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Musical Modernist

by David Ewen

Source: Cue, vol. 5, no. 13, January 23, 1937, pp. 6-7, 44-45

“Music by Kurt Weill”
-Program, Johnny Johnson

Music by Kurt Weill”
-Program, The Eternal Road

Kurt Weill, aged 20, still musically wet behind the ears, was made director of the Ludenscheid Opera House in Germany. That was in 1920. He conducted operas and waved his baton until he realized how little he really knew about music and how much more he wanted to know. He returned to study theory, harmony and composition under the great Busoni.

There was the true musical spirit. Weill, as the son of a synagogue cantor and modest composer, had been raised in a home where music was a part of his every-day life. From the time he first toddled around he dabbled in music. After numerous juvenile efforts he began to compose serious pieces at fourteen, studied in the Berlin Hochschule under renowned Professors Humperdinck (“Hansel and Gretel”) and Krasselt, and became quite restless with the stodginess of much of the world’s music library.

Young Kurt became, so his enemies insisted, quite impudent. His music was impertinent, satirical, provocative. He became vastly annoyed with the nostalgic, sedative type of much of the current symphonic and theatrical music and was impatient to do something about it. When he finally did do something, yells of anguish and chortles of delight arose from the critics and populace respectively.

That has been the general reaction since. “Music by Kurt Weill” has come to mean that either you’ll like it immensely or you’ll hate it–but whichever way your taste lies, you’ll be bound to talk about this lively, novel, quite controversial music.

“The Eternal Road” and “Johnny Johnson” are cases in point. The music of these two plays is poles apart: one is spiritual, the other sensual; one poetic, drenched with mysticism, the other roguishly satirical, generously spiced with the lively condiments of a whippy jazz technique.

That two such diametrically opposite musical expressions should have been produced by the same composer proves an almost phenomenal versatility of style. Weill is quite as much at home in symphonic music as in the opera; he roams as freely and gracefully in strict classicism as in jazz. He can produce a complex orchestral work, a titillating song-hit or a lyrically beautiful aria with equal ease.

[page 7] Kurt Weill, personally, is a strange combination of shyness, diffidence, and fiery gestures. An inherent simplicity of character and gentle modesty make him shrink from public attention. He is an astoundingly difficult man to interview. He answers questions in monosyllables, and looks at you with a bookish naivete intensified by ingenuousness and aggravated by scholarly eyeglasses.

You wonder how this bookish-looking person can conceive of jingling syncopations and mounting crescendos of heroic music in one score–you try to imagine how he could write the ineffably lovely arias of the Ruth and Naomi scene in “The Eternal Road” and in the same score the transcendentally powerful massive chorals [sic] of the heavenly hosts and the marching legions of Jewish exiles.

Weill’s explanation lies in what he terms “Zeitkunst,” which colloquially, we might call “timeliness.” Art, says Weill, should be contemporary in theme and in appeal. Its roots should be embedded in modern subjects, it must be the expression of the “modern” spirit. And so, before doing a line on “The Eternal Road,” Weill submerged himself in the chanting beauty of the ancient Hebrew melodies. He hunted out old libraries and synagogues, dug among musty books and tattered chassidic scripts to uncover the traditional melodies of Biblical times. These he absorbed; and then, with a deep-rooted impression of the ancient songs in his mind, he wrote the score for “The Eternal Road,” to accompany Franz Werfel’s words.

“It was our common task,” says Weill, “to bind speech and music together into perfect fusion. I sought to make the musical score an integral part of the action. I wished to extend the movement of a word and its operation so that the values of speech might find their complement in the values of the music.”

That is Weill’s basic feeling about theater music. “It must always be integral with the action. In ‘The Eternal Road,’ for example, you will notice that the singing is not of the so-called opera type. The actor–whenever he sings–sings with his natural voice. He sings with the voice he would use to give speech its highest intensity.”

There, perhaps, is the cleavage between the classical opera and Weill’s idea of modern opera–the difference between “singing with one’s natural voice,” and “singing in traditional operatic style.” This tendency toward “natural voice” is another expression of Weill’s Zeitkunst conception of music in the theatre. The posturing and exaggerated manners of past centuries seem absurdly false to us today–and the music, he insists, should certainly indicate this fact. Otherwise it would be anachronistic.

[page 44] Kurt Weill’s whole training seems to have been toward this end. Raised as a boy in the rigid classicism of the synagogue cantor school, wherein stylization reaches its most inflexible standard, the boy inevitably rebelled toward the other extreme–that of modernism which extols a lively technique as opposed to the slow, sedate, minor-key cadences of the traditional themes.

After his years in school, his experience in the Ludenscheid Opera House, his studies with Busoni, Weill went in for serious composition. His first real effort was an orchestral work, serious in its idiom and profoundly artistic in its development. He called it “Fantasy, Passacaglia and Fugue,” and it was well received by the critics. We may, therefore, accept the idea that when Weill later on arrived at the expression of his jazz conceptions in symphonic forms it was not from an ignorance of the classic forms, but from a powerful esthetic philosophy–his Zeitkunst idea.

The Weillian impatience now asserted itself. Together with the radical and gifted German poet, Bert Brecht, Weill produced a series of operatic works in a jazz vein. They were “unorthodox in treatment, as fresh and vigorous as tomorrow’s newspaper.” The young composer’s impudent and pungent music instantly aroused a storm of controversy, much of it vicious and acrimonious. It seems that, when it comes to discussing movements in art, nice language is laid aside. Weill was reviled and vilified by his enemies, extravagantly praised and acclaimed by his friends.

The first of these was “The Protagonist,” and then, in rapid succession, “Three-Penny Opera,” “The Czar Allows His Picture to Be Taken,” “The Yes-Man,” and “The Royal Palace.” This last was typical of Weill’s unorthodox methods. The opera ran for less than an hour, but required 38 scenes. The orchestral score was interrupted by honking automobile horns, flickering motion pictures, and the raucous syncopations of a blaring jazz band.

Kurt Weill explains why: “The composition is an illustration of the effect of modern jazz upon opera. I didn’t sit down to write jazz for its own sake, but rather opera for its own sake. In doing so, I naturally found myself running into jazz as an expression of our time.” There you have the Zeitkunst again–“as an expression of our time.”

“The Three-Penny Opera” was a “modern” version of John Gay’s classic “The Beggar’s Opera.” It offended many people who reveled lightly in the pleasant music of Gay’s original [page 45]–but seems to have struck the popular fancy of 1927. It played 600 performances in Berlin alone. “The Protagonist” played in 40 cities in Germany, “The Czar Allows His Photograph to be Taken” played in 80 German opera houses. “Mahogany [sic],” one of Weill’s most famous operas, was revised in 1930 and met with smashing success.

It was a strange opera. Introduced in Leipzig, it developed a fantastic story libretto that traced the adventures of three jail-birds in America. Among the very strange things they found in the land of the Indians and Drug Store Cowboys was a Utopian town whose laws and ways of life were based upon the civil liberties of wine and women. The performances of this opera were interrupted daily by a conflict of noises so many people came to take sides and express their approbation by cheers, or their sizzling disapproval by hissing and yelling.

Weill had several “flops,” too, he confesses. He doesn’t mind these failures for each one taught him something. “The Royal Palace” was not successful; neither did “Happy Ending,” a musical comedy, run long, though many of its songs were individual hits. And there have been other minor efforts.

With the advent of the Hitler government Weill had to flee the country. He went to England, and then was invited to come to America to do several theatrical music scores. The Group Theater asked him to do Johnny Johnson [sic] and Max Reinhardt asked him to score “The Eternal Road.”

The music of “Johnny Johnson” is a perfect expression of Weill’s Zeitkunst idea, with its combination of musical malice and sentiment, bluster and poignancy, poetry and banality, moving melody and vitriolic rhythms. It revealed to America that here was a composer born for the theater. It explains what Weill means when he says that the theater is a blend of illusion and realism, fantasy and fact and that it is the duty of the composer to embody this seeming contradiction in his scores.

Weill’s sense of theater is so deeply ingrained that when he does compose music for a production it is not superimposed upon the dramatic structure, but seems to evolve logically and inevitably from the texture of the play.

The music of “The Eternal Road” is, in a sense, a digression from Weill’s Zeitkunst, and a radical departure from anything he has written to date.

Not even in his serious symphonic works has he attempted such an expression of poetry and eloquence. With unerring theatrical instinct he adapted himself to the Biblical theme of the Franz Werfel drama. Discarding his former jazz style, he emerges in this as a completely new musical personality.

You might expect, in view of Weill’s past performances, that there would be a stiffness and uncertainty in this music. But there is nothing of the sort. The theater is so much a part of the man that, in saturating himself with the theme of this enormous and impressive “morality play,” he produced music completely in character with its spiritual subject. Yet that music is inextricably interwoven with the contemporary and accompanying dramatic theme of the present plight of the Eastern European Jews as depicted in the stage synagogue against the sky-high background of the legendary figures out of the Old Testament.

Some of the musical moments in “The Eternal Road” will linger with its audiences as long as many of Max Reinhardt’s amazing tableaux. The Egyptian song of Miriam in Pharaoh’s Egypt is as fragile and tenuous as precious chinaware. The ethereal spirituality of the music (for chorus and solo violin) that accompanies Moses’ receipt of the Tablets on Mt. Sinai, the corybantic frenzy of the worship of the Golden Calf, the serene and pastorale [sic] voicing of flutes and oboe in the Ruth and Naomi scene–all these are pages that have been born out of a poetical imagination and a sensitive emotion.

In abandoning the fluttering banner of his Zeitkunst for the compositional magnificence of the score of “The Eternal Road,” Kurt Weill has surely produced his profoundest musical expression–an expression that possesses the deathlessness of things too beautiful to die.

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