He’s Visiting Here in the Interest of His Incidental Music to “The Eternal Road”–Explains Role of Jazz.
Source: New York World Telegram, December 21, 1935
At 35 years of age Kurt Weill, one of the interesting modernist composers, has secured a particular niche of his own in contemporary music. His successful operas, operettas, orchestral works and other pieces have brought him wide fame and fortune, besides winning for him the special acclaim of his native Germany.
America with a keen and anxious ear has heard the transoceanic rumblings and as a consequence Mr. Weill is now on a visit to this country in the interest of his incidental music to Franz Werfel’s play “The Eternal Road,” which Max Reinhardt is preparing for production at the Manhattan Opera House. Only last Tuesday evening he was the guest of honor at a reception and a musicale given by the League of Composers.
Perhaps all this means that we have in store for us a Kurt Weill cycle. We shall wait and see. In the meantime, let us turn to Kurt Weill the person.
Discourses on Jazz.
The impressions received upon being admitted by the composer to his apartment at the St. Moritz were of affability, courtesy and an indefinable feeling that he is easy to get along with. Of average height and build, he has dark eyes–he wears glasses–thinning dark hair and an oval, smooth-shaven face. Dispensing with fancy preliminaries, his visitor asked him about Jazz.
“American Jazz has influenced modern music undoubtedly,” he announced in careful English that bore the faintest foreign accent. “Rhythmic and harmonic freedom, simplicity of melodic material, directness–saying things as they are–these are the contributions of Jazz.”
Mr. Weill lighted his pipe and continued, “I do not mean the Jazz of today, but the Jazz of the time of the ‘St. Louis Blues’ and other pieces of that period. Today it is much more complicated and it has been influenced in turn by Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and so on.
“I wish to make it clear that modern composers did not go to Jazz to borrow its idiom. It was not the actual taking of material. It was an influence you did not feel. Freedom, directness, simplicity, that’s what Jazz had.”
Dance Always Inspires.
The telephone rang in the other room, interrupting things for a moment. Mr. Weill returned and took up immediately with, “In all times the dance has had an effect on music. It was so with Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann and others. They took the popular dance music of their or other days and lifted it into the region of art.”
In Europe it has been said that Mr. Weill has created a kind of European Jazz, an opinion that does not seem to meet with his displeasure. Touching on that point naturally led to a discussion of his music.
“I consider myself a theater composer,” he stated as he put another match to his pipe. “One side of my work is lighter. Bert Brecht, who did several librettos for me, and I coined a German word, ‘Song,’ just that way. The term became very popular and was used extensively throughout Germany. It was quite different from ‘Lied.’
“It corresponded, I suppose, to the better type American popular song. And while it consisted of four or five verses and a refrain, it did not conform to a specific number of measures as your popular songs do here.
Called It a “Songspiel.”
“We developed it still further. Brecht wrote a suite of five such numbers, which I set to music. This we called a ‘Songspiel,’ which was to be sung, acted and danced. Such was the beginning of my opera ‘Mahagonny.’ The original ‘Songspiel’ was later developed into the highly successful opera.”
It seems that “Mahagonny” is an invented name for an invented city in an invented America. This may be a manifestation of the German love for metaphysics or not, but there is one baffling thing about the public’s reaction toward the work. Two of its “Songs,” “Alabama” and “Benares,” were deliberately written in peculiar English as part of the otherwise all-German text, and these, particularly the first, turned out sensational sellers in Germany–and all over Europe as a matter of fact.
With regard to another great success of his, “The Beggar’s Opera,” Mr. Weill said, “Brecht rewrote John Gay’s old libretto and I set it to music. It is both light and serious. In writing this, too, we employed our ‘Song’ form. There are twenty-one musical numbers in the score, including ‘Songs,’ choruses and finales.”
Mr. Weill mentioned others of his operatic works, “The Protagonist,” “Royal Palace,” “The Czar Is Photographed” and an opera for schools, “Der Jasager,” which he considers his most important composition. It calls for a cast completely of children to act, sing and dance. It was performed in 300 schools in Germany and many times in other European countries, and it has likewise been given in New York. He himself describes the music as “simple but not childish.”
Controls His Own Style.
Expressing great admiration for George Gershwin and his “Porgy and Bess,” Mr. Weill volunteered, “Audiences and critics are impatient with musical talents. It takes time to develop a creative style. I find it so in myself.
“For instance, I write absolute music in order to–how can I say it?–control my own style. You must turn away from your own habitual way occasionally. So then I write symphonic works. Last year Bruno Walter played my latest symphonic composition, ‘Nocturne Symphonique.’ He plays it everywhere.
“My style is melodious. People say they can recognize my music when they hear only three measures of it. I believe in the simplification of music. If someone has something to say, it is not important what means he uses so long as he knows how to use them.
“Musicians too often become musical historians. They think too much about what has been written before. Personally they are afraid not to be original.”
Asked concerning his opinion of the musical situation in Germany Mr. Weill said, “Lots of the best talents have left Germany, and I hear nothing from the pens of those who remained. I don’t think they can be dead.”