Music for ‘Road of Promise’ Written in Modern Contemporary Style
by N. S.
Source: New York Times, October 27, 1935
Although traditional Hebrew music of the synagogue has been drawn upon to a certain extent for the score of “The Road of Promise,” the elaborate Jewish morality play scheduled to be presented here by Max Reinhardt in December, modernism will be rampant in the tonal investiture given the spectacle by Kurt Weill, the modernist German opera composer. He is now in New York completing the orchestration of his setting of the text by Franz Werfel.
It is Mr. Weill’s conviction that the Old Testament, of which the play is a résumé, is primarily a great human document belonging in its appeal, not to any particular era, but to all time. For this reason he considers “local color” of small importance and feels justified in employing a contemporary style.
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“On the whole, I have conceived the music in the spririt of popular oratorio,” he said. “About 70 per cent of the play will have a musical setting. I resort not only to arias, ensembles and choruses, embedded in the continuous music between the spoken parts, but use as well ‘Sprechstimme,’ or half-song, ‘parlando’ and recitative.
“I have had in mind an orchestra of forty-five pieces. For each of the four acts I use a different type of orchestration, in an attempt to create a special musical atmosphere for each division of the work.” [Note: No close quote is given in the original, but the next paragraph appears to begin with an indirect quotation, so it is supplied.]
It was necessary, said Mr. Weill, for the music of this play to be direct and simple, since several of its big roles will be entrusted to actors who are only incidentally vocalists. However, one of the most considerable parts, that of the narrator, will be entrusted to a highly trained tenor. He will portray an old rabbi who reads the Bible to his congregation, from time to time relating the episodes not represented on the stage. For this personage Mr. Weill uses a number of motives freely based on old Hebrew music. He had much trouble, he said, in finding the right material for these motives because he wished to confine himself solely to the most ancient of the Jewish melodies, of which but very few remain extant. These antique tunes from which the motives are derived are still to be heard in orthodox synagogues during the reading of the Torah. They stem from the days of the early Gregorian chant.
“I am quite convinced that opera must be removed from its splendid isolation and be made acceptable to the audience of the legitimate theatre. There should no longer exist an opera audience as distinctive from the theatre audience. When my operas, ‘Mahagonny,’ ‘Die Bürgschaft’ and the ‘Dreigroschenoper’ were presented in Germany the whole public of the theatre attended whenever these works were heard. As regards the future development of musical forms in the opera house, I personally would like to see stress laid on separate numbers as closed forms, as they exist, for instance, in the operas of Mozart.”
Did Mr. Weill believe that social “ideology,” as some modern artists claim, is proper and fruitful inspiration for works of art?
“Music can only express human sentiments. Often, it is true, these sentiments arise out of the political tendencies of an epoch. For this reason Beethoven’s music is different from Mozart’s, since by Beethoven’s time a new idea of democracy, not known in Mozart’s era, had arisen. But this is all merely historical. No music of any value can be written on a purely political basis, as some of the moderns in Russia and Germany would have us believe. Nor would I ever compose a single bar for esthetic reasons in order to try to create a new style. I write to express human emotions, solely. If music is really human, it doesn’t matter to me how it is conveyed.”
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Mr. Weill went on to say that he supposed he could be called, as he was called before his expulsion from Germany, a “Kultur-Bolshevist.” To express human emotions “I demand a certain freedom. If you find Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ political, because it deals with a struggle against injustice, then my music is political, too. But I don’t know. I sympathize with the ideas in vogue in Russia and America. I like the development of thought going on in both countries. Yet I am not in the slightest interested in communism as a political creed. What appeals to me most is the idea of brotherhood as set forth in the works of Tolstoy.”
Mr. Weill’s attention was brought to certain ghastly pictures of men hanging from lamp posts and the like, which had been used to attract the notice of the public to his opera, ‘Mahagonny,’ when it was first given in Baden-Baden in 1927. Asked if these hair-raisers had any sardonic implication he said: “I am not sardonic in the least. The ‘Mahagonny’ of 1927 was a mere sketch, differing completely from the opera of the same name, given its première at Leipzig in 1930. The early sketch reflected the effects of the horrors of war, which we had witnessed, and which we wanted to throw off in a cynical manner. That was only a passing phase. This first Mahagonny was merely an attempt to invent a new style for use in the larger work, in which the atrocities referred to were eliminated. Bert Brecht, the librettist of ‘Mahagonny,’ and I had a moral idea as the background of that opera, namely, that a city given over to pleasure must perish, which is hardly sardonic.”
Mr. Weill remarked that from his earliest days as a composer he was radically inclined. With the exception of three or four lessons he had with Humperdinck, which brought forth music of a conventional nature, he had kept free of tradition. All he knows about composition he feels that he learned from his principal teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, from whom he imbibed the fundamental principle of simplicity. Yet Mr. Weill claims that he did not find his own style until he began to write for the theatre. Then his method changed fundamentally, due to the demands of the stage. It has become, he feels, altogether a style for, and of, that realm.