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The Weill Project blog: Working on "Mussel From Margate" and "Jealousy Duet"

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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Juliana received her first Covid shot last week. I've already had my shots, so we are a little over a month from being able to rehearse face-to-face. Meanwhile we are working separately on some of the toughest material we have to master. We decided to do our own translations of two pieces from 1928, "Mussel from Margate" (lyrics by Felix Gasbarra) and of the "Jealousy Duet" from Threepenny Opera (Brecht, of course). Both also present some of my more serious musical challenges (Juliana will have to speak for herself).

Mussel from Margate

In 1928, Erwin Piscator, probably the most prominent Berlin theater director of the 1920s and a strong influence on Brecht, commissioned Weill to write incidental music for a play by Léo Lania variously known as Konjunktur or Oil Boom. I've heard that Lion Feuchtwanger was somehow also involved, though I'm not sure how. [note 19 May 2021: He wasn't. This was confusion with Feuchtwanger's similarly-themed but less naturalistic Petroleum Play later that same year, for which Weill also wrote music.] In the play, only fragments of which survive, three oil companies fight for control of an oil field in a previously paradisical location, ultimately leaving nothing but devastation. It is one of the first known works of envrionmentalist protest art.

Like Weill, Léo Lania was a secular, leftist Jew who eventually emigrated via France to the U.S. Unlike Weill, who grew up in Dessau not far from Berlin, the slightly older Lania was originally from Kharkov, Ukraine and served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. Also unlike Weill, he lingered too long in France, was interned for a time when World War II broke out, only with difficulty made his way to the U.S., and went back to live in Germany (Munich) after the war.

As of this writing, Juliana is still working through translating "Mussel," which is a protest song against the excesses of the petroleum industry in general and Shell in particular. It tells the story of a souvenir stand being replaced by an oil well, and eventually expands to things like oil-field fires in Baku. Meanwhile, I've been grappling with the music: it's a clashy beast, probably the most dissonant thing Weill wrote for theater at such a late date, long after Ferruccio Busoni converted him away from post-Wagnerian Romaniticism to Neo-Classicism. I don't know if anyone has ever tried it on a guitar before, let alone a classical guitar. It took me a good 20 hours just to arrange it, guided by a piano arrangement. I've now put more than that into learning to play it properly, and it is still not quite stage-ready. More than half of it consists of chords or inversions I've never before used in my life, and at one point I get up to the fourteenth fret on the high E string (good thing I opted for a cutaway guitar!).

You can get a good sense of the song from this 1981 recording by soprano Teresa Stratas, accompanied by Richard Woitach on piano. Woitach plays softly, which tones down the clashiness a little; as a member of the rock generation, I plan to leave it there in all its German Expressionist glory.

Jealousy Duet

The "Jealousy" duet, on the other hand, is a romp. In Act II of Threepenny Opera, Macheath is in prison (not for the last time). His two wives via bigamous marriage, Lucy Brown and Polly Peachum, arrive at the same time to visit him, and discover one another. Lucy's father is the police chief of London; Polly's runs a monopolistic cartel of London beggars, a hidden empire that rivals the powers officially in charge of London. Their musical duel goes back and forth between insulting one another and singing rapturously in near-unison of their respective wonderful relationships with Mackie and how he couldn't possibly be interested in the other. It is the most operatic song in Threepenny. Juliana, one of whose signature tunes is the Bernstein/Wilbur "Glitter and Be Gay," will shine easily here as Polly, but I am not exactly an obvious Lucy. Gender. Vocal range. Age. Stuff like that. Fortunately, the song is meant to be funny, my voice is actually pretty decent for an old guy and it's not like I'm trying to sing Nessun Dorma.

As with "Mussel", we couldn't find any English-language translation of this that we really loved, so I decided to do it myself. I ended up doing a pretty loose translation. OK, I ended up doing a very loose translation: only three or four lines of Brecht's lyrics remain, and one is in a different place. After all, in the play, you already have two characters; we need to develop the characters and their conflict within the song.

Here'a a bit of what I came up with:

(Polly): All around, men worship and adore me.
(Lucy, spoken): Especially the pedophiles!
(Lucy): Here you see a lovely exposition
Of the finest flesh a man could savor.
(Polly, spoken): A rather LARGE exposition!

Of course, I also have to play it while I sing. Fortunately, it's a much easier piece than "Mussel". I just started working out an arrangement yesterday, and I think I'm about a third of the way through arranging.

Next blog post: The Young Kurt Weill in Dessau

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 26 March 2021
Last modified: 18 December 2021

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