Tuesday, March 2, 8900

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) - Threepenny

Kurt [Julian] Weill (March 2, 1900 – April 3, 1950) grew up in a religious Jewish family, composed a series of works before he was 20 (including the song cycle Ofrahs Lieder with a text by Yehuda Halevi translated into German), and studied music composition with Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin.


Sonata for Cello and Piano (1920)

Symphony No. 1 for orchestra (1921)

String Quartet, Op. 8 (1923)

Quodlibet: Suite for orchestra from the pantomime Zaubernacht, Op. 9 (1923)

Frauentanz: sieben Gedichte des Mittelalters for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 10 9(1923)

Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12 (1924)

Der Protagonist, Op. 15 (Opera in one act, text by Georg Kaiser) (1926)

Der Neue Orpheus, Cantata for soprano, solo violin and orchestra, Op. 16 (text by Yvan Goll) (1927)

Royal Palace, Op. 17 (Opera in one act, text by Iwan [Yvan] Goll) (1927)

Der Zar lässt sich photographieren, Op. 21 (Opera in one act, text by Georg Kaiser) (1927)

Mahagonny (Songspiel) (Bertolt Brecht) (1927)


Although he had some success with his instrumental works -- influenced by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky -- Weill tended more to vocal music and musical theatre.

He met the actress-singer Lotte Lenya (1898-1981) in 1924 and married her twice, the first in 1926.

Weill's best-known work is The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928), a reworking of the John Pepusch /

John Gay (1685-1732) Beggar's Opera, to a libretto of

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), directed by Erich Engel in 1928. The Threepenny Opera contains the oft-covered Ballad of Mack the Knife (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer), as well as Cannon Song (which proved to be the opening night hit), Pirate Jenny, and Solomon Song.

The Threepenny Opera

1. Overture

2. Ballad of Mack the Knife

3. Peachum's Morning Chorale

6. Cannon Song

13. Barbara Song (Ballad of Sexual Dependency)

14. Pirate Jenny

Weill's music theatre and songs were extremely popular by late 1920's early 30's, admired by composers such as Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky, but criticized by Schoenberg (who later revised his opinion) and Anton Webern.


Berlin im Licht Song. March for military band (wind ensemble) or voice and piano (1928)

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music), Suite for wind orchestra based on the Threepenny Opera (1928)

1928 – Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen for chorus a cappella or voice and piano (Bertolt Brecht) (1928)

Das Berliner Requiem (Berlin Requiem). Cantata for three male voices and wind orchestra (Bertolt Brecht) (1928)

Der Lindberghflug (first version). Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Music by Weill and Paul Hindemith and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (1929)


Happy End (Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht) (1929)

Surabaya Johnny


Der Lindberghflug (second version). Cantata for tenor, baritone, and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra. Music entirely by Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (1929)


Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) (Bertolt Brecht) (1930)

Alabama Song


Der Jasager (Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht) (1930)


Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to a temporary end over differing politics in 1930. According to Lenya, Weill commented that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."

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, Die Bürgschaft (The Pledge) (Caspar Neher) (1932), and Der Silbersee (Silver Lake) (1933).

Weill fled Germany in March 1933, going first to Paris, where he worked once more with Brecht (after a project with Jean Cocteau failed) -- the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins (Die sieben Todsünden, chanté for voices and orchestra).

Lenya and the composer divorced in September of that year.

In 1934 Weill completed his Symphony No.2 , his last orchestral work, conducted in Amsterdam and New York by Bruno Walter; and also Marie galante for voices and small orchestra (book and lyrics by Jacques Deval)

A production of his operetta A Kingdom for a Cow (Der Kuhhandel, Robert Vambery, unfinished) took him to London in 1935, and later that year he came to the United States in connection with The Eternal Road, a "Biblical Drama" (Desmond Carter, first, unfinished version in German with a text by Franz Werfel, directed by Max Reinhardt), 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 believed that most of his earlier work had been destroyed, and he seldom (and reluctantly) spoke or wrote German again, with the exception of 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.


Johnny Johnson (Paul Green) (1936)


Weill married Lenya again in 1937. The singer 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.

Weill worked in America with writers such as Edward Hungerford (Railroads on Parade, 1938), Fritz Lang (the film score You and Me, 1938), Maxwell Anderson (Knickerbocker Holiday, including September Song, 1938; Ballad of Magna Carta: cantata for narrator and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra), and Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin (Lady in the Dark, including My Ship, 1940)

In the 1940's, the composer lived in downstate New York near the New Jersey border and made frequent trips both to the 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, he enthusiastically collaborated in numerous artistic projects supporting the war effort both abroad and on the home front. The composer and Maxwell Anderson also joined the volunteer civil service by working as air raid wardens on High Tor Mountain between their homes in New City and Haverstraw, New York.


Fun to be Free Pageant (1941)

And What Was Sent to the Soldier's Wife? (Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?): Song for voice and piano (Bertolt Brecht) (1942)

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Patriotic song arrangements by Weill for narrator, chorus, and orchestra (1942)


Weill became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943.


One Touch of Venus (Ogden Nash) (1943)

Speak Low


The Firebrand of Florence (Ira Gershwin) (1945)

Down in the Valley (1945)

Hatikvah: Arrangement of the Israeli National Anthem for orchestra (1947)

Four Walt Whitman Songs for voice and orchestra (or piano) (1947)

Street Scene (Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes) (1947) - Inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score

Love Life (Alan Jay Lerner) (1948)

Lost in the Stars (Maxwell Anderson) (1949)

Huckleberry Finn (Maxwell Anderson, unfinished, 1949)


Weill died in New York City in 1950 and is buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw. The text (with music) on his gravestone comes 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)

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, including The Doors, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, and John Zorn. Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Marianne Faithfull have recorded entire albums of his music.

[Contrapuntal concerns in excerpts from
Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera: Ballad of Mack the Knife and
George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: Summertime]

[8900 Copland / 8900 Weill / 8899 Ellington]