Skip To Content

“Street Scene” Technique from Verdi, Says Composer Weill

by Harriett Johnson

Source: New York Post, January 24, 1947, pp. 45, 47

“Whatever I have done has led me to this–purposely.” That’s the way Kurt Weill feels about the musical score he has composed for “Street Scene,” currently in the hit class at the Adelphi.

“For 10 years I’ve been experimenting; but from the very beginning, first by instinct and later by experience, I knew a different idea of opera could only come from one place–Broadway–it’s the only true American Theatre.”

Mr. Weill, who is short, bald-headed and convivial, enjoys talking about anything, including his past Broadway failures and his composing technique. Recently in the 38th St. office of The Playwrights’ Company, producers of the musical, he spoke articulately concerning what brought him to produce the kind of unconventional score which “Street Scene” obviously is.

“After I did ‘Johnny Johnson,’ my first American show,” (produced by the Group Theatre in 1936,) “I fell in love with American audiences, especially those who come to see Broadway shows. They’re so flexible. I was amazed at how fast they could switch moods with me. Much faster than a European audience.

“Then I was surprised at the abundance of American talent. From these two observations I saw–even if dimly–the possibilities of American opera. I plunged in. From then on, in every show I tried to come nearer to my goal. In ‘Lady in the Dark’ I had four different complete musical sequences–really four little operas only nobody knew it. For ‘One Touch of Venus’ I wrote ballet music. In ‘Firebrand of Florence’ I did my most integrated score before ‘Street Scene.'”

‘Symphonic Poem of New York’

For the past 18 months he has been working in the midst of solitude on his farm at New City, New York, where Maxwell Anderson is his next door neighbor, on the music for the Elmer Rice play, which he calls “A Symphonic Poem of New York.” [“]Elmer and I decided on the popular song as the truest musical idiom of New York. But at the same time, ‘Street Scene’ is a mixture of all kinds of styles just as New York is. All you have to do is look out from that window to prove it,” and he pointed to the heterogeneous mixture of skyscrapers, tenements, churches, delicatessen stores and apartment houses which were suffusing into a mass as night approached.

Weill describes his musical technique as “fluid” and “integrated.” “The emotional climaxes of the drama have been pointed up–highlighted–through music. The connecting portions are linked by: 1. dialogue without any musical accompaniment; 2. spoken dialogue underscored by “mood” music; 3. punctuated dialogue, also accompanied, which is spoken but rhythmically accented as if it were being sung.

“I learned the technique of [page 47] pointing up climaxes from Verdi. I’ve made a thorough study of the operas Verdi wrote to Shakespeare’s plays and compared the books to the original Shakespeare. In every case, Verdi eliminates a lot of detail but highlights the climaxes. Music can bridge from one mood to another much more quickly than the spoken word alone. Elmer agreed with me completely on the approach.

“But American music drama must have some spoken dialogue,” he added quickly. “Nobody is going to want to hear ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee,’ sung.”

At the moment, the composer is a mixture of emotions, just like his play. He’s delighted with his success but now wants more “long-hair” composers to write for Broadway. [“]I feel we’ve got something now which is like “Carmen Jones” or “Song of Norway” but done with contemporary music. I don’t want it to die. I want to do another myself. ‘Street Scene’ is the fulfillment of a dream but at the same time it’s just the beginning. I’m already thinking about my next one; in fact, what’s happened has me all hot.”

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.