Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life, by Jürgen Schebera

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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