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The Weill Project blog: Brecht (2), Threepenny Opera

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

Original 1928 poster for the <cite>Dreigroschenoper</cite> ("Threpenny opera")
Original 1928 poster for the Dreigroschenoper ("Threepenny opera"), used here on a fair-use basis.

As related last time, Weill and Brecht viewed their July 1927 Mahagonny Songspiel mainly as a sketch for a full-length opera, but many around them (including Weill's publisher, Universal Edition) viewed the themes as too controversial. By the end of the year they had a draft libretto and a good deal of music, but other opportunities beckoned, and Mahagonny was laid aside for a time.

There is no question that the pair were thinking big. Before Mahagonny Songspiel had even debuted, they were proposing another massive project, the Ruhrepos ("Epic of the Ruhr"). Rudolf Schulz-Dornburg, opera director of Essen's Städische Bühnen was looking to put together a popularly-oriented theater festival, and asked Weill to compose an "industrial opera." Weill suggested bringing in Brecht, who in turn suggested adding experimental filmmaker Carl Koch 🔗. The three traveled to Essen and did some local studies; the city paid them to prepare a prospectus, but after various political squabbling, the festival never came off. Still, the prospectus shows how big they were thinking, and draws a direct line to the later, darker Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny ("Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny"). They planned to use enormous placards ("Tafeln") depicting "mines, types of people, machines, etc." as well as slides, film projection, poetry, and music. Weill wrote, "The music of Ruhrepos condenses all the expressive means of absolute and dramatic music into a new unity. Rather than creating mood paintings or naturalistic sound accompaniments, it gives precision to the tensions in the poetry and the scene with its expression, its dynamics, and its tempo." Albrecht Dümling 🔗, one of the leading scholars of the music banned by the Nazis after their rise to power, is convinced that had the city of Essen come forward with the required money, "the Ruhrepos would have become a masterpiece." But it was not to be.

Concurrent with the work on Mahagonny, besides setting another poem from Brecht's Die Hauspostille, Weill accepted and completed a project to write incidental music for Victor Barnowsky's production of Strindberg's Gustav III. (Nothing on Barnowsky in the English-language Wikipedia, but here it is in German 🔗.) Another of the many talented people driven out by the Nazis, he also ended up in the U.S. As for the play, it was just the sort of multivalent work that Weill loved. Gustav was an "enlightened despot," a playwright and patron of the arts who liberalized the criminal code, but also a king who reduced the power of the nobility more in his own favor than that of the general public. He was ultimately assassinated by a conspiracy of nobles. The play premiered 29 October 1927 at the Theater an der Königsgrätzer Straße, with Walter Goehr directing a 12-piece orchestra. Weill's music for the play is mostly lost, but the surviving portions were the basis for David Drew 🔗's 1975 Bastille-Musik.

Erwin Piscator, circa 1927
Erwin Piscator, circa 1927, public domain, photographer unknown, from the Piscator Archive.

But the Ruhrepos and incidental music for Barnowsky were not the main distractions. Both Brecht and Weill found themselves in the orbit of the then famous director Erwin Piscator 🔗, more than any other one person, more than Brecht himself, the inventor of the "epic theater" that Brecht and Weill would come to champion. (I suppose I need to write a post about "epic theater" as such [I did: see later blog post]; I touched on it when writing about Weill's collaboration with Georg Kaiser on Der Protagonist. For now, suffice it to say that "epic theater" was distinguished by an intent to engage the intellect rather than encourage emotional attachment to any individual characters, and that it was strongly associated at the time with left politics.) Both were drawn into his new Piscator-Bühne ("Piscator Stage"), Brecht as one of several collaborators on a stage version of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk 🔗, an absurdist war novel that would become a touchstone for both Brecht and Weill, and Weill writing music for Léo Lania's Konjunktur, certainly one of the earliest known environmental protest works: three oil companies fight over oil rights in an imaginary Balkan country, with disastrous effects for the people and environment. Although most of what Weill wrote was just incidental music for various passages in the play, he also wrote the music for "Die Muschel von Margate" ("Mussel from Margate," also known as "Petroleum Song"), with lyrics by Piscator's dramaturg Felix Gasbarra.

The song is an only slightly fictionalized telling of the origin of the Shell Oil company. In the song it evolves out of a beachside souvenir stand selling cloisonné shells; in reality it was a London-based company that imported and sold seashells. In both reality and in the song, it leads to wealth for some and misery and death for others. This is one of the many songs Juliana Brandon and I are working up. Juliana has done a new translation, including a slight update that alludes to global warming. I've been wrestling with how to take a piano arrangement of a discordant post-expressionist mix of fox trot and tango, and find something like an equivalent on a guitar. No previews on this one, you'll have to come see us when we perform. If you want to hear what Lenya's colleague and sometime sometime romantic partner Otto Pasetti did with it in 1931, here you go 🔗.

If things had gone only a little differently, Weill and Brecht might have spent years under Piscator's wing, along with their Novembergruppe colleagues the artist George Grosz 🔗 and Brecht's later musical collaborator Hanns Eisler 🔗 (Grosz, like both Weill and Brecht, had altered his name. In their respective teens, Weill and Brecht changed their spellings from "Curt" and "Berthold"; George Grosz was "Georg Groß" until defiantly "de-Germanizing" his name in the middle of World War I; Eisler, for what it's worth, was legally "Johannes" but appears always to have used the nickname "Hanns".) But this was not to be, due to yet another encounter at Cafe Shlichter, this one probably not at all engineered by either party.

Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, including hat trick and levitation. Advertising poster (1899) for the magician.
Brecht, negotiating with Aufricht at Café Schlichter. Oh, wait, no, this is an 1899 poster for an otherwise unknown American magician went by the stage name of "Zan Zig." I was confused by the similarity of technique. Of course Zan Zig, lacking Elisabeth Hauptmann, probably had to preload his own rabbit.

In early April 1938, Brecht was chatting with actor Ernst Josef Aufricht at Cafe Schlichter. (Nothing on Aufricht in the English-language Wikipedia, here's the German 🔗.) Aufricht had recently inherited some money, and had invested in a multi-year lease on the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm with the intent of making his name as a director and impresario. He was looking for a first play to open there at the end of August. Brecht pitched him a few ideas; it seemed like Aufricht wasn't interested. Brecht pulled one more rabbit out of his hat: an update of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Aufricht bit.

At the risk of pressing a metaphor too far, this particular rabbit was born a bit premature. Brecht presented this to Aufricht as a work in progress. In fact, all he had at this point was a German translation of Gay's 18th-century text by his (Brecht's) assistant and mistress Elisabeth Hauptmann, something Hauptmann had pursued on her own, and which previously hadn't even particularly interested Brecht. Aufricht's projected opening night was about 18 weeks away.

Brecht plunged in. It's not clear how much buy-off (if any) he had from Weill at the beginning. Singlehandedly, in about a month, he had produced (and readied for publication) Die Ludenoper ("The Pimp's Opera"), an amalgam of Rudyard Kipling, François Villon (using the German translation by K.L. Ammer), pieces of John Gay's plot—more than would be in the final play—and Brecht's own ideas. He reset the piece from 18th-century London to the weeks leading up to Queen Victoria's coronation and made the highwayman Macheath a pimp, murderer, gangland kingpin, and sexual obsessive. Other characters underwent similar transformations, and the social critique became more explicit than in Gay. The piece was a bit rough—at some points it indicated the title of a song that did not yet even exist—but at least it gave him and Weill a solid starting point, about what Aufricht probably thought they had a month earlier.

Ludenoper in hand, Brecht, Weill, and their respective spouses headed for the French Riviera to work intensively without any interruptions other than swimming, meals, and sleep. They managed to maintain the necessary pace. Most of the borrowings from Kipling went away, although they definitely left a "flavor" behind, especially when Macheath (by now "Mackie Messer", "Mack the Knife") and police chief Tiger Brown reminisce about their days together in the British Army in India. Villon was intact, doing little to move the plot forward but providing various characters with cynical takes on human nature and providing most of Mack and Jenny's reminiscence about earlier years when he was her pimp (though in Villon's original poem, his first-person character seems more genuinely fond of Margot). And the deus ex machina ending grew beyond even John Gay's imagination: a messenger from the queen arrives on horseback, not only pardoning Macheath for no apparent reason but granting him a noble title, a castle and a pension.

Although I gather that Die Ludenoper was published, I've never seen a copy, so in terms of evolution of plot and characters I've really just got the starting point of John Gay's original piece, the end point of the finished Dreigrochenoper ("Threepenny Opera"), and a few miscellaneous remarks I've read. This probably isn't the place for a detailed comparison, but here are some more of the basics. Brecht's Peachum and Tiger Brown (in Gay's play, Lockit) are a bit more highly placed in society than in Gay's original. Rather than a petty criminal, Peachum is a power in the London underworld, who has organized all begging in London into a single coordinated racket. Tiger Brown is not a mere jailer, he is chief of police. Macheath has still managed to bigamously marry both Peachum's and Brown's daughters, though in Brecht's rework he has already married Lucy Brown before the play starts, and he is a much less reluctant bigamist (in Gay's play, he marries Lucy only to get the keys to his jail cell, and fears the sin of doing so); in both plays, the two wives discover each other by simultaneously going to visit Macheath in prison. In Threepenny, Brown is not at all inclined to have Mack hanged in order to gain an inheritance—he'd really rather have a solution that lets Mack live—but Brecht's Peachum is ready to ruin Victoria's coronation to assure this fatal outcome. Meanwhile, Polly Peachum, left to handle certain matters while Mack is imprisoned, shows herself to be a more highly skilled gang leader than Mack himself: one of the perils that Mack faces is that his subordinates aren't particularly interested in springing him, because Polly is a better boss, and business is thriving without him.

By mid-June, Weill was back in Berlin completing composition and a piano reduction for rehearsals to start August 10. Meanwhile Aufricht had assembled a strong cast, but a few calamities were ahead. The fictional Peachum clan provided a series of casting crises: Carola Neher, cast as Polly, had to leave and rush off to Davos where her poet husband Alfred Henschke (known as "Klabund") was ill and, as it turns out, dying; she was replaced by Roma Bahn. The original Peachum (I haven't been able to find his name) quit and was replaced by Erich Ponto from Dresden. And while Rosa Valetti as Mrs. Peachum didn't vanish, she refused to sing her one big solo song ("The Ballad of Sexual Dependency"), finding it too, well, sexual, and the song was dropped from the production; ironically, it was later restored in much less sexually open Vienna, where the role was apparently sung by a less prudish actress. All of that was only the start of it. There was lots of bickering by actors who wanted their parts expanded. Harald Paulsen, something of a dandy, insisted on wearing a blue bowtie as Mack and also insisted that even if his character was not visible in the first scenes of the play, there at least needed to be something about him. The result of that one was felicitous: Brecht quickly wrote the lyrics of the "Moritat" ("Mack the Knife") and Weill as quickly threw together a simple tune. They recognized right away that they had something good and that should open the show, even at the expense of a structural device that Weill clearly treasured: the intended opening song, in which Peachum greets the day, is the only thing in the play drawn directly from Johann Christoph Pepusch's music for Gay's Beggar's Opera. The idea had been to begin musically in the same place as Beggar's Opera, then head off in a different direction, but now that song came second.



Nazi-era German dagger
Bist du, Mackie?
Nazi-era German dagger, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Yeses 501, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


It was not entirely clear who was in charge. Director Erich Engel wanted to kill several musical passages Weill considered essential; meanwhile, Brecht kept making directorial suggestions to Engel, and all were arguing with Caspar Neher over visual elements of the piece. Musical director Theo Mackeben and the Lewis Ruth Band (led by Ludwig Rüth, who apparently was a little more halfhearted than others about this name-changing thing) only really became fully available six days before the opening, and there were the inevitable late changes of cutting songs, adding something brand new instead, adding and removing dialog, sometimes moving a line of dialog or even a song from one character to another. Musicians were playing from hand-written parts that were continually rewritten. An aria for Lucy Brown had to be dropped because Kate Kühl as Lucy simply didn't have the voice to sing it. Going into opening night, no one seems to have had a good feeling about how things were going. Aufricht was already looking for another play to bring in after what he expected would be a short run. And when the play finally opened August 31, the audience seemed tepid at first, listening politely at best through the first several songs, including "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny"), now generally considered a masterpiece. They finally came alive during the "Kanonen-Song" ("Cannon Song"), in which the murderous pimp Macheath and the police chief Tiger Brown reminisce happily about army life in general and slaughter in particular. From that point, the crowd were with them, and by the end of the opening night everyone knew they had a hit on their hands.

Of course, not everybody liked it. The right-wing Neue Preußische Kreuzzeitung accused them of "literary necrophilia" and the equally right-wing Deutsche Zeitung accused them of perpetrating a "political horror ballad" (actually pretty on the mark, it's just a question of whether that is good or bad), and when the play opened in Munich the Nazi press used that as the occasion for their first written attack on Brecht, but more surprisingly the Communist Rote Fahne complained there was "no trace of modern social or political satire" (probable translation: "the comrades are not completely toeing the party line"), and even some liberal bourgeois theater critics were unimpressed, presumably because they preferred their theater a bit more romantic: there really isn't anyone in Threepenny Opera with whom the audience can comfortably identify (even Polly evolves from an enraptured ingenue into an opportunistic criminal gang leader). Music critics were the most inclined to get it: Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, for example, saw it as a blend and update of multiple musical theater forms, and Theodor Adorno wrote quite acutely on Weill's music. (Credit where it's due: all of these examples come from Jürgen Schebera's Kurt Weill: an illustrated life.)

The chaos of rehearsal meant that when the play opened there was no definitive script and OR score. Changes that had been passed on orally needed to be written down for the first time. Since there was immediate demand to produce the play in other German (and German-speaking) cities, this needed to be remedied, and Brecht and Weill again set to work. At the beginning of October 1928, about nine weeks after the premiere, Universal Edition published a piano reduction (omitting the "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" either because of Rosa Valetti's squeamishness or their own); a stage copy was published in conjunction with publisher Felix Bloch Erben, and Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag published Die Songs der Dreigroschenoper, sort of a "greatest hits."

And a hit it was, the biggest theatrical hit of Weimar-era Germany, maybe the biggest Schlager of 1920s theater anywhere in the world. Aufricht's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm ran it for the entire 1928-1929 season with cast slowly changing because no one had imagined such a long run and most of the cast had other commitments. Within a year it had played in at least fifty theaters, and surpassed four thousand performances. Estimates vary as to how many times it played in Germany before the end of the Weimar Republic, but even the low estimates say it surpassed ten thousand performances; it may have been as high as forty thousand. Brecht and Weill each experienced their first major financial success. Brecht bought a car. Weill and Lenya moved first to a modern apartment in Westend neighborhood and then in 1932 bought a house in artsy, suburban Kleinmachnow southwest of Berlin. By then, the work had been translated into 18 languages. (Of course, 1932 proved to be a rather ill-advised time for a Jewish socialist to buy a house in the Berlin suburbs. The house was soon to be counted among Weill and Lenya's assets siezed by the Nazis. But back to happier matters.)

The Dreigroschenoper was not just a hit: in many ways something completely new. As Schebera says, Weill for the first time truly came up with a musical equivalent of Brecht's mix of "Luther's German," carefully deployed cliche, and criminal jargon: serious Baroque, parodistic Baroque, "shabby flourishes from light music, ballads, and Moritat forms," plus his own great melodies and "characteristic, almost skidding progression by half-steps." Presumably no one had ever written so many brilliantly "wrong" chords, nor ranged within one play over the distance from the parodistic Baroque of the "Jealousy Duet" to the angry pathos of Macheath's two songs as he expects to be hanged.

As you might imagine, the Lewis Ruth band was not exactly an ordinary theater orchestra. Placed onstage rather than in an orchestra pit, the seven musicians quickly mastered a score that called for them to play nineteen instruments. The two saxophonists (alto and tenor) must switch off at times to various other woodwinds, including bassoon. (I once tried to learn to play bassoon. It makes the saxophone look really easy. The saxophone is not easy.) One versatile musician covered banjo, guitar, bandoneon, and cello: you can bet that later productions had to divide that up differently! And, generally speaking, those later productions did have to divide it up rather than leave anything out: Weill did not at all like the idea of "orchestral reductions" for stage productions, and retained close control of any musical rewriting.

Marek Weber, 1934, holding a violin and bow
Marek Weber 🔗 in 1934, public domain, photographed by Jacob Merkelbach. From the Beeldbank Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

Conversely, the composer was thrilled to have all sorts of arrangements out there in the popular music world. Ullstein put out a piano and voice arrangement, as did Weill's usual publisher Universal Edition. Universal also put out a complete arrangement for piano and voice, one for jazz orchestra, one for salon orchestra, and not one but two for violin and piano (because the first proved too difficult for amateurs). Eight distinct record companies put out twenty recordings by 1930, including Telefunken's four-disc (78 RPM) album with texts by Brecht to provide a narrative context for the songs. The Telefunken album featured the Theo Mackeben, the Lewis Ruth Band, Lotte Lenya and other members of the original cast. As you might expect, it is available on Youtube and still sounds good 90 years later. Parlophon released instrumentals of "Barbara-Song" and the "Moritat" by Haller-Revue jazz orchestra (here's their take on the the "Moritat" a.k.a. "Mack the Knife" 🔗). The then quite new label Electrola put out a "dance potpourri" by the Marek Weber Orchestra (on Youtube and I recommend this one highly, especially fun for those who know the original well). [Deutsche] Grammophon issued Paul Godwin and His Jazz Symphony doing the "Kanonen-Song" ( Youtube link 🔗) and "Tango Ballad" a.k.a. "Pimp's Ballad" Youtube link 🔗). Even Weill himself wrote an orchestral suite, the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (might as well give you that on Youtube as well, an interesting contrast to Marek Weber's much lighter take 🔗).

Lenya was among the many cast members who were there for only part of Threepenny's run at the Schiffbauerdamm. A star now in her own right, in the next year or so she would portray Ismene in Sophocles' Oedipus at the Staatliches Schauspielhaus am Gendarmenmarkt, Alma in Marieluise Fleißer's Pioneers in Ingolstadt 🔗 directed by Brecht back at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, and Ilse in Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen ("Spring Awakening") at the Volksbühne am Bülowplatz. Except for perhaps Oedipus, these were works even more controversial than Threepenny: Pioneers in Ingolstadt is an only semi-fictionalized anti-militaristic play attacking sexism and corruption in Fleißer's home town, and Frühlings Erwachen, written around 1890 but first produced by Max Reinhardt in 1906, is about sexual repression, erotic fantasy, and youth suicide.

As noted above, the Communists at Rote Fahne didn't feel Brecht and Weill's satire of bourgeois corruption cut deeply enough. Of course, if it had satisfied them, it is unlikely it would have been performed a hundred times, let alone tens of thousands, but probably Brecht and Weill were not just being opportunistic: 1928 was pretty much the last time you could feel like Weimar Germany might be on the path to becoming a stable, social democratic democracy. The hyperinflation 🔗 was firmly in the past; Hitler was a discredited laughingstock with a small following; the Great Depression had not yet arrived to kick the props out from under everyone's hopes. The Social Democratic government of Berlin announced the first Berlin Im Licht ("Berlin in Light") festival for October 1928, celebrating the city's neon and glowing shop windows, and featuring illuminated monuments and commercial buildings. The festival commissioned music from Weill as well as from Heinz Tiessen and Max Butting, the two founders of the musical division of the Novembergruppe (see my 20 May 2021 blog post). Weill went against his usual practice and wrote his own lyrics for his "Berlin Im Licht Song" (although Schebera says Brecht probably had a hand in it as well), another of the songs Juliana and I have been working up. Paraphrasing (and abbreviating a bit): "If you want to go for a stroll, sunlight is enough, but if you want to see Berlin, it just isn't. This isn't some cozy little place, it's a real city: to see it, you need some WATTS. So what? So what? Let's make some light so we can see what's there."

An instrumental version of the song premiered 15 October 1928 at the Wittenbergplatz in front of the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Berlin's biggest department store), performed by what has variously been described as a "wind orchestra" or a "military-style band" under the direction of Hermann Scherchen. The next night cabaret star Paul Graetz sang the lyrics at a grand ball at the Krolloper across the street from the Reichstag. Few could imagine that less than three years later the Krolloper would close due to loss of its government subsidy, and a year and a half after that the Reichstag would be reduced to ashes.


There are a ton of full and partial recordings of Threepenny Opera out there in German, in various English translations, and of course in many other languages. Here's the one I grew up with. 🔗 (What? Small children shouldn't grow up on songs about murderous pimps? Obviously we come from very different families.) Musically it is rock-solid, though Marc Blitzstein's "translation" is more of an "adaptation", toned down (though not a lot) for the requirements of 1950s America. Here's my favorite English-language version 🔗: the mid-1970s version from the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), produced by Joseph Papp. The translation is by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. We're using the Manheim/Willett translation for our arrangement of "What Keeps Mankind Alive". The only thing I don't like as much about this NYSF recording is that, unlike the others, it omits the narration that Brecht later wrote to stitch the story together when presented as just a musical performance rather than a full play. In German, here again is the 1930 Telefunken version which is the closest thing we have to an "original cast album"; this 1958 version 🔗, which like the 1930 version and the Blitzstein version features Lotte Lenya as Jenny, is generally considered definitive, but let me also put in a word for the Ensemble Modern version featuring Nina Hagen as Mrs. Peachum.

[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: 15 July 2021

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