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Protagonist of Music in the Theatre


Source: The American Hebrew, January 8, 1937, pp. 756-757, 760

Music in the theatre has fairly automatic associations for most of us: we think of opera, accompaniment to the dance, and musical comedy or the revue. That music was once an intrinsic feature of drama is something we know only in vague recollection from textbooks; it seems a classical and outmoded notion.

But Kurt Weill is convinced that it is nothing of the sort–and he has been convinced for many years and in many lands. It is not merely to enrich a play with decorative images or backgrounds that he believes in theatre music; it is that music strikes him as indispensable for the highest effects in the imaginative theatre which he sees slowly but steadily replacing the naturalistic theatre we have known for fifty years now. Weill is the composer of the score of Johnny Johnson, Paul Green’s play which the Group Theatre is presenting at the 44th Street Theatre.

Following the pleasant precedent of Mozart, the boy Kurt began the study of the piano at the age of 8 in Dessau (Germany) and composing operas at the age of 12. He had no formal training in composition, but this little technicality failed to bother him at all. However, when he had arrived at the ripe age of 17, not only lack of training but the lack of excitement in his native city made him take off to Berlin, where he enrolled at the Music Academy to study with Humperdinck. This distinguished teacher died only a half year later so that our hero’s reason for coming to the big city was gone.

Knowing no one to study with, the precocious young man felt that actual musical work was the surest basis of [page 757] growth. He went out to the provinces of Westphalia and began to conduct. He counts this period the most important in his life because it represented a specific, theatrical participation and training as distinguished from deadly abstract study. For there was no choice there: it was imperative for him, as director of the operatic and musical presentations, to leap in at any demand and coach an unprepared singer, direct the scenes of pure acting, insert a special musical section, orchestrate music toward new effects–and, of course, function as conductor of the entire proceedings. It was an arduous time, but Weill recommends it urgently as a background for a theatre musician.

When Busoni arrived in Berlin in the early ’20’s, all his young idolaters flocked there for study.

And Weill was among them. He studied until 1924, composing all the time: symphonies, chamber music, etc., all in the highly complicated style which was the mode of the day. It was when a Russian company visiting Berlin assigned him to do a children’s ballet for them that Weill’s style finally and permanently reverted to the simple and direct theatre values which he had originally cherished.

The first composition directly for the theatre was done with Georg Kaiser, the distinguished dramatist; it was called The Protagonist and produced by the Dresden State Opera in 1926. The Berlin State Opera heard of this and its success and promptly commissioned Weill to write another with Ivan Goll, called Royal Palace. When this failed, he went to work with Kaiser again, and produced an opera called The Tsar Has Himself Photographed. This was performed in eighty theatres throughout Germany and was an extraordinary success. In the fall of the same year, he and Bert Brecht produced “The Threepenny Opera” of world fame. It was presented in nearly every capital.

By now Brecht and Weill were a team. Although their second musical play, Happy End failed to run, Mahagonny, the next one, did very well. The musical play was thoroughly accepted throughout Europe, although Weill remained the only composer who practised it consistently and unpatronizingly. Jasager came next as a tragic opera for children and was presented by the German Government in over five hundred schools.

In 1932 the famous team broke up because Brecht had grown deeply involved in political activity. Weill now wrote with Caspar Neher; the result was Die Bürgschaft for the Municipal Opera in Berlin. This was a definite hit and the last one Weill was to know in Germany. For when he wrote with Kaiser again and produced a play called The Silver Lake which opened in eleven cities simultaneously, a high ferment was in the air which resolved itself the very next morning: the production was finally banned for its daring and outspokenness. It was never shown again. Very shortly after in March 1933, Weill was one of many Germans who left his country for good. The new regime had no use for imagination or honesty on the stage.

He arrived in Paris, where all good refugees go. As if he had never flourished anywhere else, Weill immediately set to work to write a ballet for Tilly Losch called The Seven Deadly Sins. He then sought out Jacques Deval (author of our own “Tovarich”) and wrote a musical play with him called Marie Galante. This was always Weill’s procedure–to seek out the most original and experimental playwrights he knew and persuade them of the contribution music could make toward enriching dramatic texts.

Having taken Paris, he proceeded to London, where he wrote “A Kingdom for a Cow” with Vambery. London couldn’t learn to care–so when Max Reinhardt was about to leave for America to prepare the Eternal Road, Weill came along as composer.

In The Eternal Road, which opened in New York last Monday, a single idea has motivated both Max Reinhardt, director, and Kurt Weill, composer, in their approach to the theatre, although each approached the problem from opposite ends. Both sought a perfect fusion of music and drama, neither superseded by the other, together forming a harmonious stage piece. Reinhardt wanted actors who could sing; Weill wanted singers who could act.

Their collaboration in the production of Franz Werfel’s Biblical play should leave no doubts on that score. The actors have singing voices. The singers are capable of more than grandiloquent gesturing.

From the very beginning, Kurt Weill found the idea of composing a score for a play based on the Old Testament one that appealed to him. When Reinhardt first presented the idea to him, Weill composed a melody that he thought would express the swan song of Moses, denied entree to the Promised Land. This took place in Weill’s home, formerly the guest house of Madame Du Barry’s magnificent chateau in Louveciennes, just outside of Paris. Seven months later, Weill met Reinhardt and Werfel in Venice. The Austrian dramatist had written the scene for Moses in his home in Vienna. Both, inspired two thousand miles apart–words and music–matched to perfection the first time they were tried.

“Our task,” said Mr. Weill, “was to bind speech and music into perfect fusion, to have the score an integral part of the play, so that the action would be more perfectly communicated and dramatically heightened by the power of the music.

“I set to work in the fall of 1934, putting to paper all the Hebraic melodies I had learned from childhood. I had an abundance of material. For my father who is a cantor and composer, had set great store upon my learning this heritage. In several days’ memory seeking, I had written about two hundred songs, and then I began work at the Bibliotheque Nationale to trace their sources as far as possible. Many I discovered had been composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some borrowed from the most surprising sources, from opera, ‘hit-songs’ of the time, street tunes, concert music, and symphonies. Those I dismissed, retaining only the old music, and with that as my guide, I attempted to create music of the same mood that would communicate naturally and inevitably the stories of the Old Testament.

“The music is always integral with the action. It is not singing in the sense of opera. The actor, whenever he sings, sings with his natural voice, the voice he would use to give speech its highest intensity.

“In general I have found that actors in The Eternal Road, as well as the Group Theatre in Johnny Johnson, are astonishingly musical, and that one can impose greater musical difficulties upon them than any one can imagine. At all times we have tried to achieve the perfect balance between the acting and singing.”

In addition to his dramatic music, Weill has written instrumental works, the most famous of which is a cantata for solo, chorus, and orchestra called “Lindbergh’s Flight,” written in collaboration with Hindemith especially for broadcasting. Recomposed without the aid of Hindemith, “Lindbergh’s Flight” was broadcast in this country by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Commenting on his own work, Kurt Weill said: “The musical theatre is predominantly epic in character. The role played by music is not that of drawing out the inner action, knit- [page 760] ting together transitional phases, bringing out events and causing passions to flare high; rather does it go its own way chiming in at static moments of the action. This is possible only with an epic-narrative form of action which makes the course of events on the stage perfectly clear to the audience, so that the music framed in this quiet development, can retain its concertistic character and achieve its purely musical effect in undisturbed harmony. Not to interpret musically the objectively presented course of the action, but to let this action run parallel to an equally objective flow of music–that is the inner sense of the new musical theatre.

“It is from this standpoint that we must view the union of plot and music in The Eternal Road. For the musician it represents, formally speaking, a combination of elements of the drama, the opera and the dramatic oratorio, united organically because in a manner artistically inevitable, yet with the uniqueness of the effect of each component remaining unimpaired in the whole.”

He gravitated toward the Group Theatre almost by instinct; here, he felt, were people who would feel as he did about the inadequacy of naturalism in the theatre and the importance of restoring music to its rightful place in the drama. He was right. The Group directors immediately escorted him down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Paul Green was teaching at the University. This was in May. They have worked steadily ever since and Johnny Johnson is the first effort in America of a basic fusion of drama and music in the legitimate theater.

Kurt Weill is not here on a visit as he was in Paris and London; he is here to stay, since he is convinced that the important popular experiments he began in Germany can achieve completion in this country more readily than anywhere else in the world.

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