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The Weill Project blog: Transformation

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

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We left off with the slightly belated 1926 premiere of Der Protagonist, Weill's successful first collaboration with the prolific playwright Georg Kaiser, the culmination of Weill's early style and the "famous overnight" moment just before he began seriously integrating elements of popular music into his compositions.

Through Kaiser, Weill met the French-German-Jewish surrealist poet Yvan Goll 🔗, translator of James Joyce's Ulysses into German, and translator of some of Kaiser's works into French. He was, by the way, married to Claire Goll née Klara Aischmann, a poet of some note in her own right, and who seems to have somewhat juggled her relationship with Yvan Goll with what was politely called a "close friendship" with Rainer Maria Rilke, fifteen years her and Yvan's senior. (Surely somewhere in the story of 1920s Berlin and Paris were two people in a monogamous relationship with one another, but I cannot think who they would be). Goll was identified with the trend in the arts known as ''Neue Sachlichkeit'' (variously translated as "New Sobriety" or "New Objectivity"), a reaction against Expressionism. ''Neue Sachlichkeit'' rejected romantic idealism in favor of more direct engagement in the world.

The first Weill-Goll collaboration was for Weill to set to music an existing poem of Goll's "Der neue Orpheus", which Goll had originally written in German in 1917-1918, then rewritten in French in 1923 and finally in German again in 1924. The poem describes Orpheus' descent into a "red-light district of life." Weill turned it into a roughly 15-minute cantata for soprano, violin, and a small orchestra that did not include any other wind instruments: as in his recent Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12 the contrast between a violin and wind instruments produced the "clashing timbres" that were becoming increasingly characteristic of his work. In the course of the rewrites, Goll's Orpheus had evolved from a Christlike god of art to more of an everyman working musician, successively (this summary from Stephen Hinton) "piano pedagogue, variety artist, at the circus, at veterans' gatherings, as emaciated organist, as Mahler conductor at subscription concerts, [and] as 'torture pianist' playing in suburban movie theaters." The piece matches what Jürgen Schebera characterizes as Goll's "collagelike" poem by mixing diverse musical genres: violin concerto, cantata, opera, and cabaret song. The work, written after the completion of Der Protagonist but before its premiere, is more tonal and shows more influence from popular music. Weill is embarking here on something new. It's not yet his mature style, but the elements are starting to come together. Letters to his parents during his time with Goll shows him conscious of being in an "explosive" period of productivity and of discovering his own voice. "I am gradually moving forward to 'me'."

Yvan Goll sketched in 1927 by Lajos Tihanyi

Yvan Goll sketched in 1927 by Lajos Tihanyi.

Weill and Goll then collaborated more actively on a one-act Zeitoper called Royal Palace. Zeitoper ("opera of the time") was a relatively short-lived form, leaning toward satires on contemporary life and almost always including at least allusions to contemporary popular music. Royal Palace was set in present-day Italy, at a lakeside luxury hotel. Three men—"her husband, yesterday's lover, and tomorrow's suitor"—compete for the affections of one woman, Dejanira (surely somewhere in the story of 1920s Berlin and Paris were two people in a monogamous relationship with one another, but…), who laughingly rejects the impersonal, virtuosic spectacles with which they try to dazzle her and throws herself into the lake declaring "I am free again from all of you!"

The libretto is a bit lightweight, especially compared to such Weill collaborators as Kaiser or Brecht. This may not be entirely accidental: where both Brecht and Kaiser saw opera or musical theater as intensified drama, Goll saw it rather differently. "Opera is the most perfect and complete form of poetry…" he wrote, "Opera and drama are antipodes…", contrasting the rhythm/feeling/dream/fairytale of poetry and opera to the action/plot/thinking/logic/life of drama. The score, completed January 1926 and running roughly 50 minutes, is a bit transitional and certainly not on a par with Weill's work with Kaiser or Brecht, but does show him moving decisively toward his mature style. It's probably the first piece where people who know him from his work with Brecht—or with Ira Gershwin or Ogden Nash—would be likely to say, "That's got to be Kurt Weill." (There are a few passages where it could also be Leonard Bernstein, but that just shows how much Weill influenced Bernstein.) There are elements of traditional opera but there are also definitely jazz elements, "features of revue and theatrical effects" (Schebera's phrase there) that sound more like a Broadway overture than European classical music, and the first occurrence of something that will soon become a Weill signature: the use of contemporary dance rhythms, in this case a 10-minute tango finale whose entire lyrics consist of the three men singing variations on Dejanira's name. (It is also the first appearance in Weill's music of the three-note figure that beings the "Moritat" ("Mack the Knife") and can also be found at the start of the chorus in "Surabaya Johnny".)

Royal Palace premiered in Berlin at the newly renovated Staatsoper on Weill's 27th birthday, 2 March 1927, on a bill with Der Neue Orpheus and Manuel de Falla's Maestro Pedro's Puppet Play. Franz Ludwig Hörst, who had staged Weill's Zaubernacht pantomime was now director of the Staatsoper, and directed the production. At his initiative, the production was the first time film was used in an opera: the cast were brought to an airport and to a hotel where they shot silent film scenes that were integrated into the production, as was stock footage of world cities. Erich Kleiber, who had recently conducted Alban Berg's Wozzeck, now conducted these two Weill-Goll pieces which suggested a very different possible direction for contemporary music.

Like Zeitoper in general, the piece was not really a success. The Staatsoper gave seven performances; it was revived only once (in Essen in 1929) before the Nazi takover in 1933. The original score was lost, but it has been reconstructed, and the piece was finally recorded by the BBC Orchestra and released in 2004. My comments above are from hearing that recording.

Around this time, Weill & Lenya rented a pair of rooms in the Pension Hassforth, which they nicknamed "Grieneisen" after a well-known undertaker. One room, with a piano and a desk, effectively became Weill's office. In June and July 1926 they managed a belated honeymoon journey to Zurich, northern Italy, and Cannes. When they got back to Berlin he plunged into a commission for incidental music for a 1 September radio production of Christian Dietrich Grabbe's dark tragedy Herzog Theodor von Gothland, a piece written in 1822 and published but never performed in the author's lifetime (it finally premiered in Vienna in 1892). I don't want to go too far down a rabbit-hole here, especially about a piece I've admittedly never heard or read, but I'd like to know more about Grabbe, who sounds like a rather interesting over-the-top early-19th-century Romantic; according to Wikipedia, Heinrich Heine saw him as one of Germany's leading dramatists and called him, "a drunken Shakespeare."

Weill's score took advantage of what the radio station could pay for: it utilized a large orchestra and chorus, and was generally favorably reviewed. Jürgen Schebera considers it Weill's first piece of "epic" theater (see later blog post), though Weill was not yet using that term. I have nothing to add to that, because I haven't heard the piece; according to the Kurt Weill foundation, the score is "mostly lost," so I don't really even know the basis for Schebera's remarks.

Anyway, Weill was a busy man. Remember that throughout this time, besides his music, he was writing a couple of articles a week for Der deutsche Rundfunk, and he was active in the Novembergruppe. It probably helped that he had few interests outside of music which, as Lenya later said of him, was "his hobby as well as his profession."

In March 1926 he started a musical theater project with Felix Joachimson, who was known at that time mainly a critic. Thanks to Joachimson we know that in this period, rather than composing at the piano Weill mainly composed directly to paper, only occasionally double-checking on the piano. Weill and Joachimson sketched out a comic opera Na und… with seventeen closed numbers and dialog. It was never really completed, and is mostly lost. Weill ran a draft by several people, including his publisher. None of them liked it. Not even a little. Hans W. Heinsheimer of Universal Edition later recalled "We did not like anything about the work," not the libretto, the music, the plot (such as it was). Hans Curjel at the Krolloper in Berlin convinced Weill to lay it aside four weeks, after which Weill came back to it, concurred with others' opinion of the piece, and it never saw the light of day.

Marlene Dietrich in <cite>The Blue Angel</cite>, 1930

How can I not use any excuse I've got to include a picture of Marlene Dietrich, shown here in a 1930 promotional film still for The Blue Angel, in which she plays Lola Lola. Several times Weill wrote songs intended for Dietrich, though as far as I know she never recorded any of them.

Joachimson, by the way, would later emigrate to America and change his name to Felix Jackson. Some of you may know him as the screenwriter of Destry Rides Again (1939) a western with Marlene Dietrich in the female lead. He was briefly married to actress Deanna Durbin and produced the Deanna Durbin vehicle Lady on a Train (1945).

After the Na und… fiasco, Weill, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, & Ernst Toch were each commissioned to write works for the German Chamber Music Festival to take place in Baden-Baden in July 1927. (I can't resist an aside: There's a song "Triplets," written by one of Weill's later collaborators in the U.S., Howard Dietz, with whom he wrote the World War II propaganda song "Schickelgruber" (which we've recorded, here on Youtube  🔗). "Triplets" was made famous by Danny Kaye, and contains the lines "Every summer we go away to Baden-Baden-Baden / Every winter we come back home to Walla Walla Walla.")

Weill and Kaiser started in March 1927 on a piece that, parallel to their prior collaboration Der Protagonist, quickly got too big for it's original target venue and took on a life of its own as the one-act opera buffa Der Zar läßt sich photographieren ("The Tsar Has his Photograph Taken"). I was pleased to read that Kaiser's libretto was completed 4 August 1927, which happens to be the day my mother was born. As of this writing, all I've ever heard of Der Zar is the recording of the instrumental "Tango Angele," which is OK but would not have won me over to Weill if I didn't already know his other work. Besides that tango, Der Zar apparently also includes a foxtrot. Weill used dance forms like those a lot throughout the rest of his career: our February 2022 Seattle show will include at least two tangos, a foxtrot, and a waltz, plus several other pieces that include tango elements. Der Zar was the last time in his European career that Weill through-composed a piece rather than writing discrete "numbers." The instrumental tango for the dance scene, "Tango Angele," was the first Weill song to be recorded. Unusually, especially for opera, the recorded version, made available as part of the package when a theater purchased the score, was intended to be played in a dance scene during the performance, rather than having an orchestra play that part live. Weill wanted this piece and Der Protagonist to be performed together on a bill. That didn't happen for the premiere (which paired it with Niccola Spinelli's A Basso Porto), but happened quite a few times over the years following, often in productions arranged by Weill himself. Der Zar was also often paired with Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. By the way, "Tango Angele" was a hit, Weill's first.

As for Baden-Baden: as late as 25 April, with Der Zar outgrowing its original purpose, Weill was thinking of pulling entirely out of the festival for lack of appropriate material, but some time in the weeks before that he had met Bertolt Brecht, and by May 2 he had changed his tune, so to speak. Brecht and Weill would go on to produce the Mahagonny Songspiel for Baden-Baden, but clearly that is the beginning of a different chapter.

[This essay draws heavily on Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy). It also draws on Stephen Hinton, Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California, 2012).]

Next blog post: Brecht (1), Mahagonny Songspiel

Next Weill biography blog post: Brecht (1), Mahagonny Songspiel

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 14 June 2021
Last modified: 18 December 2021

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