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Composer of the Hour

An Interview with Kurt Weill

by Ralph Winett

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 20, 1936, pp. 10, 12

SCENE: A room in an office building near the 44th Street Theatre. The unnecessary abundance of chairs, a large useless table, and the sinister failing light proclaim the room to be of the waiting variety.

Enter Kurt Weill, composer of the music for “Johnny Johnson,” “Mahogany” [sic], “Three-Penny Opera,” etc. Weill is un-composer-like, being short, bald, healthy, and young. He speaks good English, and smokes a popular brand of cigarettes.

* * *

Interviewer: I’ve just seen “Johnny Johnson,” and liked it enormously. But before we discuss it let’s examine its musical antecedents. I understand, Mr. Weill, that you studied with Busoni. What effect did he have upon you, and what do you think of him now?

Weill: Busoni was one of the most important musical figures in this country. Without his “Arlequino” [sic], an opera in which the principal character was not a singer, but an actor, there might possibly have been no music for “Johnny Johnson,” “Mahogany,” or the rest.

Int.: Would there have been music for “Mother”?

Weill: No, that neither. Whether or not Hanns Eisler realizes it, he is undoubtedly in the Busoni tradition. He studied with Schoenberg, you know, but you couldn’t tell it from his music, which is, on the other hand, pleasant and simple.

Int.: Why is it, Mr. Weill, that most of Busoni’s pupils seem to like Liszt so much? And what do you think of Liszt, by the way?

Weill: I think Liszt was a very significant composer. And Busoni’s pupils like Liszt because he occupied, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a position similar to Busoni’s in the twentieth. Just as Liszt started a movement which led to the great music of Wagner and Strauss, so Busoni started a movement which, we think, will lead to the great music of our time.

Int.: You would subscribe, then, to the views expressed in a recent article by Mr. Downes of the [New York] Times, who claimed that Liszt was important not so much as a composer but as a springboard for other composers? That Wagner, for example, took comparatively undeveloped Lisztian material and transformed it into something valuable; but that without this undeveloped material Wagner might have done little?

Weill: I think that is all very true. And I would say that what Liszt did for Wagner, Busoni did for me.

* * *

Int.: What was to me remarkable about your “Johnny Johnson” music, Mr. Weill, was its suitability. “Johnny’s Song,” for instance, was just exactly right, and that acrid “Tea Song” positively clicked. But now I will exercise the prerogative of a critic, and tell you what I didn’t like, or perhaps could not understand. And that was the Song of Cannons [“Song of the Guns”]. The night scene, with the big guns slowly looming over the trench, was one of the most extraordinary pieces of theater in my experience. And when the music began coming out of the cannon-mouths I expected the next few minutes to be historic, artistically. But what queer music for cannons! It seemed, with a few differences, to have been written in the same mood as Johnny’s love song. Please explain.

Weill: I’m glad you liked the theatrical aspects of the device, which were my idea. In fact the cannon scene was the nucleus of “Johnny Johnson.” When it occurred to me I went over to Paul Green and told him about it, and he wrote the play. I’ll have to drop in and see about the music; there are a lot of details involved in its execution, such as microphones and what not, and a small error is sufficient to spoil the entire effect. Maybe the music is done too fast.

My idea was this: Instead of doing what most composers would do–make the music grim and stark, with timpani and such devices–I wanted it to be seducing, almost sweet, as if sung perhaps by prostitutes. For cannons are like prostitutes; their metal could have been used to better purposes, and moreover they do anybody’s bidding, right or wrong. They say to the soldiers: “you sleep, we do the work for you.” The music should have been almost a lullabye.

* * *

Int.: The “Tea Song” was one of the things I liked especially. Its harmonies were bitter, yet evocative. They were not like the meaningless conglomeration found in much contemporary music; still they were certainly not diatonic. How did you chance upon them? Did you hear them in your head, as most of us hear diatonic harmonies, or do you work them out at the piano?

Weill: I hear them in my head. When I write music there’s no piano around. Despite the strangeness of the harmonies they were not really very complex. By composing directly onto paper I keep the music simple. With a piano, there might be temptations. The trouble with most composers is that they can’t hear what they write, except when they play it.

Int.: And then it’s too late.

* * *

Int.: I suppose, Mr. Weill, that behind your musical philosophy there is, among other things, a political one?

Weill: Certainly. I am writing music for the masses–music which they can sing, and music that deals with their problems. That is the only significant form of composition nowadays.

Int.: As would be borne out, of course, by the horrible nature of most of the “pure” music being written today.

Weill: Yes. In our time theatre-music is far more important than absolute music. Maybe that was not true in previous centuries, but it certainly is now. Concerts are becoming more and more the property of–how do you call them?–stuffed shirts. The recital hall is obsolete.

As for me, I need a subject before I can compose. I’ve never just taken a libretto and made music to it. It must be a libretto I believe in. That is why the music of “Johnny Johnson” is so integral a part of the play–why such unity has been achieved. The collaboration between Paul Green and myself was perfect.

Int.: Would you say, then, that the composing process was a differ- [page 12] ent thing for the masters of absolute music, such as Beethoven?

Weill: Not basically different, perhaps, but certainly there was a different approach. Composers can be classified into two divisions: those with a sense of theatre and those without it. Mozart, for example, belongs in the former division. Take any symphony of his, and you can write words to it. The climaxes, too, are operatic.

* * *

Int.: I suppose, Mr. Weill, that your music is not often played at State functions in the Third Reich?

Weill: I don’t think so. I wasn’t kicked out of Germany like some other musicians, but I would not be very welcome if I returned, except of course if I decided to visit a concentration camp. In Germany I’m known as a Kulturbolshevist; my music is un-German, un-Aryan. They call it asphalt-music, because it smacks of the city, which is to me a great compliment.

* * *

Int.: Since you derive inspiration from the subject-matter of your librettos, Mr. Weill, you must feel pretty strongly about “Johnny Johnson,” and the bearing it has upon our times.

Weill: Without that I could not have composed the music.

Int.: Yet isn’t it true that another war is now threatening, in which democracy will have to hold its own against the iron fist of fascism, and in which the defense of the Soviet Union will be an important problem? I wonder what Johnny, with his “peace monomania” will do in the next war.

Weill: He would probably fight in it. But this play deals with the last war, not the next. If we were dealing with the conflict that is to come, an entirely new play would have to be written.

Int.: And yet I seem to remember that the last war was also fought to save the world for democracy. Do you think Johnny would fall for that sort of thing again?

Weill: The last war didn’t really save the world for democracy, but the next one will.

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