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True Amalgamation Takes Place in Theatre

[by Kurt] Weill

Source: Musical America, February 1947, p. 8, 346

Note: This article was presented as part of a symposium titled, “The Arts–Sisters or Strangers?” with contributions from Frank Lloyd Wright, Benjamin Zorach, Roy Harris, Thomas Hart Benton, and others.

The arts are related to each other through their usefulness to mankind, just as the work of a carpenter is related to the work of a shoemaker because both are useful to people–except that the usefulness of the arts is on a much higher plane. In music, painting and poetry the human mind has created the highest sublimation of those qualities by which the human race rises above the animal kingdom–its ability to speak, to sing, to think and to form images. In the arts, the human race makes its claim to eternity, because the eternal search for the secret of the “great beyond” which is inherent in the human race, finds its fulfillment in the imagination of the creative artist. Beethoven and Michelangelo have reached deeper into the universe than the rocketship [sic] ever will do. It is mainly in the functional capacity that the arts are related to each other.

Every work of art, every piece of music, of poetry, of architecture is complete in itself, has its own function, its own form of relationship between its creator and those for whom it has been created. Therefore, there is actually no common denominator to establish [p. 346] a real relationship between works of art in different categories. If we are trying, for instance, to find a relationship between a painting and a symphony, we would have to find first a more or less exact “meaning” both in the painting and in the symphony and then try to relate these two meanings to each other. But the purer a work of art is, the more difficult is it to determine its meaning. This is especially true of music which is as elusive as the water in a brook, if you try to put into words what “ideas” the composer was trying to express in his music. By the same token, the real value of Van Gogh’s painting of the chair with the pipe is not to be found in the objects he uses, but in the artistry of composition and color-scheme, in the personality which expresses itself through the painting of those objects. It would be rather superficial to say that a certain landscape painting reminds me of Beethoven’s Pastorale, just because it shows scenes of country life similar to those which Beethoven put down in his famous program notes to the Sixth Symphony. For those program notes can only indicate a certain phase in the creative process of this symphony, a sort of spring board [sic] for the imagination of the composer or, maybe, his own comment on his music. But once his imagination has become “music”, it is far beyond any literary description.

Each Art Work an Entity

The closest we can get to a sort of relationship between a painting and a piece of music is to determine a certain resemblance in character. We can say, for example, that we discover in Mozart’s music the same kind of serenity which enchants us in Raphael’s paintings. But even that would not add anything to the stature of either Mozart or Raphael, nor to our understanding of the beauty of their work. I know that some painters like to listen to music while they are working. Obviously, they use music as a sort of stimulant, and a good highball would probably do the same service. A poet may be inspired by a certain painting, but the poem which results from this inspiration, has a life of its own, and the better a poem it is, the easier can we forget the source it came from. Richard Strauss wrote on top of his Don Juan Symphony the words of a poem–yet, if we would ignore the poem, or even the title, it still would be a very effective piece of orchestral music. Even if we find in certain cases that the arts can influence each other in the course of the creative process, this relationship does not exist for those who are supposed to enjoy the finished product. Listening to music or looking at a painting or an architecture [sic], demands so much concentration on the part of the listener or the viewer, that any attempt to present a painting together with a piece of music is bound to fail.

Only when artists of different fields set out to combine their efforts in the creation of a “mixed” art form, can we speak of an active relationship between the arts. This true amalgamation of the arts takes place in the theatre. In its earliest origins the theatre was a combination of three arts: poetry, music and dance. In its later development it included architecture and painting. The art of creating for the theatre has become the art of balancing these different elements. Even the simplest form of theatre, the realistic play, as we know it today, represents a mixture of graphic and interpretative arts; it embraces the art of literature and the art of dramatic construction, and it needs the help of the graphic artist to present it to the audience for which it is written. But it is mainly in the field of the musical theatre that we find a great variety of different mixtures of the same basic elements. The problem of relating the arts to each other has been worked out in many different ways through the history of the theatre. Sometimes, as in the Shakespearean drama, the music becomes the servant of the drama. Sometimes, as in grand opera, the word is subordinated to the music, and in some cases, as in Mendelssohn’s music for the Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Verdi’s Shakespeare-operas, in the collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, we find a perfect match of creative artists in different fields. In addition to this relationship between word and music and dramatic action, the theatre has developed the art of stage designing as an important branch of the graphic arts. The really creative stage designer does not limit himself to providing a realistic background for the action, but his design makes its own comment on the play and becomes an integral part of the theatrical art form. At the same time, the dance has become a theatrical art form of its own, and in a way the modern ballet is the purest art form which the theatre has developed because it establishes the freest relationship between music, drama, dance, painting and sometimes poetry, each of them being able to appear to its fullest advantage without doing harm to the others. It is no accident that almost all great painters and musicians of our century have, at some time or another, worked in this field.

The theatre has been called a “bastard art”. I think it can be proud of this name because by the very fact that it is a “mixture” it has become the only art form which creates a real relationship between the arts.

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