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Baby in the Bathwater?

Die Salzburger Dreigroschenoper: An Experiment

Kim H. Kowalke, President of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York since Lotte Lenya’s death in 1981, places the one-time experiment of the Salzburger Dreigroschenoper in historical and aesthetic perspective.

I can well imagine how my music would turn out if I were to agree to the theater’s desire to make its own instrumentation of Die Dreigroschenoper.
–Weill to Brecht, 9 March 1942

In an interview that Brecht conducted with himself in 1933, he asked, “What accounted for the success of Die Dreigroschenoper?” He replied (to himself): “I’m afraid it was everything that didn’t matter to me: the romantic plot, the love story, the music.” In contrast, the music mattered a good deal to its composer, Kurt Weill. Brecht had spent the five years since its premiere in 1928 attempting to reconcile the stage work’s unexpected and unprecedented commercial success with his evolving Marxist aesthetic and political views by publishing a greatly revised and politicized literary version of the play (as well as the unused screenplay Die Beule and the Threepenny Novel). Weill, on the other hand, had hastily assembled a definitive version of the score for immediate publication, to be used by other theaters already clamoring to produce the piece. Although the composer cautioned Universal Edition that the “entirely unique, new sound” of the music depends on “meticulous attention to the details of the original full orchestral score,” his publisher persuaded him that theaters would be able to make do instead with a condensed “piano-conductor score” [Klavier-Direktionsstimme]. (Theatrical performances of the piece would, in fact, not benefit from access to an orchestral score until 1972).

Already hailed as the foremost German operatic composer of his generation, Weill was unprepared for the treatment of his score as mere incidental music in provincial subsidized theaters, unaccustomed to submitting to the authority routinely accorded the musical text of an operatic work. Consequently the composer would spend the next five years fighting for the importance and integrity of his orchestrations and arrangements whenever the piece was performed as a dramatic whole. Simultaneously he would attempt to exploit the work’s phenomenal success by encouraging the widest possible popular exploitation of individual songs outside the theater in arrangements by others that neither Weill nor his publisher could possibly control.

Just six weeks after opening night in Berlin, Weill heard rumors of unauthorized musical changes in the production already rehearsing in Frankfurt. He protested to UE: “I hear that they want to make all kinds of orchestral reductions to Die Dreigroschenoper. I consider this very dangerous and ask that you forbid making any changes whatsoever to the music or instrumentation without my consent.” Such intervention frequently turned out to be a losing battle, however, not least because very few theaters were able to find instrumentalists as versatile as the seven in the Lewis Ruth Band, who were playing 23 different instruments each night at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. Although Weill had indicated possible substitutions and alternatives in the rental instrumental parts, in practice most theaters simply came up with their own makeshift solutions. By 1931 the problem had become so endemic that Weill told UE to insert in all licenses: “The theater management is obligated not to make changes to the work without the permission of the composer.” That didn’t solve the problem either, as most such changes simply went ahead beneath the publisher’s radar. Weill himself did file and then win a lawsuit against Nero-Film in 1930 for breach of a contractual clause that required that any additional music or arrangement of existing music for G.W. Pabst’s film version of Die Dreigroschenoper be carried out only by the composer.

Even after emigrating to America, Weill defied customary Broadway practice and insisted on doing his own arrangements and orchestrations, as he deemed them an essential component of the unique style, texture, and “sound world” for each of his dramatic works. And he also remained adamant about protecting the identity of the “Klangbild” of his most famous European piece. In 1942 not even Brecht himself, with the support of Theodor W. Adorno, could convince Weill to allow a proposed production of Threepenny Opera in Los Angeles to “sociologically refunction” the piece with a jazz ensemble improvising a new version of the score. Weill wrote to Brecht: “I can well imagine how my music would turn out if I were to agree to the theater’s desire to make its own instrumentation. I have always insisted that my music be played in the theater only in my own orchestrations, and I must hold to this principle in this case as well.”

And after Brecht had returned to Germany and unilaterally sanctioned a new version of the piece for Munich in 1948, Weill again threatened legal action to prevent musical alterations. The following year he explained his stance to a theater in Switzerland: “In the twenty years of its existence, Die Dreigroschenoper has become a classic. In music schools the work’s full score is being taught as an example of great orchestration achieved by modest means. In no case can I allow my music to be changed arbitrarily.”

In the decade following Weill’s sudden death in 1950, Marc Blitzstein’s American adaptation of The Threepenny Opera would become the longest running musical in history with 2707 performances off-Broadway at the 299-seat Theater de Lys. And that production would spark another worldwide outbreak of “threepenny-fever.” The sale of ten million recordings of “Mack the Knife” soon exacerbated the tension between the Widow Weill’s affirmation of the composer’s longtime advocacy of popular renditions of single songs and her efforts to re-assert the authority of the “authentic” score in theatrical productions. Lotte Lenya too was only partially successful in doing so, as Peter Sandloff re-scored the music for Wolfgang Staudte’s 1962 film version, and popular bandleader James Last made all new orchestrations and arrangements for a Polydor recording of the complete stage work in 1969–despite Lenya’s strenuous objections. “Again and again,” she wrote to the record company, “I find it completely incomprehensible why people consider this music a candidate for ‘updated instrumentation.’ Weill was a master of orchestration, and today the ingenious instrumentation of Die Dreigroschenoper is recognized as such by anyone knowledgeable about music. . . . It is precisely the deliberate “Verfremdung” of jazz in Weill’s orchestration that gives the music its sharp bite, its ironic romanticism, and its brilliant banality. Such fundamental aspects can only be destroyed in an adaptation. People surely wouldn’t rework Brecht’s text to update it!”

“Why is it only poor Weill who gets treated in this way?” Lenya inquired in 1970. “If they dared lay so much as a finger on Stravinsky or Berg’s scores, they’d rightly be lynched.” David Drew, the formidable Weill expert who served as her longtime musical advisor, tried to account for the phenomenon, at a time when Weill was just beginning to recover an independent identity as a composer detached from the “Brecht/Weill” pseudo-entity: “Because of the special importance Weill attached to his librettos,” Drew suggested that the stage works often appeal to “enthusiasts who aren’t particularly musical–which isn’t their fault! Consequently all they can really hear are Weill’s tunes, and since these tunes–unlike Stravinsky’s, let alone Berg’s–have certain resemblances to old-time Pop, those who hear them simply as tunes cannot understand why the tunes shouldn’t be arranged, pulled about, or even obliterated just as Pop tunes are. Form, harmony and orchestration being beyond their ken, they don’t recognize the difference between a tune and a composition.”

Sometimes even Lenya lowered her guard and relented, however, allowing exceptions to Weill’s policy, most notably for Stanley Silverman’s re-scoring of Threepenny Opera for an 18-piece ensemble, resembling that of Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, for the New York Shakespeare Festival production in 1976 at Lincoln Center. Although it would run 306 performances, she retrospectively regretted the “experiment” and refused to allow the new orchestration to be utilized in any subsequent productions.

After Lenya bequeathed custody of Weill’s copyrights to the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music following her death in 1981, its board of trustees (which included both Harold Prince and Julius Rudel) adopted the same policy: there would be no attempt to regulate popular versions of individual songs, but performances of Weill’s complete dramatic works must be performed with his original orchestrations and arrangements. Licenses issued by publishers to this day still contain a clause requiring proposed changes to be submitted in advance for approval. Requests for minor alterations to find alternatives for the most difficult and esoteric of the “doublings” required in the seven orchestral parts of Die Dreigroschenoper have been routinely approved during the last three decades; many theaters have found it necessary to use 10–12 players to cover the original 23 instruments. And if theaters present a convincing argument that financial resources or space limitations prevent such a solution, performances accompanied by keyboard alone have frequently been approved.

Conversely, the Foundation has cooperated with its representatives to identify and prevent unauthorized arrangements and re-orchestrations, including a new rock version by the band called SLUT, which played in the pit for stage performances in Ingolstadt in 2006 before attempting to record it for commercial release. Eventually the publishers permitted the band to include five individual songs from the show on its album, but prohibited further use of the arrangements in the theater. Following publication in 1996 of an exquisitely reproduced color facsimile of Weill’s Partitur (which also contains annotations by Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein dating from 1952) and in 2000 the critical edition of the orchestral score, new error-free instrumental parts, and a matching piano-vocal score, there have been far fewer such infringements or requests, however.

Indeed, wide access to Weill’s masterpiece of instrumentation has only augmented its reputation as one of the most influential of the twentieth century, alongside Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. That influence is readily audible and has been publicly acknowledged by composers ranging from Carl Orff to Steve Reich, Luciano Berio to HK Gruber. Weill’s gritty Dreigroschen-band has served as the obvious sonic model for musicals as diverse as CabaretChicagoSweeney Todd, and Urinetown. In retrospect, the “Dreigroschen-sound” has earned iconic status, not only for its composer, but as a signature for an entire era and culture, that of Germany before Hitler. And the impact of the song style on successive generations of popular musicians–Sting, Tom Waits, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, among them–demonstrates that Weill’s debt to the popular idioms of his day has been amply repaid, with dividends!

So, why now make an exception to a policy that extends back, with few exceptions and scant modification, to Weill’s own, first articulated in October 1928? Why has the Board of Trustees of the Foundation permitted the present “one-time experiment,” Mackie Messer: Die Salzburger Dreigroschenoper, to introduce new arrangements and orchestrations by Martin Lowe (whose credits include ABBA’s Mamma Mia! and Once)? The simplistic answer is that Sven-Eric Bechtolf (director of the Salzburg Festival) and his collaborators succeeded in convincing the trustees that the Salzburg Festival was offering a near-ideal platform to juxtapose Mr. Lowe’s work, in the context of a major new stage production, with a concert performance of Weill’s original music by the foremost interpreters of the “echt” score: the Ensemble Modern and an all-star cast under the direction of HK Gruber, revisiting their award-winning 1999 BMG premiere recording of the critical edition.

The more complex–and far more interesting–answer is that such an experiment invites a re-examination of fundamental issues of work- and compositional identity, as Die Dreigroschenoper approaches its ninetieth birthday. Is the baby being thrown out with the bathwater by discarding Weill’s original orchestrations and arrangements? Are they indispensable to the nature and impact of the stage work? What is lost and/or gained when these are replaced by those of a professional orchestrator for the theater of today? Are they akin to Caspar Neher’s set or costume designs for the 1928 production, replaceable in “revival,” just as many West End and Broadway revivals of classic musicals discard original orchestrations for updated (and usually downsized) ones? Or, conversely, because Weill approached popular musical theater from a background in opera and insisted on orchestrating his own scores (the one domain in which he asserted complete freedom and control), does their replacement deprive audiences of one of his most powerful and personal means of characterization and dramatic commentary/irony? Is the use of dance band instrumentation from the Twenties still viable, and if so, does it consign Die Dreigroschenoper to the category of “period piece”? Or does that idiosyncratic sound perfectly mirror the generic hybrid and the stylistic multiplicity of the work, the very incarnation of the tension between “low” and “high,” between the “threepenny” and the operatic. In other words, isn’t it still possible to hear Weill’s soundscape as the aural embodiment of Brecht’s prologue to the 1928 stage script?–“You are about to see an opera for beggars. Because this opera is so magnificent only a beggar could have imagined it, and because it still had to be so cheap that even beggars could afford it, we call it The Threepenny Opera.”

Perhaps the Salzburg production will prompt a re-examination of longstanding policies. Lowe and his collaborators have been given a free hand and sole responsibility for this experiment. Neither the Kurt Weill Foundation nor any of Weill’s publishers has made any attempt to involve themselves in the creation of the Salzburger Dreigroschenoper or to preview, monitor, advise, or influence any of Mr. Lowe’s artistic choices. So the authors’ representatives making decisions about these policies will join the audience in Salzburg for this rare opportunity to savor Weill’s original orchestrations alongside an experimental alternative. As Brecht often quipped (quoting an old English proverb): with any such theatrical Versuch, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

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