Archive for October 2016

Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life, by Jürgen Schebera

October 22, 2016

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
–Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 14

As the title says, this biography is amply illustrated, with black-and-white photos on nearly every page of Weill, his friends and family, programs and posters, and productions. It is almost a scrapbook.

The industriousness of the man is clear. From his early years in Dessau, he was dedicated to music. Weill’s father was a cantor. In 1920, Weill went to Berlin and studied with Busoni, where he composed symphonies and other pieces in the traditional classical way. He met the dancer Karoline Blamauer in 1924. Her stage name was Lotte Lenya.

Around this same time, Weill began his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, out of which came Weill’s most famous pieces, “The Alabama Song” (from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” otherwise known as “Mack the Knife,” from Die Dreigrochenoper.

The new powers classified Weill’s works as degenerate, and he moved on to Paris and Vienna, before sailing to the U.S. in 1935 with his second wife, Lenya (they had divorced and then remarried). He devoted himself thereafter to musical theater on Broadway. The author sympathizes with Weill’s view that opera in the U.S. consisted of “‘museum-piece’ reproductions of European works and performance styles.” Weill also worked on film scores briefly. His collaborators on Broadway included Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, and Langston Hughes (the latter for Street Scene, maybe Weill’s most successful work from his American period). Lenya continued to perform in his shows.

Weill had no interest in returning to Germany and left his Germanness behind when he crossed the border. His Jewishness stayed with him. In March 1943, with Ben Hecht, he put on a “pageant play,” We Will Never Die, a protest against the persecution of the Jewish people. There is a great photo of Weill and Maxwell Anderson looking out for enemy planes. Weill was a volunteer Air Warden with the U.S. Army’s Aircraft Warning Service.

One is impressed at the end by his industriousness and dedication to popular music. His shows dating from his move to the U.S. haven’t really lasted, but how many shows from the 1930s and 1940s are still performed or remembered now by many?

Unlike Brecht, he stayed in the U.S. and did not return to Germany. The difference between the two men in that respect is that Brecht’s religion won out in the newly created GDR. Weill’s and Lenya’s parents made a new home in Israel. He wrote to his parents after the war, “I do not believe that in all of human history any nation has experienced as terrible a defeat as Germany–or that any people has deserved humiliation as much as these barbarians who have taken it upon themselves to destroy everything good and decent that people have achieved over millennia.”

Weill had a heart attack in 1950 and is buried in Haverstraw, just outside of New York City. Lenya was buried there after her death in 1981. They had no children.

Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice, and Langston Hughes discussing their work "Street Scene"

Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice, and Langston Hughes discussing their work “Street Scene”

 

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Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music, by Deryck Cooke

October 4, 2016

O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp . . . .
Paradise Lost, II.620

This is a posthumous project, drawn from a booklet that Cooke wrote for the BBC as part of a celebration of Mahler’s one-hundredth birthday in 1960. The editors expanded the original “Mahler as Man and Artist,” drawing on Cooke’s program notes written over the years. All eleven symphonies (1-8, Das Lied von der Erde, 9, and the unfinished 10) are included, along with some early works, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Rückert Lieder.

The whole thing is 127 pages, including the index. There is something to be said for compactness, and how delightful with this subject! The editors have included all the texts of the free-standing songs and those that are part of the symphonies, but not a single measure of the music is reproduced.

There is a bit of biography set alongside the musical analysis. In 1895-96, Mahler used his time after the conducting season in Hamburg to work on his Third Symphony in the Austrian village of Steinbach am Attersee in the Salzburg Alps. There, he drew directly on nature for his inspiration, giving the work an initial program that read:

THE JOYFUL KNOWLEDGE
A Summer Morning’s Dream
I. Summer marches in
II. What the meadow flowers tell me
III. What the creatures of the forest tell me
IV. What night tells me (mankind)
V. What the morning bells tell me (the angels)
VI. What love tells me
VII. The heavenly life (what the child tells me)

Mahler removed that last section from the already loose baggy monster of the Third and made it the end of his charming Fourth, a setting of “Das himmlische Leben” from the Wunderhorn collection. He also discarded the program titles from what remained.

He was so immersed in nature in writing the Third that the story goes, according to his wife, Alma:

“One day in the summer he came running down from his hut in a perspiration, scarcely able to breathe. At last he came out with it: it was the heat, the stillness, the Pan-ic horror. He was overcome by this feeling of the goat-god’s frightful and vivid eye upon him in his solitude, and he had to take refuge in the house among human beings, and go on with his work there.”

 

Alma Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler-Gropius-Werfel

 

Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is a symphony, and like the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eighth, it includes a text. Unlike those, the text is not from Wunderhorn, the Christian liturgy, Goethe, or Klopstock, but rather from Chinese poems, as translated into German by Hans Bethge in his “The Chinese Flute.” Mahler declined to call this work his Ninth Symphony out of superstition that because Beethoven only completed nine symphonies, once he himself did so, it would be the end. So he then safely called the next symphony his Ninth (because he had written eight), but it was really the tenth one, if you’re counting symphonies. He assumed “the danger was over.” Then on to the Tenth, which he didn’t finish. That’s fate for you.

Mahler’s modernness comes through in the discussion of the Tenth Symphony. He completed a four-stave score and notes on elaboration of this “piano-duet layout” into a full score, but stopped halfway through. Cooke completed a version for performance. What is so contemporary about this is what Cooke drops as a casual detail–Mahler had left “three folders” containing drafts of two full-length movements and the first thirty bars of another. “And so he did not even begin the third stage–the elaboration of the full-score draft into the final definitive full score of the completed work. He had, however, decided on the order of the movements, having written blue-pencil roman numerals on the covers of five of the folders.” A symphony in folders! Did Richard Strauss have folders for Salome?

 

mahler-das-lied-von-der-erde-cd-cover

Das Lied von der Erde, or Symphony No. 9, as you please