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The Weill Project blog: Brecht (1), Mahagonny Songspiel

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #bertoltbrecht #joemabel #berlin #baden-baden #mahagonny

(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

Bertolt Brecht in 1954
Bertolt Brecht in 1954, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0409-300, photo by Jörg Kolbe, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Few events in the history of German theater are as momentous as Kurt Weill meeting Bertolt Brecht, but oddly no one knows exactly when they first met. It was definitely no later that April 1927, but there is a fair chance that they met the month before that: Weill was often at the radio studio Funkstunde Berlin, where Brecht's Mann ist Mann ("Man is Man" or "Man Equals Man") was broadcast 10 March 1927. Weill reviewed it very favorably in Der deutsche Rundfunk. There is a fair chance the two crossed paths somewhere in the process.

At the time, Brecht was at a bit of an impasse as a playwright. He had managed to drive Mann ist Mann to completion the prior year, but he was sitting on a stack of fragments, unfinished works, etc., trying to find just the right language and form for his theater pieces; his steadily increasing focus on economics and Marxism had so far just added variables to the problem he was trying to solve. Like Weill, he was interested in "reforming" theater in general and musical theater in particular. He had a strong interest in music, especially folk ballads, and was an occasional (if somewhat outlandish) performer in cabarets, accompanying himself on guitar and four-string banjo and singing his own songs in the sort of voice that would not become widely acceptable until the rise of punk rock fifty years later.

Weill was not so much at an impasse as Brecht: his recent work with Georg Kaiser, Yvan Goll, and others showed him clearly finding his unique voice as a composer, and he was gaining strong recognition for doing so. He had recently married Lotte Lenya, was writing a couple of articles a week for Der deutsche Rundfunk, and was active in the Novembergruppe. He was collaborating with Kaiser on Der Zar läßt sich photographieren ("The Tsar Has his Photograph Taken"); a tango from that piece would become his first piece to be recorded. But as recounted in my previous blog post, Der Zar had outgrown its original purpose of being a piece for the July 1927 German Chamber Music Festival in Baden-Baden. Weill's correspondence from the period shows that as late a 25 April he was thinking of pulling out of Baden-Baden for lack of appropriate material, but by 2 May he had changed his mind and he and Brecht were working on what became the Mahagonny Songspiel. By 14 May, he was arranging an already-composed work.

Again, there is no confident reconstruction of the exact sequence but it looks like Weill, maybe in the course of learning more about the playwright who had just impressed him with Mann ist Mann, encountered Brecht's then-recent book of poems Die Hauspostille (the name ironically suggests a devotional book for the home) with its five "Mahagonnygesänge" ("Mahagonny songs"). Regardless of whether Brecht and Weill may have met a few weeks earlier, we know that some time in the second half of April Weill sought out Brecht at the theater restaurant/pub Schlichter, owned and run by Max Schlicter, brother of the painter Rudolf Schlichter, whom Weill knew from the Novembergruppe. (Schlicter was in in Lutherstraße, not far from Viktoria-Luise-Platz. Here's a short German-language article about the place 🔗, including some photos and a 1930 menu.)

The "Mahagonnygesänge" would provide Weill the material he needed for Baden-Baden, and would later form the core of one of his (and Brecht's) most ambitious works for theater. Their collaboration would produce over half a dozen major works in the next three years, including the Dreigroschenoper ("Threepenny Opera"), probably the best-known work of either man. In Jürgen Schebera's words, the "Mahagonnygesänge" combined a "fascination with America" with the themes of "the 'Moloch' of large cities" and their "dominant middle-class mores." As critic Hans Strobel perceptively remarked upon first hearing the piece, in its 35 minutes it evolves from a revue to social commentary to indications of a plot to being a short musical play. A few years later, the greatly expanded version of the work would add a more focused critique of capitalism.

Brecht had been kicking around Mahagonny at least since 1924. Weill used the five poems Brecht had published that January in Die Hauspostille (though in a different order) plus a new finale that Brecht wrote for the musical piece. Weill also added an orchestral prelude, interludes, and a postlude. And let's be a lot fairer than Brecht and Weill were at the time: the lyrics for the two best-known songs, the "Alabama Song" (probably best known now from the 1966 version by The Doors) and the "Benares Song", both originally in English, were certainly written by Brecht's assistant and mistress Elisabeth Hauptmann: there is no way that Brecht's English at the time would have been good enough to write these. (It is perfectly possible that the broad ideas for these were Brecht's, but the actual words are Hauptmann's).


Mahagonny Songspiel, 1927. Photographer and copyright status unknown, used on a fair use basis.

The performance took place 17 July 1927 in in the large concert hall of the Kurhaus at Baden-Baden. Brecht directed, assisted by Hans Curjel, who had recently become the dramaturg of Berlin's Krolloper. Brecht's longtime friend and collaborator Caspar Neher's staging was radical: in contrast to the more conventional staging of the other pieces (by Ernst Toch, Darius Milhaud, and Paul Hindemith, respectively) on the bill that night, Mahagonny was performed in a quickly erected boxing ring, and used photocollages in rear projection. Intertitles described the people leaving "the great cities" to go to the "Mahagonny, the gold town situated on the shores of consolation far from the rush of the world." Of course their "nausea, helplessness, and despair" accompanied them to this new place. Or as David Drew put it, "The fleshpots of Mahagonny attract many visitors, but prove disappointing and expensive; God orders the inhabitants to hell, but they revolt, claiming they are there already." Weill's music and orchestration were no less radical: for the first time, his songs drew far more from contemporary popular music than from the classical tradition, and the orchestra of two violins, two clarinets, two trumpets, alto sax, piano, and percussion was more like a jazz band than anything typical of the classical world. Also for the first time, he went completely in the direction of self-contained independent numbers rather that any through-composition. Perhaps even more radical was that, on stage with four trained opera singers, Weill's wife Lotte Lenya sang a major role, including pretty much carrying the "Alabama Song." Lenya, known at the time (if at all) as a dancer and actress, had a fine voice—in her late twenties, she had at least an octave more at the top of her range than she would 25 years later on Broadway—but was by no means a conventionally trained singer, and this was a classical venue. Casting Lenya was at least as radical a move as the Brodsky Quartet working with Elvis Costello in the 1990s, and unlike that experiment it would represent a major direction for Weill, not just a digression. Lenya's 1930 recording of the "Alabama Song", recorded with "The Three Admirals" and Theo Mackeben's jazz orchestra, became a hit record.


Lotte Lenja (Lenya) and "The Three Admirals" with Theo Mackeben and his Jazz-Orchester. Recorded 24 February 1930. Composed 1927. Written by Bertolt Brecht, Franz Servatius Bruinier, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Kurt Weill. On the first verse, Lenya starts soloing when it hits the first chorus.

The brilliant but bitter piece inevitably received a mixed reception from the mostly middle-class audience. Brecht anticipated this, and shortly before the show he gave the singers whistles to whistle back at the hecklers. But the piece impressed a lot of people who counted: in particular, Otto Klemperer of the Berlin Philharmonic reportedly loved it and was heard whistling the tunes later that evening. The Baden-Baden performance seems to be the first time Weill met Darius Milhaud (who would later be among those who smoothed his way as an émigré in Paris), radio managers Ernst Hardt (of WERAG, now Westdeutsche Rundfunk, in Cologne) and Hans Flesch (of Funkstunde Berlin), and the Leipzig opera director Walther Brügmann.

Weill saw Mahagonny Songspiel mainly as a study for a full-length opera, and made no real effort to properly publish it or to get it further performed (though there was at least one other performance). Brecht, on the other hand, was the sort of writer who often published even drafts of work in progress, and a libretto was published later that year. Weill's publisher Emil Hertzka and Universal Edition had a lot of trepidation about a full-blown Mahagonny opera, and some trepidation about Brecht as a collaborator for Weill. With Mahagonny's snub of the middle class, Hertzka doubted such an opera could play anywhere, but Weill clearly relished the opportunity to work with such a cutting-edge writer of his own generation (Kaiser was fifteen years older) and loved the idea of creating a work very much of its time but not topical like the several Zeitopern he had recently attempted. By the end of the year he and Brecht, working together, had completed a draft libretto and Weill had begun composing, but more urgent projects would intervene, and the full-blown Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny ("Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny") would not appear before 1930 when the Great Depression had made much of that German middle class as bitter as the work itself.

[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).]




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Last modified: 24 June 2021

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