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Composer for the Theater

Kurt Weill Talks About 'Practical Music.'

by William G. King

Source: New York Sun, February 3, 1940

The soft-spoken, gentle-faced Kurt Weill, whom the German Nazis branded a "Kultur-bolshevist" and exiled seven years ago, settled his small frame in one of the Lotos Club's bigger chairs, and got his pipe going smoothly.

"I want to use whatever gifts I have for practical purposes," he said, "not waste them on things which have no life, or which have to be kept alive by artificial means. That's why I'm in the theater--the commercial theater. I wrote ten operas in Germany. Several of them were very popular. But I got tired of composing for so limited an audience, limited not only numerically, but emotionally and intellectually. I wanted to reach the real people, a more representative public than any opera house attracts. So I've made that theater, which exists without benefit of subsidy, my life work."

He paused to puff a while.

"You hear a lot of talk about the 'American opera' that's going to come along some day. It's my opinion that we can and will develop a musical-dramatic form in this country, but I don't think it will be called 'opera,' or that it will grow out of the opera which has become a thing separate from the commercial theater, dependent upon other means than box-office appeal for its continuance. It will develop from and remain a part of the American theater--'Broadway' theater, if you like. More than anything else, I want to have a part in that development."

Some time ago, he interested Maxwell Anderson, the playwright, in his idea of a "musical theater," and the delightful "Knickerbocker Holiday" resulted. They've just finished another show, "Ulysses Africanus," based on a Harry Stillwell Edward[s] short-story, which probably will reach Broadway next season. Meanwhile, they've been "trying to work out a musical-dramatic form for the radio." Their first experiment along this line will be heard late tomorrow afternoon on the "Pursuit of Happiness" program.

'Ballad History'

They call it a "ballad history," and it deals with the wresting of Magna Carta from King John of England.

"It's a ballad like the old Scottish ones, set to music," he said, "but between the stanzas there are prose passages, sometimes spoken, sometimes in recitative. Even the spoken parts, though, are in rhythm, so that the whole thing has a definite pattern.

"If it goes well, we'd like to do a whole series of these ballads, one about the Boston Tea Party, another about the Emancipation Proclamation, and so on. I think we've worked out a very interesting form. Radio has limitations, of course, but it also has possibilities offered by no other medium. We've tried to make the most of them."

It isn't the first time, of course, that the enterprising Mr. Weill has experimented with radio music. Back in 1929 he composed a cantata called "Lindbergh's Flight," to a poem by Bertolt Brecht, which was especially designed for broadcast performance. That and another work to a Brecht libretto, "Dreigroschenoper," based on John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera," were chiefly responsible for bringing Weill international recognition as one of the outstanding German composers of the post-war period.

From the very beginning of his career he has held to the belief that he should compose with his prospective audiences in mind, that he should deliberately write "for the listeners." In this, he stood with his slightly older compatriot, Paul Hindemith, and the Germans invented the term Gebrauchsmusik, "music for practical purposes," or "workaday music," to describe their efforts.

"I'm convinced that many modern composers have a feeling of superiority toward their audiences," said Mr. Weill. "Schoenberg, for example, has said he is writing for a time fifty years after his death. But the great 'classic' composers wrote for their contemporary audiences. They wanted those who heard their music to understand it, and they did. As for myself, I write for today. I don't give a damn about writing for posterity.

"And I do not feel that I compromise my integrity as a musician by working for the theater, the radio, the motion pictures or any other medium which can reach the public which wants to listen to music. I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' music and 'light' music. There is only good music and bad music."

Composer's Credo

Weill has been labeled an ultra-modernist because he has not hesitated to use unorthodox instruments and any other means at his disposal to convey his thought or emotion to the listener.

"After all," he declared, "music can only express human sentiments. I'd never write a single measure for purely aesthetic reasons, in an effort to create a new style. I write only to express human emotions. If music is really human, it doesn't make much difference how it is conveyed. And as long as it is able to reach its audience emotionally, its creator should not worry about its possible sentimentality or banality. In that connection, I remember a remark of old Busoni's.

"'DonĂ­t be afraid of banality,' he told me. 'After all, there are only twelve tones in the scale!'"

As for the work of the creators of "systems" and "methods" of composing, Weill says he is "very much interested in mathematics and puzzles--but not as a musician."

Since he settled in the United States five years ago--he expects to receive his final citizenship papers shortly--Weill has earned an enviable place in his chosen field. He's had a fling at the motion pictures, and, among his more important contributions to the "musical theater," in addition to those already mentioned, are scores for the plays "Johnny Johnson" and "The Eternal Road"; the extremely effective music for the World's Fair "Railroads on Parade," and some music for novachord which is a part of the new Elmer Rice show, "Two On An Island."

Weill will be 40 years old next month. A native of Dessau, Germany, he began to compose at a very early age, showing such talent that his first music teacher, Albert Bing, urged him to make composition his career. At the age of eighteen, Weill entered the Berlin Hochschule, where his masters were Humperdinck and Krasselt. He had been there only a semester when he accepted the directorship of the Luedenscheid Opera House. A year later, however, he returned to Berlin to complete his composition studies under Busoni.

His first major work, dated 1923, was a Fantasy, Passacaglia and Hymn for orchestra, but he soon turned to opera, and in the next decade composed and had produced "The Protagonist," "Mahogany" [sic], "The Threepenny Opera," "The Czar Photographs Himself," "The Man Who Says Yes," "The Royal Palace," "Seven Cardinal Sins" [sic], "Marie Galante" and "A Kingdom for a Cow." He also found time to write a number of orchestral, chamber music and choral works. In 1933, when the Hitlerites decided he was a "Kultur-bolshevist," he moved to France, and eventually to the United States.

He and his wife, the actress Lotta [sic] Lenya, have a farm near Suffern, N. Y., not far from the Anderson place at New City. They live in an old house, which they've remodeled, and Weill says he feels that he "belongs" there. He never thinks of himself as other than an "American" composer now.