Composer, Who Contributed the Score to the Current Musical Comedy, “One Touch of Venus,” Is a Refugee With Fine Record of Achievement
by Warren Storey Smith
Source: Boston Sunday Post, September 26, 1943
One distinctive feature of Kurt Weill’s music for “One Touch of Venus,” which moves this week from the Shubert to the Opera House, might be discovered by the observant playgoer. In the list of credits in the programme there are none for “orchestrations” and “vocal arrangements” or “special ballet music.” Mr. Weill, composer of opera in his native Germany before ever he began devoting his gifts and abilities to the American theatre, wrote every note of the score himself. If we go back to the days of Herbert and De Koven we find that this was a routine procedure, as it still is in Europe. But in this country the orchestration of musical comedy scores has become a highly specialized technique. In New York there are four men, Robert Russell Bennett and Hans Spialek are the only ones who come immediately to mind, who do the whole of this work. Some composers use one, some another; some employ all four.
“It’s hard work,” said Mr. Weill in an interview the other day. “You sleep about two hours a night for the four weeks that it takes, but it’s fun. Not until the rehearsals get under way can you start your orchestrating,” he explained, “since until you know who the singers are going to be you can’t tell what key to put each number in.” He admitted that Wagner didn’t go about it just that way. American musical comedy, however, is different. It is distinctly a tailor-made job. Even Offenbach had a particular soprano in mind for most of his operettas. “She had almost no voice,” said Mr. Weill, “and that accounts for a lot of things in his scores.”
Offenbach and Verdi, by the way, are Mr. Weill’s operatic gods. “They knew the theatre,” he says, “every aspect of it.” Verdi once remarked, with undue modesty, that while he was not a learned composer, he was a very experienced one. Mr. Weill can easily lay claim to being both. He has plenty of serious work to his credit, and he says that he occasionally writes a symphonic piece just to keep his hand in. His greatest European successes, however, the jazzy “Mahagonny” and “Die Dreigroschenoper,” based on “The Beggar’s Opera” of Gay, were both on the lighter side. A Frankfort [sic] performance of “Mahagonny” in 1930 was the occasion of a Nazi demonstration in which stench-bombs were thrown and one Communist was killed by a beer stein.
When Hitler took over, Mr. Weill, persona non grata on several counts, skedaddled. He went first to Paris, which he found dead and sterile, showing plentiful signs of the subsequent decay. Then he made for the United States, and now, along with Hindemith and Korngold, Einstein and Thomas Mann, he figures as one of Der Fuehrer’s gifts to democracy.
To get back to the current Weill orchestration, a smooth, even fascinating job to one whose ears are attuned to such details, the composer lays great stress on the attention he has given to the proper leading of all the voices. The professional orchestrator, he tells you, thinks in chords and merely assigns each instrument or choir a place in the harmony, often with very awkward melodic results, as far as the inner parts are concerned.
The score of “One Touch of Venus,” ably conducted by ex-Metropolitan Maurice Abravanel, has what musicians call texture. It is also an eclectic job beyond most of its kind. In this resourceful tonal background to the clever Perelman-Nash fantasy are all manner of things that nevertheless do not make for incongruity: the popular American idiom; an occasional hint of the Viennese school; suggestions of straight opera, as in the fine ballet music; and even, in the delicious barber shop quartet, the melodic and harmonic innocence of the Gay Nineties.
As for the other novel feature mentioned at the beginning of this article, Mr. Weill, unlike most of his American confreres, wrote his music to the verses. It is generally done the other way around. “When I called Ogden Nash on the telephone–he lives in Baltimore–and asked him if he would write lyrics for me,” said Mr. Weill, “he was silent so long I thought the connection was broken. Then he explained that he had been writing light verse for 15 years and that this was the first time that anyone had ever asked him to do the lyrics for a show.” Those who know Mr. Nash’s work–and who doesn’t?–could hardly imagine him fitting words, Tin-Pan-Alley fashion, to an already existing tune.
With Wagner, who once said that a Strauss waltz was worth a half dozen academic symphonies, Mr. Weill believes that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. He thinks that some of our American symphonic composers give you the impression that they are straining themselves to the utmost. He would rather, “like Mozart, for instance,” create the feeling that he still has something in reserve. He has faith in the American theatre as a channel for real musical progress and development and he has great confidence in the taste and judgment of its public.