 1920, he composed Sulamith, a choral fantasy for soprano, female choir, and orchestra. Back in Berlin, Weill had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December 1920. After examining some of Weill's compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of five master students in composition at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with Ferruccio Busoni and also counterpoint with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin. During his first year he composed his first symphony, Sinfonie in einem Satz, as well as the lieder Die Bekehrte (Goethe} and two Rilkelieder for voice and piano. In order to support his family in Leipzig, he also worked as a pianist in a Bierkeller tavern. In spring of 1922, Weill joined the November Group's music faction. That year he composed a psalm, a divertimento for orchestra, and Sinfonia Sacra: Fantasia, Passacaglia, and Hymnus for Orchestra. On November 18, 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm; it was the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of musical theatre.

Out of financial need, Weill taught music theory and composition to private students from 1923 to 1925. Among his students were Claudio Arrau, Maurice Abravanel, Henry (then known as Heinz) Jolles, and Nikos Skalkottas. Arrau, Abravenel, and Jolles, at least, would remain members of Weill's circle of friends thereafter, and Jolles's sole surviving composition predating the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933 is a fragment of a work for four pianos he and Weill wrote jointly. Weill's compositions during his last year of studies included Quodlibet, an orchestral suite version of Die Zaubernacht, Frauentanz, seven medieval poems for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, french horn, and bassoon, and Recordare for choir and children's choir to words from the Book of Lamentations. Further premieres that year included a performance of his Divertimento for Orchestra by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Heinz Unger on April 10, 1923, and the Hindemith-Amar Quartet's rendering of Weill's String Quartet op. 8, on June 24, 1923. In December 1923, Weill finished his studies with Busoni.

In February 1924 the conductor Fritz Busch introduced him to the dramatist Georg Kaiser, with whom Weill would have a long-lasting creative partnership resulting in several one-act operas. At Kaiser's house in Grünheide, Weill also first met the actress and future wife Lotte Lenya in summer 1924. The couple got married twice: In 1926 and again in 1937 (following their divorce in 1933). Lenya took great care to support Weill's work, and after his death she took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation.

From November 1924 to May 1929, Weill wrote hundreds of reviews for the influential and comprehensive radio program guide Der deutsche Rundfunk. Hans Siebert von Heister had already worked with Weill in the November Group, and offered Weill the job shortly after becoming editor-in-chief.

Although he had some success with his first mature non-stage works (such as the String Quartet, Op. 8 or the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12), which were influenced by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Weill tended more and more to vocal music and musical theatre. His musical theatre work and his songs were extremely popular with the wider public in Germany at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. Weill's music was admired by composers such as Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky, but it was also criticised by others: by Schoenberg, who later revised his opinion, and by Anton Webern.

His best-known work is The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Engel directed the original production of The Threepenny Opera in 1928. The Threepenny Opera contains Weill's most famous song, "Mack the Knife" ("Die Moritat von Mackie Messer"). Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to an end over differing politics in 1930. According to Lenya, Weill commented that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."

Weill fled Nazi Germany in March 1933. As a prominent and popular Jewish composer, he was a target of the Nazi authorities, who criticized and even interfered with performances of his later stage works, such as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), Die Bürgschaft (1932), and Der Silbersee (1933). With no option but to leave Germany, he went first to Paris, where he worked once more with Brecht (after a project with Jean Cocteau failed) - the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins.

On 1933-04-13 his musical The Three Penny Opera was given its premiere on Broadway, but closed after 13 performances to mixed reviews . In 1934 he completed his Symphony No.2, his last purely orchestral work, conducted in Amsterdam and New York by Bruno Walter, and also the music for Jacques Deval's play, Marie galante.

A production of his operetta A Kingdom for a Cow took him to London in 1935, and later that year he went to the United States in connection with The Eternal Road, a "Biblical Drama" by Franz Werfel that had been commissioned by members of New York's Jewish community and was premiered in 1937 at the Manhattan Opera House, running for 153 performances. Weill and his wife, the actress and singer lotte Lenya, settled in New York City on 1935-09-10, living first at the St. Moritz Hotel before moving on to an apartment at 231 East 62nd Street between Third and Second Avenues. Weill became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943. Weill believed that most of his work had been destroyed, and he seldom (and reluctantly) spoke or wrote German again, with the exception of, for example, letters to his parents who had escaped to Israel.

Rather than continue to write in the same style that had characterized his European compositions, Weill made a study of American popular and stage music, and his American output, though held by some to be inferior, nonetheless contains individual songs and entire shows that not only became highly respected and admired, but have been seen as seminal works in the development of the American musical. He worked with writers such as Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin, and even wrote a film score for Fritz Lang (You and Me, 1938). Weill himself strove to find a new way of creating an American opera that would be both commercially and artistically successful. The most interesting attempt in this direction is Street Scene, based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. For his work on Street Scene Weill was awarded the inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.

In the 1940s Weill lived in Downstate New York near the New Jersey border and made frequent trips both to New York City and to Hollywood for his work for theatre and film. Weill was active in political movements encouraging American entry into World War II, and after America joined the war in 1941, Weill enthusiastically collaborated in numerous artistic projects supporting the war effort both abroad and on the home front. He and Maxwell Anderson also joined the volunteer civil service by working as air raid wardens on High Tor Mountain between their home in New City, New York and Haverstraw, New York in Rockland County. In 1943, he became a United States citizen.

Apart from "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from the Threepenny Opera, his most famous songs include "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), "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).

Weill suffered a heart attack shortly after his fiftieth birthday and died on 1950-04-03 in New York City . He was buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw, New York. The text and music on his gravestone come from the song 'A Bird of Passage' from Lost in the Stars:

This is the life of men on earth:
Out of darkness we come at birth
Into a lamplit room, and then -
Go forward into dark again.

(lyric: Maxwell Anderson)

Impact

Over fifty years after his death, Weill's music continues to be performed both in popular and classical contexts. In Weill's lifetime, his work was most associated with the voice of his wife, Lotte Lenya, but shortly after his death "Mack the Knife" was established by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin as a jazz standard. His music has since been recorded by many performers, ranging from The Doors, Judy Collins, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, John Zorn, Dagmar Krause, and PJ Harvey to New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Singers as varied as Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Gisela May, Anne Sofie von Otter, Max Raabe, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Marianne Faithfull have recorded entire albums of his music. Amanda Palmer, singer/pianist of the 'Brechtian Punk Cabaret' duo the Dresden Dolls, has Kurt Weill's name on the front of her keyboard as a tribute to the composer.

In 1991, seminal Swiss Industrial music band The Young Gods released their album of Kurt Weill songs, The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill.

In 2008, Weill's songs were performed by an all-star lineup of Canadian musicians (including Sarah Slean and Mary Margaret O'Hara) in a tribute concert as part of the first annual Canwest Cabaret Festival in Toronto.

List of selected works

1920–1927

Works 1928–1935

Works 1936–1950

Discography

  • Eastside Sinfoniette: Don't Be Afraid (True Classical 2003)
  • Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins & Berlin Theatre Songs (Sony 1997)
  • The Threepenny Opera. Lotte Lenya and Others, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Ruggeberg (Columbia 1987)
  • Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Lotte Lenya/ Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg (Sony 1990)
  • Speak Low - Songs by Kurt Weill - Anne Sofie von Otter, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Grammophon 1995)
  • Berliner Requiem / Violin Concerto op.12 / Vom Tod im Walde. Ensemble Musique Oblique/ Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 1997)
  • Kleine Dreigroschenmusik / Mahagonny Songspiel / Happy End / Berliner Requiem / Violin Concerto op.12. London Sinfonietta, David Atherton (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999)
  • Kurt Weill à Paris, Marie Galante and other works. Loes Luca, Ensemble Dreigroschen, directed by Giorgio Bernasconi, assai, 2000
  • The Eternal Road (Highlights). Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/ Gerard Schwarz (Naxos, 2003)
  • Kazik Staszewski: Melodie Kurta Weill'a i coś ponadto (SP Records, 2001)
  • Youkali: Art Songs by Satie, Poulenc and Weill. Patricia O'Callaghan (Marquis, 2003)
  • Complete String Quartets. Leipziger Streichquartett (MDG 307 1071-2)
  • Die sieben Todsünden; Chansons B.Fassbaender, Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, C.Garben (HMA 1951420)
  • Happy End (Ghostlight Records, 2007) - the cast recording of the 2006 American Conservatory Theatre production from San Francisco
  • The Unknown Kurt Weill (Nonesuch LP D-79019, 1981) - Teresa Stratas, soprano, Richard Woitach, piano. Track list: "Nanna's Lied" (1939), "Complainte de la Seine" (1934), "Klops-Lied" (1925), "Berlin im Licht-song" (1928), "Und was Bekam des Soldaten Weib?" (1943), "Die Muschel von Margate: Petroleum Song" (1928), "Wie Lange Noch?" (1944), "Youkali: Tango Habanera" (1935?), "Der Abschiedsbrief" (1933?), "Es Regnet" (1933), "Buddy on the Nightshift" (1942), "Schickelgruber" (1942), "Je ne t'aime pas" (1934), "Das Lied von den Braunen Inseln" (1928)

Tributes:

Individual Songs:

  • The Doors, The Doors, (Elektra, 1967). Including Alabama Song
  • Bryan Ferry. As Time Goes By (Virgin, 1999). Including "September Song"
  • Tom Robinson, Last Tango: Midnight At The Fringe, (Castaway Northwest: CNWVP 002, 1988). Including "Surabaya Johnny"
  • David Bowie recorded Alabama Song
  • Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth recorded "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" (from One Touch of Venus) on her album Let Yourself Go.

References

Further reading

  • David Drew. Kurt Weill: A Handbook (Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1987). ISBN 0-520-05839-9.
  • Kim H. Kowalke. A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986). ISBN 0-300-03514-4.
  • Ronald Sanders. The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of Kurt Weill (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980). ISBN 0-03-019411-3.
  • Donald Spoto. Lenya A Life (Little, Brown and Company 1989)Very heavy on Weill history
  • Lys Symonette & Kim H. Kowalke (ed. & trans.) Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (University of California Press 1996)
  • David Drew (Editor), Über Kurt Weill (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1975) Excellent collection of texts, including an introduction by David Drew and including texts by Theodor W. Adorno
  • Jürgen Schebera, Kurt Weill (Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2000)

External links

See also

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