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I’m an American!

Interview with Kurt Weill

Source: Radio program broadcast March 9, 1941 on NBC Blue Network.
Transcribed from audiocassette held by the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Ser.122/3.

Note: An excerpt from this interview was published in My Land of Liberty: Freedoms all Americans Defend, ed. Chester S. Williams (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1941).

Announcer: The Department of Justice of the United States in cooperation with the National Broadcasting Company presents a program for all Americans, from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island! We have invited a number of distinguished naturalized citizens to talk about the American citizenship which they have recently acquired–a possession which we ourselves take for granted–but which is still new and thrilling to them! Today’s guest of I’m an American! is the well-known German-born composer, Mr. Kurt Weill whose most recent work, the music for Lady in the Dark, is now delighting Broadway. Mr. Weill will tell our interviewer, Mr. William H. Marshall, Assistant District Director of Immigration and Naturalization at Ellis Island, what his American citizenship means to him. Mr. Marshall, will you take over?

Marshall: It seems a bit unfair to ask a composer to express his ideas about America in words when he could express them much more effectively in music.

Weill: Well, as a matter of fact, I have been inspired by the American idea several times in recent years: first when I worked with Paul Green on the musical play Johnny Johnson, that tragicomical story of the American soldier in the First World War; then when I wrote the music for Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics in Knickerbocker Holiday, the comedy about the childhood of American democracy; later when I made a study of American folk music for the score of Railroads on Parade; and finally, when I set Maxwell Anderson’s Ballad of Magna Carta to music.

Marshall: And did you succeed in expressing your ideas about America in these works?

Weill: I think it is impossible to express any ideas in music, but the composer’s enthusiasm for an idea can provide the emotional background for his music–and I have never felt more enthusiastic about any idea than I feel about the American way of life.

Marshall: How long have you been an American, Mr. Weill?

Weill: I decided to become a citizen the day on which I arrived here, six years ago. I remember very well the feeling I had as the ship moved down the harbor past the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers. All about us were exclaiming in amazement at the strange sights, but my wife and I had the sensation that we were coming home.

Marshall: And you had never been here before?

Weill: Never. I had lived and worked in Germany and later in France, but I never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States. I think it is this kinship of the spirit which brings America its new citizens from all lands. Those who come here seeking the freedom, justice, opportunity, and human dignity they miss in their own countries are already Americans before they come. As far as I am concerned, I know that I always was enormously attracted by America.

Marshall: How would you explain that?

Weill: You know, Berlin in the years after the First World War was in spirit the most American city in Europe. We liked everything we knew about this country. We read Jack London, Hemingway, Dreiser, Dos Passos, we admired Hollywood pictures, and American jazz had a great influence on our music. America was a very romantic country for us. One of my most successful operas, The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny, was about an American city. We even wrote two songs in English for this opera. Strangely enough, when I arrived in this country I found that our description of this country was quite accurate in many ways.

Marshall: But unfortunately this kinship of the spirit doesn’t always bring with it the ability to speak our language. How’d you learn English so well in a few years, Mr. Weill?

Weill: Of course, we knew it a little before we came, but on the boat we made a resolve to speak nothing but English thereafter. So many foreign-born use their native language in their homes and among their friends. I used to ask my German friends, “How can you ever become Americans if you still cling to the language and the customs of a country that has become the most un-American country in the world?”

Marshall: That’s very interesting, Mr. Weill. You mean that you can’t really feel at home in a country unless you’re at home in the language–is that it?

Weill: Yes. It isn’t enough to be able to order dinner or to understand what they say in the moving pictures. My old friend and teacher Ferruccio Busoni used to say you don’t feel at home in a language unless you dream and count in this language. Well, there is not a word of German in my dreams any more, and since the success of Lady in the Dark I have had quite a bit of practice counting in English. Seriously, how could I write music for Americans unless I could understand their way of thinking and feeling, and all the shades of meaning of the words in which they express themselves.

Marshall: Ah, now we are back to the subject of music. What do you think of our national songs?

Weill: When I first studied American music I was astonished at the richness and beauty of the American folk songs, and when I learned to know the national songs in this country I found that they express much more the soul of the people than in those European countries where they change their national anthems every time they get a new ruler. To me the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the most exciting, stirring hymn I’ve ever known, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a dignified, proud melody. The music as well as the words are far superior to those martial hymns of hate that are coming out of Europe lately. Any new national song written in the same spirit and with the same dignity would be an enormous contribution to the welfare of the country because it seems to me when people sing a song together they are sharing a common emotion and songs that express devotion to our great ideals of liberty and justice would certainly help to unite Americans of all races and occupations in a strong determination to defend these ideals.

Marshall: Do you think that America’s spiritual defenses can be strengthened by music just as well or better than by speeches and newspaper editorials?

Weill: Let’s rather state it this way, Mr. Marshall: music has a more binding, uniting power than the spoken or written word because it appeals to the common emotions of the people–and that’s what this country needs at this moment. The word “liberty” has been used so much that it’s worn threadbare. Music could help to give it once more the solemn, passionate meaning it had when Sam Adams wrote it in his letters of correspondence to the humble, hard-working, simple blacksmiths and farmers and fishermen in New England who talked of the rights of men and human dignity by candlelight and campfire, in taverns and town meetings.

Marshall: Sam Adams! Excuse me for interrupting you, Mr. Weill, but how does it happen that such a new American as you are has read about one of the least known of our early patriots?

Weill: Oh, I’ve read a lot of American history, and I made a special study of the American revolution when I worked with Paul Green on a musical pageant about the events of 1776 (which we never finished, by the way). We chose Sam Adams as the hero of our play. A little man in a shabby coat who wrote letters to the colonists that started them talking among themselves–thinking the greatest ideas men have ever thought. He didn’t talk to them about the rights of man and human dignity and self-government. He got them to find these words themselves. He appealed directly to their hearts. Then the War for Independence started. It was a colonial war, a people fighting for its freedom. Well, usually such a fight for independence turns out to be a fight for conquest or expansion or revenge or power or something else besides freedom. The thing that made America different is that she really meant what she said. And when she had won freedom, the first thing she did was to make sure of keeping it by writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Marshall: I am glad you reminded us that democracy here was really created by the democratic process of talking over our problems among ourselves, Mr. Weill. Perhaps that’s the way to defend it–perhaps we ought to restate our freedoms more in our homes and everyday meetings with each other.

Weill: Yes, and in our theaters, our books, our music, our motion pictures. The greatest danger to the human race is indifference. People sleep and wake and eat and work and listen to the radio and go to sleep again and they are much too ready to forget what a precious thing it is to be able to live their own lives and they don’t know what they would lose if their way of life would be destroyed. If we could show on the stage what it really means to be free and if we could show it in simple terms so that it can reach everybody, then we would really do our share to solve the problems this country is faced with.

Marshall: What form would you suggest to express these ideas on the stage?

Weill: Well, being a theater composer I would suggest the form of the musical play.

Marshall: Is that something new?

Weill: Not exactly. It is a form of theater which combines the elements of drama, musical comedy, ballet and opera. In collaboration with the German dramatists George [sic] Kaiser and Bert Brecht I had developed this form in the years between 1926 and 1933. Then suddenly all that we had done was wiped out by an iron hand. You can imagine what it meant to me when I arrived in this country and found a theater full of creative impulse, freedom, technical possibilities–everything I needed to continue where I had left off. Leading playwrights like Paul Green, later Maxwell Anderson and recently Moss Hart were interested and willing to try out new forms of the theater, great actors were looking for new opportunities and the audiences were completely open-minded. All this is only my own, rather unimportant personal story, but it proves that this country has developed a theatrical life of the highest standard. The same is true in other fields. America has become the cultural capital of the world.

Marshall: You think America will be enriched by those thousands of men and women who are brought here by the troubled conditions in other parts of the world?

Weill: What the immigrants of today are bringing to this country is not more and not less than what the immigrants from earlier persecutions have brought here. All they ever could bring was the work of their hands and the work of their heads. That’s what they offer to this country and what the people of this country are so ready to accept. But that is just what has made the American civilization: the accumulation of talent from all parts of the world, freed from oppression and limitation, ready to give and to build.

Marshall: You think that the resourcefulness we have developed will help us to solve the economic and social problems which have thrown older and more tired nations into such terrible confusions?

Weill: I am convinced of it, Mr. Marshall. I’m a composer, not an economist, but I have the same idea that Sam Adams had about the people. He did not write “democracy” to them, he let them find out for themselves. Freedom was not just a word in those days. It was a passion. I think Americans today would feel the same passionate devotion to their freedoms if they felt that they were threatened by any dangers from without or injustices within. I know for myself that I would be ready to fight if ever this American freedom would be threatened. And since I have never felt this way before in my life I think I may have the right to say, “I’m an American.”

Announcer: Thank you, Mr. Weill for your moving expression of your faith in America. And now for a special announcement: In sympathy with the purpose of this program to spread among the American people a deeper appreciation of the ideals and institutions symbolized by our flag, the United States Flag Association, the only patriotic society to be headed by the President of the United States as honorary President-General, offers you a free copy of a beautifully illustrated folder entitled, “How to Display and Respect Our Flag” by Colonel James A. Moss, well-known flag authority. Just a postcard addressed to I’m an American!, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., will bring your free copy of this folder. Now, let me repeat: Write a card to the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. for a free copy of “How to Display and Respect Our Flag.” I’m an American! is brought to you each week at this time in cooperation with the United States Department of Justice.

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