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The Weill Project blog: Not exactly a manifesto

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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Kurt Weill biography

Lotte Lenya biography

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#weillproject #kurtweill #joemabel #julianabrandon #yvetteendrijautzki #darrenloucas #whatkeepsmankindalive #youkali #speaklow #nannaslied #jealousyduet #musselfrommargate
Weill Project logo.

Several people have asked me how our approach to the music of Kurt Weill differs from any of a number of other people's. Good question. If you've been following the Weill Project from the beginning, the next few paragraphs here will be a bit of a recapitulation, but much of what comes later should be new to you. And if you are in "TL;DR""Too long;
didn't read."
By the way, there are four "Easter eggs" hidden on this blog page (if you don't count this one).
mode: although Weill is one of the great songwriters of the Twentieth Century, there are few guitar arrangements of his songs, and few if any any well-known such performances. The only person I'm aware of who arranged and performed more than a couple of Kurt Weill songs on guitar is the late Dave Van Ronk, and his approach was very different from mine. With Juliana coming from a classical background and me mainly from folk and rock, the Weill Project has already been a very interesting experiment in bringing together two different musical traditions in a manner that I think suits this material well. Also, as you can see from this blog over time, we are embarked on an exploration that extends to academic study and visual art as well as to the music itself.

How I came to Weill's music

I've known at least some of Kurt Weill's music as long as I've known anything. I grew up in a very musical and very political household. As I've only half joked, the 1954 Original New York Cast album of Threepenny Opera was in "heavy rotation" in my childhood along with Pete Seeger 🔗 and Captain Kangaroo 🔗, and of course I heard various swing/jazz versions of "Mack the Knife" from Threepenny. Little by little, I became aware of more of Weill's music beyond that one play. Probably the first was the 1966 recording of "Alabama Song" by The Doors, which I noticed was also Weill's. That sent me looking for what else he'd written—not easy to research as a pre-teen in the mid-1960s—and I became aware that he'd written a few American standards such as "Speak Low" and "September Song", definitely more my mother's music at that time than mine. I'm not sure when I first heard "Surabaya Johnny" and "What Was Sent to the Soldier's Wife", but I'm pretty sure it was before I was out of high school, and very sure I immediately recognized them as great songs. During college, my interest in Threepenny Opera and in Weill was further piqued by the New York Shakespeare Festival production in the mid-1970s, which used the Manheim/Willett translation that I soon came to understand was much closer to the Bertolt Brecht's 🔗 original lyrics than Marc Blitzstein's earlier, somewhat toned-down adaptation.

I picked up several of Lotte Lenya's 🔗 recordings of other Weill material (mostly Brecht/Weill material), ran across a few covers by the great New York-based folksinger Dave Van Ronk 🔗 and, later, differing from Lenya in an opposite direction from Van Ronk, soprano Teresa Stratas's 🔗 two all-Weill albums, which were the first to introduce me to his French material and also the first to give me any real appreciation for some of his American material. Then came the Hal Willner 🔗-produced tribute Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill 🔗, which includes excellent performances by (among others) Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull
You found the Marianne Faithfull Easter egg!
(cropped from a 1966 photo by Arnold Vente, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license)
, Todd Rundgren, Carla Bley, and Dagmar Krause (the first I'd heard of her).

Still, none of this really got me interested in performing any of this material. It was interesting that this wasn't just music to be performed by my grandparents' contemporaries such as Lenya. As a performer myself, I'd done several songs by Lou Reed, several others I'd learned from Dave Van Ronk's records, and one closely associated with Marianne Faithfull ("As Tears Go By") and I greatly admire Carla Bley and Todd Rundgren (while considering them totally out of my league as technical musicians), but Weill was still material I related to as a listener, not as a performer. And from about 1990 until very recently, I really wasn't playing much, so I wasn't adding to my repertoire. In the meanwhile, I kept encountering more of Weill's music, more different performers' approaches to his music, began to have more of an appreciation for his American period, and also as I got older the first half of the Twentieth Century began to feel closer, not farther.

The Weill Project

In December 2020, as I was recovering from Covid-19 (the pandemic, by the way, made Marianne Faithfull quite ill and killed Hal Willner: get your damned vaccine if you haven't already), I picked up a guitar, started playing "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" by ear, and realized I wanted to plunge into this music, and that I would almost certainly have something to bring to it. I also had the almost immediate thought that a lot of this music is much more suitable for a female vocalist, which made me think more or less instantly of Juliana Brandon (who had never heard me play, but I'd often heard her sing, and we had musician friends in common), and was thrilled that she was intrigued by the possibility.

Why Juliana? She's smart, she has a great voice, and while she's doubtless more at home singing Bach or Schubert
You found the Schubert Easter egg!
, I'd already heard her roam as far afield from that as the music of Frank Zappa, including an absolutely great take on "Idiot Bastard Son" 🔗 that makes it sound like of course it was written for soprano, and Zappa's own version is the weird approach to the song. It turned out that Juliana knew less of Weill than I would have expected (apparently it's a repertoire that went unmentioned in her music department, they probably leave it to the theater people), but as we've plunged in, it's become clear that I chose well, both in terms of a collaborator and because she's a great fit for a lot of these songs, especially songs like "Youkali" where Weill slipped a bit more into Romanticism than he would probably ever have admitted. Also, our voices turn out to blend surprisingly well on our few duets. Juliana has been very much a collaborator on this project but for the rest of this essay, I'm going to speak mainly for myself; Juliana has already touched on these matters in two essays on this blog, Happy Birthday, Kurt Weill! and the initial portion of Lotte Lenya & Nanna's Lied; she's also blogged about Lotte Lenya's life in the latter portion of that "Nanna's Lied" essay and in Lotte Lenya and the road to Threepenny Opera.

In many ways, we are "building the road as we travel." This is very much an exploratory project. Musically—and music is certainly the heart of the Weill Project—we're trying to take on only either material that is very little known and/or material where we believe we have something really new to bring to it. That means, for example, that for the moment we are staying away from some songs we love, such as "Surabaya Johnny" or the "Barbara Song" because so far we haven't found anything original to bring. We're also leaning more, at least initially, toward music suitable for Juliana's voice rather than for mine: of the fifteen songs we plan to do in our concerts, Juliana will sing ten songs solo, I will do three, and there will be two duets (one of which was originally planned as just hers until she asked me to take a verse or two).

Also: although Weill's music is central to this project, we almost immediately decided to extend beyond music and that the non-musical aspects of the project will extend into various "Weill-adjacent" material. (We might eventually go broader musically, but our initial repertoire is all Weill.) We're doing a ton of reading on Weill, on Lotte Lenya, on Bertolt Brecht
You found the Bertolt Brecht Easter egg!
, on the Novembergruppe, on the culture of the Weimar Republic and of German exiles in America, all topics on which I'm definitely going deeper than I had in the past. Brushing up my German, too. On another front, although I'm already pretty familiar with some of Weill's major American collaborators (Ogden Nash 🔗 is another person whose work I grew up on, and Langston Hughes 🔗 Ira Gershwin 🔗 are hardly unfamiliar), I expect to be learning a lot more about them and about others of whom I know far less (Maxwell Anderson 🔗, Ben Hecht 🔗, Paul Green 🔗, etc.). It is very much our hope and plan that besides performing concerts and, probably, club gigs we will be doing lectures and workshops to help establish a context that will help people better understand a body of music some of which dates back almost a century and all of which was written before either of us were born.

Other key aspects of the project are the visual and the political. Weill was above all a theater composer, and for the most part, in three different countries, he worked in a left-political theatrical milieu. He was, along with Brecht and Erwin Piscator 🔗 one of the theoreticians of epic theater, a concept of theater that attempted to get away from what Brecht disparagingly characterized as a "culinary" approach and to try instead to affect the world. Certainly in our writings on this blog and, I anticipate, in our lectures, we will engage these lives and music in a political and historical context as well as an artistic one; we are still working out where that aspect fits our stage performances (beyond the possibility of doing benefit shows). Our project definitely integrates a theatrical/visual element: Juliana has, over her lifetime, been as much of a visual artist as a vocalist, including that she is one of the most innovative puppeteers I've ever known: her Paper Puppet Opera productions alone would put her on Seattle's artistic map, and her production of Schubert's Winterreise may be the single most powerful puppet performance I've ever witnessed (here's a writeup from Seattle's CityArts magazine). I'm also a serious photographer and a pretty decent visual artist, if I may say so myself, mainly in terms of life drawing. We've also recruited visionary German artist Yvette Endrijautzki to join Juliana (and possibly, TBD, myself) in creating at least one work of visual art related to each song we will be performing. Among other things, these will serve as placards to be displayed during the songs, a standard device of epic theater.

Some songs

Probably all of that is more or less familiar to those who have been following our project, but for the rest of this post I want to talk about how some of this applies to particular songs, and the variety of ways we are approaching them.

The Weill Project started with me playing "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" by ear while recovering from Covid, still barely having a voice. It's one of only four songs we are doing where I never even bothered to look at sheet music. I have no idea what key it was written in, but that's really not an issue with Weill, who once explained that "You can't really start doing the orchestration until the rehearsals begin, because until you know who the singers will be, you don't know which key to choose for each number." Starting from my first spontaneous version, I've slowly honed an arrangement: tempo shifts, an intro of my own that is based on the chord changes in part of the song but takes a slightly different course, and choosing a key that scrapes the bottom of my range to get just a little gravel in the low notes.

The lyrics of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" are nominally by Brecht, but most of them come from K.L. Ammer's German translation of 15th-century French poet François Villon. I'm using the excellent Manheim/Willett English-language translation ("…No matter how you twist / No matter what lies you tell / Food is the first thing, morals follow on…"). Like most of the songs we are doing, this has rarely, if ever, been performed on guitar. Unlike some other songs where we've tried to be very "Weillian" even in our modifications, my arrangement probably draws more on the style of Weill's Novembergruppe colleague Hanns Eisler 🔗, another frequent collaborator of Brecht's, whose song style was a little closer to folk music despite his having studied under Arnold Schoenberg and being a master of the twelve-tone technique. (Aside: my father used to play some Eisler songs on guitar, particularly Eisler's setting of "Das Lied der Moorsoldaten" / "The Peat Bog Soldiers".) I omit two measures where the title is spoken (rather than sung) to introduce the chorus, because that was more theatrical than I wanted, and while I don't play this piece identically every time, I pretty consistently use a brisk march rhythm in several places (e.g. starting about 1:35 in the YouTube recording linked above) and a looser, more Spanish-sounding, highly arpeggiated approach in other passages (e.g. starting about 0:50 and 1:07), and my arrangement sticks to a simpler set of chords than Weill himself chose in his arrangement for Threepenny Opera. I'm trying to keep it relatively "stark" rather than "pretty," but deliberately without some of those "right wrong notes" for which Weill was famous, and which we've left in for most other pieces.

In contrast, "Youkali" is pretty—gorgeous even—and very French. As we've previously discussed, having escaped from Nazi Germany, Weill in Paris tried to write songs that would be popular with the French public. He originally wrote "Youkali" as an instrumental interlude for the 1934 play Marie Galante. The following year the French actor and trade union organizer Roger Bertrand, writing under the pseudonym "Roger Fernay," wrote lyrics for the tune, which he and Weill jointly published as "Youkali." The resulting song describes an idyll that proves to be only a dream (as I said, very French) and any good performance needs to be simultaneously powerful and wistful. Usually it is performed either as piano-and-vocal or by a small string ensemble. This was the first song I asked Juliana to think seriously about singing, with the intent that I would function mainly as an accompanist. December 2020 was still very much Covid Time, and vaccines were not yet available. We finally had a chance to try the song together on a verandah on a sunny day in January 2021, and that was the first time we were able to have any confidence that we could work well together despite our very different musical backgrounds. On the very first time through, we knew we were on to something. I think up to then my girlfriend Michelle had been merely humoring me about my intent to get back to being a musician. Somewhere about twelve bars into the song, she became a convert.

Juliana and I soon found that we can make to take the song "bigger" or "smaller," depending on the context in which we are performing. I'd call the following "medium-sized" if you want the full-blown version, you'll have to come see us in concert (and I hate to say it, but as of December 2021 we are no longer confident when that will be).

As in "What Keeps Mankind Alive?," there were lots of decisions to make. I should note that this is the one song for which I've drawn at all on someone else's guitar arrangement, a German who calls himself "sventje" and who placed this arrangement online 🔗. I don't follow that slavishly, and I bring a lot to this that cannot be found on that page, but I think his decisions about chording are uniformly excellent. I particularly like what he came up with on the phrase, "Youkali, c'est la terre où l'on quitte tous les soucis" about eight bars into the chorus. I would never have found that on my own and, in fact, spent about half an hour with my friend Darren Loucas 🔗, guitarist extraordinaire, just working out how the hell to finger the passage (which half a year later feels totally normal to me, what was hard about this? But that is the nature of learning).

I'll let Juliana speak for herself (if she's so inclined) about taking this one on as a vocalist, but for me I had to think first about how much to lay down a tango rhythm to underpin Juliana's rather flowing vocal. Answer: quite a bit, much more than I would do if I were playing the piece as a solo instrumental, or even if I were singing it in my very different vocal style. Still, I didn't want to fall into a narrow "rhythm guitar" approach, and in a lot of places I either double or echo the melody, or make other transitions between chords, and there are times when I let the rhythm be left implicit for a few bars while I play something less strict, before getting back to a distinct tango. In the YouTube recording above, you can hear me shift several times among these approaches between 3:10 and 3:50. It's a balancing act. My guideline is to keep it danceable: I don't leave the rhythm implicit any longer than I think a good dancer would find comfortable to still stay on beat.

Of course, if I were to play the song as a solo guitar piece it would be very different, especially if I let go of keeping it in a danceable rhythm. An F Major chord might become an Fmaj7♭5, or I'd use some hammer-on trills; I might slow it down considerably, at least for the first verse and chorus, sometimes pause at the end of a line to let an unresolved chord hang a bit, and I'd certainly play more melody given the lack of a vocal. I first made the acquaintance of this song some forty years ago, but I've been living closely with this song for about nine months now, and it makes an interesting roommate. I suspect it still has more aspects to show me.

Here's another YouTube video of "Youkali," just me practicing and exploring a little. I wasn't particularly trying for a "performance" here, but I think it should be of some interest:

I might as well next take up another for which we also have a "living room recording" on YouTube. "Speak Low"
You found the "Speak Low" Easter egg!
(Illustration by Juliana Brandon, all rights reserved.)
is one of three songs we plan to do from the the 1943 Broadway musical One Touch of Venus, all with lyrics by Ogden Nash. It is certainly the most serious lyric the usually comic Mr. Nash ever wrote. I gather this song has been at least as much of a challenge for Juliana as for me (on most of these songs, I'm very much the one who has to scramble, because I'm a more advanced arranger than I am a player). Juliana wrote in March of this year, "…one of my biggest pet peeves is when opera singers try to sing pop. It almost always sounds stilted and laughably pretentious. I say this as an operatic pop singer myself, …but my approach [has been to] take on pop music and exaggerate its operatic possibilities for comedic effect." (If you want to hear her doing that brilliantly, check out her take on Nena's "99 Luftballons" 🔗.) "[For] the Weill Project … I need to find a way to sing some of his poppier stuff in a way that still sounds authentic when a comedic take is not desirable." She then goes on to talk about why that can't be simply a "formula" or she runs the risk of being, well, "stilted and laughably pretentious."

Although we are definitely still evolving this arrangement (among other things, I think we rushed that a little), I believe we've found our basic approach and are already out of the danger of being "laughable" or "pretentious." Juliana's voice rings out beautifully on the high notes (I'd say better and more consistently than Mary Martin's on the original) while still showing some restraint, and I think my somewhat jazzy guitar approach sets it off well, certainly more appropriate for 21st-century tastes than the "salon orchestra" original. I have no real pretensions of being a jazz guitarist—that implies chops that I simply don't have—but this song definitely called out to me to be arranged mostly with "jazz chords," so that's what I did. I'm sure that once I have my part down a little more solidly I'll want to take a solo and I think we still need to work out how to wring a little more emotion out of the bridge ("Time is so old and love so brief…"); but I think this has found its basic form with Juliana's very pure vocal and my more syncopated accompaniment (very 1940s, when it comes to that).

So that brings us to one we're not quite ready to put in front of y'all in the general public yet (though we did trot it out in front of 30 or so people at my recent 66.6666… birthday party, and I don't think I lost any friends). As I wrote in March, in 1928 Erwin Piscator, probably the most prominent Berlin theater director of the 1920s and a strong influence on Brecht, commissioned Weill to write incidental music for a play by Léo Lania variously known as Konjunktur or Oil Boom. In the play, only fragments of which survive, three oil companies fight for control of an oil field in a previously paradisical location, ultimately leaving nothing but devastation. It is one of the first known works of environmentalist protest art (Ibsen's Enemy of the People doesn't count, the tainted spa water is a plot device, not a theme.) Like Weill, Lania was a secular, leftist Jew who eventually emigrated via France to the U.S. I've also recently learned from Juliana that like Weill, Lania was a lover of Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya. Anyway, Weill was teamed with lyricist Felix Gasbarra (no English-language Wikipedia article but here he is in German 🔗) to write what became "Die Muschel von Margate" ("Mussel from Margate"), a rather scathing (and mostly accurate) song about the origins of the Shell Oil Company. Juliana has done her own very singable translation, with a bit of an update about global warming tacked onto the end.

Rhythmically, the song is pretty straightforward. Like many Weill tunes from the late Weimar years, it uses a dance rhythm. Tonally, the piece is so far out there in expressionist territory, so full of weird-ass German cluster-chords, that it took us a while to notice that the rhythm was kind of normal, even danceable. I think my girlfriend Michelle was the first of us to really notice: listening to rehearsals as the monster began to find its legs, she pointed out that part of the chorus sounded like a tango. Indeed it did, but now that we have it down I think it's really more of a rumba, or at least I'm playing it that way.

This time I worked from a voice-and-piano reduction and did my best to preserve as many of Weill's "right wrong notes" as possible. It was really tricky working out how to play this on a guitar. I suspect that playing it is a challenge even on piano, but on a piano pretty much any combination of up to half a dozen notes is possible; guitar arrangements are much more restricted by the "geography" of the neck. On this song I range fromn low E, the lowest note in a standard guitar tuning, up more than three octaves to F# on the fourteenth fret on the high E string. There are a few passages where nothing at all like the piano arrangement was going to work, and I had to come up with different solutions for guitar. I'm pretty happy with what I found. For example, there's a couple of places in the song where I "double" a note, fingering the B string on the fifth fret to produce an E while also playing the open high E string to produce the same note, and another where I introduce some counterpoint that wasn't in the original. (Stay tuned, you'll eventually get to hear this.)

Once again Darren Loucas helped me find my way through a couple of tricky fingering transitions, and I want to really thank him for not just giving me a fingering I probably never would have found for one passage but explaining what he was thinking, which let me apply similar principles elsewhere. There can be really interesting tradeoffs between keeping your hand in approximately the same position on the neck of the guitar for a measure or two and getting an easier (or just more familiar) fingering by moving up five frets and down one string. Until working on this body of music I hadn't thought about it much. Most folk tunes barely go above about the fifth fret, rock tends to go there mainly for single-note lead or for barre chords, and even the Piedmont picking I learned from the late Peter Weismiller tends to get very formulaic once it heads up the neck. Arranging Weill has made me think about the whole fretboard and what to do to make certain passages even playable. Much as I'm not really a jazz guitarist, a classical player would doubtless find my technique appalling, especially my putting the guitar on the "wrong" knee, but I'm definitely picking up a lot of ideas that are more characteristic of that approach to the instrument.

Which brings us to "Nannas Lied" ("Nanna's Song"), a distinctly classical Brecht/Weill song we are rehearsing as of August 2021. Juliana has already written nicely about the song as an introduction to her biographical writing on Lenya. As she says, despite his many tirades against Romanticism in music, "Weill sounds practically Schubertian here in certain regards." We've decided to go with that: my guitar arrangement uses a lot of arpeggios and a few glissandos, and while I made a few deliberate choices to keep things from getting too uniformly "pretty," I did not entirely shy away from lushness as I usually would in arranging Weill.

I'm not at all sure if anyone else has taken on "Nannas Lied" with a guitar—if they have, I haven't heard it as of this writing—but in this case piano sheet music was very useful in letting me see that part of what is effectively melody line here is not in the vocals (this is even truer of "Bilbao Song," by the way), and I've done my best to preserve all that in my guitar arrangement. Again, stay tuned.

Finally, I want to talk about a song which we are deliberately turning into a hash: the "Jealousy Duet" from Threepenny Opera is comic to begin with—a parody of opera buffa that also sneaks in a tiny bit of rapid tango—and the idea of me singing a part originally written for a mezzo soprano adds another layer of buffa. I've written what is definitely an adaptation rather than a translation, with almost no lines preserved from the original and even some (I hope sufficiently Weillian) musical interpolations—extra lyrics that break character, lines repeated to accommodate these extra lyrics, while modulating up a tone to avoid monotony, and swapping certain musical lines from my Lucy to Juliana's Polly because I hadn't a hope in hell of singing them, even if transposed down an octave and even if going for comic effect. Our retooled "Jealousy Duet" is definitely not yet ready for prime time, and once it is we will save it for our live shows: we have to give you something to anticipate!

Weill's mentor Ferruccio Busoni (see earlier blog entry) once wrote that, "Notation is to [the composer's] improvisation as the portrait is to the living model. It is for the interpreter to resolve the rigidity of the signs into the primitive emotion" (italics Busoni's). Rather than rely on any formula, we are bringing a wide variety of approaches to the relationship between a performance and a written musical work. We hope you will enjoy the results!

I hope I haven't worn out your patience and that I've given something of an answer to the "What is this you are doing and why?" questions. Please do feel free to write to us at And also: we've reached the point where we have enough songs together that we could do a pretty fun house concert, if anyone in striking distance of Seattle is interested in having us.

Next blog post: Brecht (3) and… Charles Lindbergh?

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
All rights reserved.

Original date: 23 August 2021
Last modified: 18 December 2021

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