Kurt Weill Makes “Correcting Remarks” about His Opera’s Inception
Source: New York Times, From the Mail Pouch, June 5, 1949
To the Music Editor:
May I be permitted to make some correcting remarks on the subject of H. W. Heinsheimer’s article about my opera, “Down In the Valley,” which appeared in your issue of last Sunday?
It seems to me that the story of how I came to write this folk opera would not be complete without mentioning facts connected with the early origin of this piece.
In 1945 Olin Downes acquainted me with his concept of finding a new artistic form through which American composers might evolve a native art by the utilization for dramatic purposes of American folksong. He had been approached by Charles McArthur, a business man of exceptionally thoughtful and idealistic aims, who had asked him whether he thought he could build a series of musical plays around folk tunes for radio programs.
My friend Morris Stonzek brought Mr. Downes and myself together after he had discussed this project with a number of composers. I outlined to Mr. Downes a procedure by which I believed his purpose could be fulfilled.
I suggested as a basic form for this radio program a weekly dramatization of a specific folksong and this formula was accepted. The question was then to find a poet who would be receptive to our conception and who could provide us with a dramatic text. Weeks passed by in this search and finally Arnold Sundgaard, a fine, young playwright and expert in American folklore, appeared with a story idea which he had found in the verses of “Down in the Valley,” and to which I felt immediately that I could make music.
Once Sundgaard and I had established our form, we went to work and in a few weeks had finished the piece.
We then cast the opera and made what in radio circles is known as an audition, a recording of which, in turn, was submitted to prospective sponsors. We found these sponsors frightened by the idea that they might be accused of submitting an opera to the public. It seemed that our project for radio advertisers was somewhat ahead of its time.
About a year later a friend of mine who is dean of a Midwestern university asked me if I knew of a dramatic work to be performed in his school. I remembered the wonderful experience I had had with a school opera which I wrote in Europe years ago, and it occurred to me that the piece we had written for Mr. Downes’ radio program would be readily adaptable for an American school opera.
So Sundgaard and I went to work again. We changed the original radio piece into a musico-dramatic form, about twice as long as the original, with new scenes, new lyrics and new music, and a brand-new orchestration for the special requirements of school orchestras. This is the folk opera, “Down in the Valley,” as it was first performed at Indiana University last summer.
New City, N.Y.