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The Weill Project blog: The Young Kurt Weill in Dessau

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Yiddish-language U.S. propaganda poster from World War I, 'Food will win the war'

This Yiddish-language U.S. propaganda poster from World War I declares, "Food will win the war" and, indeed, it did. Imperial Germany was in no small part defeated by its inability to feed its hungry citizens.

Weill, a youthful German patriot during much of World War I would begin a radical change of views toward the end of the war: he appears to have avoided conscription, and by 1920 his politics had take a sharp turn to the left. He would eventually settle in New York and take part in the Allied propaganda effort in World War II, writing music for songs such as "Shickelgruber", "Buddy on the Nightshift", and "What Was Sent to the Soldier's Wife".

The cliche is that Kurt Weill was "a cantor's son." Sometimes that's fleshed out to "son of an Orthodox Jewish cantor" (shades of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer!), but the story is a lot more interesting than that: the young Weill was more connected and privileged than that suggests but conversely, like many Germans, his family suffered quite a bit toward the end of the First World War.

Albert Weill (1867–1950) was, indeed, an Orthodox cantor in a synagogue in Dessau, but he was also a musically and culturally progressive man and a fairly good composer in his own right. Weill's mother Emma Weill (née Ackermann; 1872–1955) was an intellectual with a large library. The Weills could trace back their family history in Germany to 1360, five hundred years before the founding of the modern German state. They lived in Dessau's largely Jewish "Sandvorstadt", but Weill attended public school and most of his friends and classmates were Protestant, one of them son of a Protestant minister. Although Weill himself was increasingly secular, he remained in no small measure culturally Jewish: probably the most important early work of his that survives (salvaged by his sister Ruth) is Ofrahs Lieder, a setting of five Hebrew-language poems by the 12th-century Sephardic Jew Jehuda Halevi.

Dessau was a good town for music. This was still Imperial Germany, and the local Duke was patron of a long-established theater, known at the time as the Herzogliches Hoftheater ("Theater of the Ducal Court"), reputed by some as the "Bayreuth of the North" for its quality and its Wagnerian leanings. The Duke noticed Kurt Weill's talent early: around the time the boy turned ten, he was given a pass to attend rehearsals and performances at the Hoftheater for free, and spent enough of his spare time there that it probably impacted his grades. In 1916, the 16-year-old Weill began giving piano lessons to the Duke's two nephews and a niece, and often accompanied singers at the palace and was invited to stay for tea and pastries afterward. He began to study music theory with Albert Bing, conductor at the theater, eventually becoming an adjunct répétiteur; Bing welcomed him into all of the discussions about how a given performance would be approached, and even listened to his opinions when he had them.

Relations between Jews and Gentiles in Dessau appear to have been generally good at that time. Weill was popular in school, well known for his ability to tell stories, to the point of distracting his teachers from the subject matter at hand when he and his classmates were ill-prepared. One year, his whole class came to celebrate Sukkot at (or presumably outside) the synagogue where his father sang. Weill at this time was a patriotic German, a "scout" in the Dessauer Feldkorps during World War II; two of his brothers served in the German Army. To his own later amazement—in this respect, he became a very different person before he even turned 21—he wrote military choruses and a lost one-act patriotic opera, and spoke at memorials for some of his conscripted classmates who died in the war; somehow he escaped being conscripted himself.

As remarked above, like many Germans the Weills suffered greatly at the tail end of World War I. Germany was effectively defeated long before the November 1918 armistice, and food was hard to come by, to the point of Weill having stories of being faint from starvation. Weill's studies at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin were interrupted when the congregation at his father's synagogue could no longer afford to pay a cantor. Albert Weill was laid off in the summer of 1919; it would be the better part of a year before he found new work running a Jewish orphanage in Leipzig.

Weill's life in Berlin and the path the young musician took to support his birth-family at age 19 are stories largely for another time; suffice it to say for now that the sometimes frustrating challenge of six months as orchestra conductor at what Jürgen Schebera characterizes as a "third-rate theater" in Lüdenscheid, mounting a rapid and varied hodgepodge of operas, operettas, and even burlesques, and often working without a proper score, probably did more to give Weill "the theater bug" than his years at the ducal theater in Dessau.

[This essay draws on miscellaneous sources, most notably Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy).]

Next blog post: Weill's Student years (1)

Next Weill biography blog post: Weill's Student years (1)

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Original date: 03 April 2021
Last modified: 03 April 2021

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