1900 — 1950
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Kurt Weill was the most successful theater composer of the Weimar Republic. He played a key role in the development of musical theater forms and Broadway music. He was one of the most versatile and influential 20th century composers for the theatre genre. He is most remembered for his 1928 Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera).
Weill was born in Dessau, Germany in 1900 and enjoyed a musical upbringing; his father was the chief cantor at the synagogue in Dessau from 1899 to 1919, in addition to being a composer of both liturgical music and sacred motets. Kurt and his siblings were all taught music at an early age and often attended the opera at the Hoftheater. The repertoire at the Hoftheater, though strongly emphasizingWagner, was broad and presented many musical-theatrical works. Weill’s interest in composition began in his early teens, an interest that was so strong that it prompted his father to seek the advice from the assistant conductor at the Hoftheater, Albert Bing. Bing was impressed by Weill’s work and agreed to teach him. Through Bing, Weill was introduced to “metropolitan sophistication.”
Weill’s first hands-on experience at the opera was as a volunteer in 1917. The next year, in 1918, he began his studies at the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, counterpoint with Friedrich Koch, and conducting with Rudolf Krasselt. During this time, he worked for a short period at the Hoftheater under Knappertsbusch and Bing. He was also appointed conductor of a small municipal opera company in Lüdenscheid, where he remained until 1920.
After hearing that Ferruccio Busoni would be teaching masterclasses in composition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Weill enrolled in 1918; he studied there for three years. Busoni thought very fondly of Weill’s work, but sent him to Philipp Jarnach for more training in counterpoint. During these studies, he progressed very quickly.
His early works include the B minor String Quartet (1918) and the Sonata for cello and piano (1919-20). The quartet has clear influences fromMax Reger and Felix Mendelssohn, while the cello sonata moves away from classical ideals and is influenced more by Schreker andArnold Schoenberg. Weill achieved great success in 1922 with his ballet-pantomine scoreZaubernacht (1922), which was performed in Berlin and New York. Shortly after, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra premiered hisSinfonia sacra op.6 [also known as Fantasia, Passacaglia und Hymnus für Orchester] (1922) and Divertimento op. 5 (1922). At the end of his studies with Busoni, he was recommended to Universal Edition in Vienna, who published Weill’s works exclusively for ten years.
Though Weill regarded Busoni very highly, he declared his independence from his former teacher in 1924, just before Busoni’s death, with his Concerto for violin and wind instruments (1924), which is written in an Italian style, featuring Expressionism reminiscent of earlyHindemith. He then worked closely with Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser.
The 1926 premiere of the Weill-Kaiser opera Der Protagonist (1924-25) in Dresden was well received and became known in specialist circles. The work was declared the “first genuine operatic success achieved by a German post-war composer” by Oskar Bie and others. After this success, he was asked to compose a short opera for the music festival in Baden-Baden, organized by Hindemith. Here, he premiered the songspielMahagonny (1927), based on the verse collection Die Hauspostilleby Brecht. After its success, they were encouraged to pursue a full length opera version, which becameAufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1927-9), which was both neo-classical and neo-Verdian in style, while incorporating many popular elements such as cabaret and popular song. The premiere in 1930 in Leipzig was riotous.
Though the Weill and Brecht collaboration didn’t last long, they provided a substantial amount of work which also included the famousDie Dreigroschenoper (1928), which was premiered in Berlin and featured Weill’s wife in the role of Jenny. Other works from their partnership includeDas Berliner Requiem (1928), Der Lindberghflug(1929), and Happy End (1929). Their most popular work, by far, wasDie Dreigroschenoper, which ensured financial stability, allowing for the exclusive pursuit of composition. This piece was the most frequently performed work in the musical theater genre during the 20th century.
Before the success of Die Dreigroschenoper, Weill taught private theory and composition lessons. Some of his students included Claudio Arrau, Nikos Skalkottas, and Maurice Abravanel. He also contributed weekly to the radio programDer Deutsche Rundfunk.
Weill had become the most successful theater composer from the Weimar republic, but his Jewish ancestry and leftist political associations left him a target and a campaign to eliminate his music from the state-subsidized theaters ensued. The campaign was successful, as Weill’s highly acclaimed opera,Die Bürgschaft(1930-2), was rejected by most theaters. The work was strongly influenced byStravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was enthusiastically received in Paris, prompting him to seek opportunities outside Germany.
Eventually he fled to Paris in 1933, where he finished his Second Symphony (1933), which was first performed by Bruno Walter and features a neo-Mendelssohnian style. Other works from his time in Paris include his choral ballet/cantataDie sieben Todsünden, which is half song cycle and half madrigal play. Weill was also commissioned to composeLe Ballets (1933).
A pro-Nazi demonstration at a performance of his Der Silbersee (1933) shocked him, and he relocated to the village of Louveciennes where he focused on the commercial theatres in Paris, Londen, and Zürich. After several failed works, includingMarie galante (1934) and Der Kuhhandel (1934), Weill began a collaboration with Max Reinhardt and Franz Werfel. Together they wrote a piece about the history of Jewish people,Der Weg der Verheissung (1934-5), which was also produced in the United States, leading him to travel to New York in 1935.
Weill stayed in New York, eventually becoming an American citizen in 1943. His first American work was for Group Theatre, and was the anti-war musical play, Johnny Johnson(1936). His Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), though written in a European style, broadened his audience. The opera contained Weill’s first American hit song, ‘September Song’. After the Federal Theatre closed in 1939, Weill turned his focus to Broadway and Hollywood and wroteLady in the Dark (1940) andOne Touch of Venus (1943). He also composed patriotic works during the war. His post-war work,Lost in the Stars (1949) was both politically and socially controversial. Weill’s most popular American work was the operaDown in the Valley(1945-8). At the end of his life, Weill wanted to develop upon that opera, together with Alan J. Lerner. He was also working on music for Huckleberry Finn; however both projects remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1950. Weill died in New York after suffering from long term heart problems.