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National Music, Opera and the Movies

An Interview with Kurt Weill

Source: Pacific Coast Musician, vol. XXVI, no. 13 (July 3, 1937), pp. 12-13

Appearances are apt to be misleading. This applies to the indolent, wearily-amused looking Mr. Kurt Weill. This young German composer seems to be absent-minded. Quite often there is that vacant stare of the day-dreamer on his face. It is an almost boyish face and only the circumstance of a "very high forehead" makes his claim of a recent 37th birthday sound plausible. Very soon, however, one realizes that it must have been taken a good deal of that challenge and frankness and determination (shown gently, yet unmistakably, in conversation), which made it possible for Weill to remain the musical enfant terrible No. 1, from 1929 to 1933 in a Germany becoming dangerously intolerant.

Even his modesty and self-criticism is marked by a definiteness bordering on finality. This quality was displayed as certain orchestra programs were discussed. The suggestion was made that Weill conduct his own symphony or the Quodlibet for full orchestra. He would decline the honor: "I will not conduct. Thank you, very much! but I am not a good conductor. Besides my music is difficult and requires a very good one, especially if rehearsal time is limited."

Realizing the limitations of his batonic ability, Weill turned definitely to composition about 14 years ago. Born in Dessau, that art and opera-famous little Central German city where resided the beauty-loving Dukes of Anhalt, he obtained his first post there as assistant conductor. "A few years in various German opera houses," he said, "convinced me that my metier was the writing, not the conducting, of opera. Moreover, I had been encouraged in this change by Humperdinck, my former composition teacher at the Berlin Hochschule, who recommended me to Ferruccio Busoni." Busoni, who, also, had done with conventional opera, was driven by an inner, artistic curiosity to an unceasing quest for a new tonal medium.

"The years with Busoni," ventured the young composer, "were among my happiest. He was a great teacher. He had a vision of the changing social order. He foresaw the enormous musical possibilities of the film as the vehicle of a new form of tone-drama. As a result, I employed the screen in 1929 to connect various episodes in my music-drama, 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.'"

Weill has a surprising number of operatic successes to his credit, considering the few years which were his in the Fatherland. There is his modernized version of "The Beggar's Opera[,]" "Mahagonny" (which led to brawls in German opera houses when bravo-shouters and latchkey-virtuosi settled their differences with fisticuffs); "The Pledge," an opera of grim realism, and the satirical, "The Tsar is Being Photographed." These found general acclaim. "I believe more than ever that opera, if it is to be significant from any other than a purely musical standpoint, must have a social message," Mr. Weill commented. "By 'social' I do not mean 'propaganda' in the manner employed to artistic disadvantage suffered by those Soviet composers who until the last year or two had to make their librettos subservient to a definite anti-bourgeois program. I feel that opera can be romantic, emotionally intense and still reflect on certain faults of our social relationships. One need not philosophize and symbolize as Wagner did, but opera must be thought in terms of modern behaviorism and along sound psychological lines."

A reference was made to modern theater and the film. "To put it exactly, opera must be effective theater, which is required also of a good film. I am interested in both, because I am convinced that the future of music depends much on its thought-moulding part in relation to modern society. That is why I am keenly interested in working with Fritz Lang, the director, and Virginia van Upp, on a music-experimental film, 'You and Me,' for Paramount. Music in this screenplay is of such psychological importance that I, as composer, participated in the dramatic version of the script. I am very grateful to Boris Morros who, as head of Paramount music department, exerted his influence to assure me of a co-ordination between visual and musically auditory action. As a result of this inter-relation between scenarist, director and composer, all working from the start toward the same goal, the music will be much more than merely background illustration. Songs will be more than mere emotional climaxes. They will be the result of action and in turn will motivate action. And not all of the action is visible. Music can tell what people imagine, think, what they fear, despise, hate, what they enjoy, and what they love."

Mr. Weill paused, and then after methodically removing the ashes from his pipe and refilling, continued: "The theater originally was a folk-art. Therefore it needed music. It still needs music, espe- [page 13] cially the screen-theater. Topically, the theater as a whole has lost its folk-origin, but as a forum on which public issues are discussed, it once more turns to the people. 'You and Me' has its social message. Music has always been the most popular of artistic expressions.

"The trouble with certain contemporary operas is that musically they have become isolated. One need not write 'down'; one need not write for the 'gallery.' But music must contain a common denominator, emotionally or imaginatively, to appeal widely, even if the technical treatment be original to the point of novelty.

"The difficulty with American film-music, in contrast to that written abroad, is that American producers and directors are afraid that originality, even if mildly modern--that is to say music of the year 1900--might frighten their audiences. Film music need only speak simple, clear, direct language, just as opera must effect once more a union with the theater on the same basis.

"Few singers are good actors. But if I can find good actors or actresses who can sing naturally, then the battle is won. Vocal expression need not be musical [sic] complex. That is why I believe the new musical art-form, a kind of opera, will come out of the movies. Public taste again has turned in favor of the play with music. Take, for instance, the success of Paul Green's 'Johnny Johnson,' for which I wrote music that is far more than incidental, yet is but a narrative tonal background emphasizing the psychological elements in the story and pressing them home on the audience. The presence of music permits the author and director to stress the poetic rather than the realistic element."