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The Weill Project blog: Weill's Student years (2)

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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Last month I wrote about Weill's early student years. He studied in Berlin under composer Engelbert Humperdinck and witnessed the failed Sparticist uprising as Germany collapsed at the end of World War I. When his father lost his job as a cantor, the 19-year-old had to leave his studies to help support his family, which led him to six months conducting the orchestra of a scrappy but "third-rate" theater in Lüdenscheid. His father eventually got a job running an orphanage in Leipzig, leaving Weill free to resume his studies. When we last left off, he was torn between returning to Berlin or going to Vienna to study under Arnold Schoenberg 🔗, the expressionist composer who developed the highly chromatic twelve-tone technique 🔗, an approach to composing that completely rejects the notion of playing in a particular key.

Presumably, if Weill had gone to Vienna and Schoenberg, he would have made at least as much of a mark as he did in the world of concert halls; Schoenberg's students included Alban Berg 🔗, Anton Webern 🔗, and later John Cage 🔗. He might still have made as broad a mark in the world as he did by heading for Berlin and what now seems his destiny: Hanns Eisler 🔗 studied with Schoenberg, as did an already mature Oscar Levant 🔗 years later in Los Angeles. Eisler became another of Brecht's collaborators and a friend and musical colleague of Weill's. He went on to write the East German national anthem but eventually became something of a dissident there. As was the case for me with Weill, I knew some of Eisler's music so early in my life that I don't remember not knowing it: my father used to play a few of his songs on the guitar. Oscar Levant was also a damned interesting human being but tangential to our story: friend and associate of George Gershwin (when Gershwin couldn't take a performing gig, he often recommended Levant) and an occasional attendee of the Algonquin Round Table 🔗, musician's musician and neurotic's neurotic, serial memoirist, and TV game show regular. "There's a fine line between genius and insanity," he once wrote. "I have erased this line."

But back to Weill. Berlin beckoned more strongly than Vienna; Weill returned without a firm plan, and with more experience though fewer material resources than the last time. Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker 🔗 had taken over leadership of the Hochschule where Weill had recently studied. Weill seriously considered returning there despite his prior disappointment, but he was already moving away from what he later characterized as Schreker's "neo-Wagnerian," "psychological" approach and decided to look elswehere.

At the time he returned to Berlin, Weill was in the midst of writing a sonata for cello and piano. The three movements of the sonata are marked, respectively:

  • allegro ma non troppo in 4/4
  • andante espressivo in 7/8
  • allegro assai, wild bewegt, grotesk vorzutragen in 3/8
Ferruccio Busoni

Weill's mentor Ferruccio Busoni 🔗.

That is to say for the third movement, "very fast, [with] wild movements, [to be] performed grotesquely." The Twenties were beginning to roar, and this was as true in the concert hall as in the dance hall. Jürgen Schebera quotes John C. G. Waterhouse ("Weill's Debt to Busoni," 1964) to the effect that the "semitonal instability" in this piece, "whereby one chord or harmonic complex dissolves into the next through the chromatic shift of a semitone by one or more of its notes" shows that Weill at this time was already being influenced by Ferruccio Busoni's compositions and ideas. Busoni is a name to reckon with in any account of Weill: he would become Weill's mentor, and Weill repeatedly cited him as his strongest influence.

Busoni is remembered today mainly for two operas: the edgily comic Arlecchino 🔗 (Harlequin), first performed in 1916 in Zurich where the composer was taking refuge from World War I, and Doktor Faustus 🔗, left incomplete at the time of Busoni's death in 1924 and completed by his colleague and former pupil Philipp Jarnach 🔗. Busoni was a pretty big deal in 1920s Berlin. An Italian who cut a rather bohemian figure, Busoni opposed the idea of "national" musical traditions ("a denial of the essence of music"), wrote his libretti in German and made his career largely in the German-speaking world, but also worked at times in Helsinki, Boston, and Moscow. His Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1907, 1916) has been described as "a programmatic document for an entire generation of young musicians." The 1907 edition gave 113 scales of 7 tones each within an octave; like Schoenberg, he was looking for the next frontier in music. However, by 1916, the two composers had come up with what Jutta Theurich would characterize as "different answers to general problems of a particular historic phase." Against Schoenberg's twelve-tone approach, Busoni put forward Junge Klassizität, a "Young Classicalism" that looked more to Bach and Mozart than to Beethoven, let alone Wagner. Busoni viewed Wagner about as favorably as Ahab viewed Moby-Dick. In stark contrast to Schoenberg (and Schreker) Busoni as a composer aspired to, in his own words, "renuciation of subjectivity… rejection of personal feelings and metaphysics" and was a great admirer of the dramaturgy of Italian puppet theater.

In November 1920, Busoni returned to Berlin after five years in Zurich and gave two acclaimed piano recitals at the Berlin Philharmonic. Busoni's former pupil Leo Kestenberg (who has so far not rated an English-language Wikpedia article, but here it is in German 🔗 for those who read it) was by this time at the Prussian Ministry of Culture and responsible for music. He arranged for Busoni to teach a master class at the Preußische Akademie der Kunste starting Jan 1921. The class was "at" the academy only in the sense of being in Berlin and granting academic credit: Busoni negotiated a number of conditions, including that he would hold the class in his own home.

Weill applied with little hope of being accepted. We know from his correspondence that he expected Busoni to select—at least mainly—musicians farther along in their careers. It is not clear in general what recommendations Weill may have had, though we do know that critic Oskar Bie 🔗 wrote Busoni on his behalf. To Weill's surprise, he was one of five young men Busoni selected for the class; none of the chosen were beyond their mid-twenties. The others were Walther Geiser (Wikipedia article in German 🔗), Robert Blum (Wikipedia article in German 🔗), Luc Balmer (Wikipedia article in Russian 🔗, apparently even the Germans haven't gotten around to this one), and Wladimir Vogel 🔗. Weill was apparently the only German citizen of the five; Vogel was born in Moscow and the others—even the Munich-born Balmer—were Swiss citizens.

The classes were quite unconventional. As Weill later remarked, Busoni had "disciples" rather than "pupils"; musicologist and Weill biographer Stephen Hinton writes of Busoni's emphasis on Bildung, "form[ing] the whole person and character of his pupils." An earlier student of Busoni's, Dutch pianist Egon Petri wrote that rather than "guiding a pupil's technical and artistic problems in a steady progressive manner," Busoni focused on "imparting to the pupil a consumate understanding of art, and the need for cultural and spiritual completion." That part about not directly teaching technique certainly applied to Busoni's teaching of Weill: when Busoni was unimpressed by Weill's First Symphony (Jürgen Schebera summarizes that he found it too "expressionist" and "programmatic," though he liked the chorale variation in the finale), he aimed Weill at his (Busoni's) own former student Phillip Jarnach for lessons in counterpoint, rather than teach these lessons himself. (Weill liked Jarnach's lessons, and the two became friends.)

500 Billion Mark note

1923 banknote from the Berlin Reichsbank for 500 milliard (billion) marks. A month after issue, it wouldn't buy you the morning newspaper.

During the time Weill studied with Busoni he, like many Germans in the early 1920s, had little money. He was not required to pay any tuition fees, but with the reversal in his father's fortunes all he had coming in was a small stipend from his uncle Leopold. His first year back in Berlin he wrote home that his shirts were falling apart and hinted strongly hoping his father might send him a carp for Hannukah. He soon supplemented Leopold's money by playing piano in a Bierkeller for tips, playing deep into the night. It was the sort of thing that may later have been good to have done, but which was apparently not much fun to do. With Busoni's eventual endorsement, by late 1922—with the infamous hyperinflation 🔗 beginning to throw the German economy into chaos—Weill began to get students of his own, notably Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas 🔗, Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau 🔗, and Greek-born Swiss, later American, conductor Maurice Abravanel. Abravanel would eventually become a major conductor of Weill's music.

Like almost everyone in Berlin in 1923, Weill still had little money, but at least he was no longer working nights and was often able to attend concerts and keep current with the Berlin music scene. And why not? Hyperinflation was in full boil, and money earned today had to be spent today.

By 1923, although Weill was still technically a student, he was also emerging as a significant figure on the Berlin music scene. I think I will leave that part of the story for later this month.


[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) and Stephen Hinton's Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California, 2012).]




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Original date: 5 May 2021
Last modified: 5 May 2021

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