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The Weill Project blog: Brecht (4): Rise and Fall of the City

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #bertoltbrecht #lottelenya #mauriceabravanel #joemabel #weillproject #berlin #mahagonny #manwithoutqualities #weillbio

(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

Cover of the first edition of "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften"
Cover of the first edition of the first volume of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1930; the cover itself is in the public domain.

The great Austrian writer Robert Musil 🔗 spent the last twenty years of his life writing the unfinished and presumably unfinishable philosophical novel known in English as The Man Without Qualities 🔗. That literal translation of the German title Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften completely loses a German-language pun: in German, a self-made man is a "Mann mit Eigenschften," a "man with qualities." The novel follows the mathematician Ulrich who, at age 32, has tired of being a Young Man of Promise. Ulrich takes a job on the team that is planning celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the reign of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef: an event that of course will never happen. As history tells us, before that date Franz Josef's heir presumptive, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, will pay a visit to Sarajevo; Gavrilo Princip will shoot the Archduke and trigger World War I; World War I will bring about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But in Musil's novel, that must remain in the future. Detail will pile upon detail, the pace of time will slow and slow. After writing some 1,400 pages, Musil died, exiled in Switzerland with his Jewish wife while yet another world war raged. Ulrich never had to arrive at the fatal moment of the Archduke's assassination.

We do not have that particular liberty. Ulrich can linger in the corrupt, absurd, but retrospectively paradisical Austro-Hungarian Empire forever; Kurt Weill et. al. are about to be wrenched painfully from Germany's corrupt, absurd, but retrospectively paradisical Golden Twenties. The Wall Street stock market crash will echo to Europe, shatter the fragile Weimar Republic, and usher in Hitler's Twelve-Year Reich. Most of Germany's best and brightest—Weill, Lenya, and Brecht included—will land in America: some to stay, some only for the duration of Nazizeit.

We are not quite there yet. There may not be time for "a hundred visions and revisions," 🔗 but there is time for a few. We left off in September 1929 after Happy End flopped as a play, probably deservedly despite several fine songs. By that time, Brecht and Weill had expanded Mahagonny from the suite of songs performed in 1927 at Baden-Baden to something on the scale of a full-blown opera. Musicologist Alfred Einstein would eventually compare the result to Wagner's Ring Cycle, both in terms of its ambition and as an even darker critique of capitalism than Wagner's. Weill declared, "If the bounds of opera cannot accommodate… a rapprochment with the theatre of the time (Zeittheater), then its bounds must be broken." In the next year, Brecht and Weill were to bring Mahagonny to the stage and complete one more play together, Der Jasager (more on that next time), but after that their collaboration would not to be renewed until both left Germany, and then only fitfully. The pair were to drift apart politically, with Brecht becoming an increasingly radical and sometimes doctrinaire Communist, and they wrote clashing articles on their respective understandings of "epic theater" (see our blog post, "What is Epic Theater"), with Weill's essays seeming to reduce Brecht to a mere librettist while Brecht wrote that epic theater "radically separat[es] the elements" (text, music, production) and removes any notion of the primacy of one element over another. As Jürgen Schebera puts it in his Weill biography, Weill didn't quite argue for the "primacy of music" but he came pretty close, in that he saw musical numbers as driving structure. Still, despite simmering conflict, their work together in 1929-1930 maintained their usual standard.

By April 1929, a draft of the Grosse Mahagonny ("Big Mahagonny", properly Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny") was complete, and Weill's usual publisher Universal had published a piano reduction and libretto. Wikipedia gives a good synopsis 🔗 of the rather convoluted plot; I see no purpose in rehashing it here beyond saying that the guilty, self-serving and wealthy prosper; the innocent, idealistic and poor are condemned to death; the most abject sinner will thank G-d (and change nothing in his behavior) when delivered from calamity; love conquers nothing; but there is always a dream of the next utopia.

Otto Klemperer
Otto Klemperer, some time between 1920 and 1940. Public domain photograph from the work is from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

The play was challenging to produce, to say the least. A vast expansion of the 1927 Kleine Mahagonny ("Little Mahagonny"), at 2-1/2 hours it is by no means a short piece. It requires a relatively large orchestra (partly onstage, partly off, combining conventional orchestral instruments—though very few orchestral string instruments—with such unusual choices as bandoneon 🔗 and four-string banjo), and it mixes operatic style with the "song style" of the Kleine Mahagonny, Threepenny Opera and Happy End, requiring a combination of operatic and relatively untrained singers. Add that to a radical critique of bourgeois society in general and capitalism in particular, and it really is a minor wonder that it made it to the stage in any form.

Otto Klemperer, conductor of Berlin's Krolloper, had loved the original Kleine Mahagonny. In April 1929, Weill played part of the piano reduction of the Grosse Mahagonny for him; according to Weill, his initial reaction was very favorable, but within hours he called back in tears to say that the Krolloper could not take it on, presumably because of its harsh social and political critique rather than its technical difficulty. Universal Edition agreed to help Weill "shop" for an opera house that would do the piece, finally landing Gustav Brecher 🔗 in Leipzig. (Brecher's association with Weill would eventually lead to Brecher's being hounded to death by the Nazis.) Productions were arranged to open 9 March 1930 at Leipzig's Neues Theater, and also three days later in Kassel and in Braunschweig, both of the latter cities being smaller than Jersey City or Tacoma, Washington today. And even with Brecher in Leipzig, there were compromises: some material seen as sacrilegious was dropped; sexuality was toned down, as were the texts of placards in finale. But other ideas made it through quite intact: despite the play being nominally set somewhere in western North America, Brecht had instructed that the setting not be exoticized and that for German performance, "Any suggestion of Wild West or cowboy romanticism and any accentuation of a typically American milieu are to be avoided." Hence a character that had at one point been called "Jack O'Brien" became "Jakob Schmidt".

Marlene Dietrich, 1951
Life seems to have given me another excuse to post a picture of Marlene Dietrich. Here she is in No Highway in the Sky, 1951.

Brecht and Weill's frequent collaborator Caspar Neher did the set design for all three productions. In Leipzig, Walther Brügmann directed and Brecher conducted. In Kassel, Jakob Geis directed and now-veteran Weill conductor Maurice Abravanel conducted. In Braunschweig, Heinrich Voigt directed and Klaus Nettstraeter conducted. Predictably, reviews split along political lines, but with the advent of the depression and the resulting growth of the hard right, bad reviews from that quarter were the least of their concerns. The Nazis considered the show to be Communist propaganda, and responded with violence and death threats. Although the production in Kassel went smoothly, in Leipzig Nazis rioted in the theater at the premiere almost to the point of stopping the performance, and in Braunschweig they made physical attacks; the Braunschweig production ran only two nights. Other theaters that had contracted for later productions all cancelled, except for one in Prague.

In particular, none of the three Berlin opera houses would touch the piece. Not that Berlin was completely impenetrable. On 12 April 1930, Heinrich Strubel hosted an hour-long radio broadcast "Für und wider Mahagonny" ("For and against Mahagonny") on Funkstunde Berlin, about half of which consisted of a performance of seven numbers from the play by the Berlin Radio Orchestra under the baton of Theo Mackeben. Mackeben had conducted the theater orchestra for the Berlin productions of Threepenny Opera and Happy End. On 16 October 1930 Mahagonny was produced in Frankfurt am Main as part of 50th-anniversary celebration for their opera house, with Herbert Graf directing and H.W. Steinberg conducting; the production design did not copy Leipzig, but was an original design by Ludwig Sievert. While the opening night went smoothly, a second performance a week later was disrupted by another staged Nazi riot. They managed to give their planned eight performances, but the rioting hardly encouraged anyone to put on the play in Berlin. For a while it looked like a Berlin production would go forward working with Max Reinhardt 🔗 and starring Marlene Dietrich 🔗 but that, too fell through. It has long been rumored that someone paid Reinhardt to turn down the project.

Mahagonny picture disc, 1931
Picture disc issued in conjunction with the Berlin production of Mahagonny: "Alabama Song" and "Denn wie man sich bettet" ("We All Make the Bed We Must Lie In"), performed by Emil Róosz & sein Künstler-Orchester ("Emil Róosz & his Artists' Orchestra"). Artwork by Nina Tokumbet.

Finally, Ernst Josef Aufricht came through once again. In late 1931, the Berlin theater scene was declining in the face of the Depression. The Krolloper had closed permanently in July, and would next be used as the seat of Hitler's captive Reichstag after the Reichstag fire. Nonetheless, Aufricht rented the Theater am Kurfürstendamm and arranged a production with conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky. The cast included Weill's wife Lotte Lenya, Harald Paulsen (the original Mack the Knife), and Trude Hesterberg, star of cabaret and film. The play was significantly cut for length, including dropping some orchestral passages, but several songs were also added, including one that has become quite well known, "Ach bedenken Sie, Herr Jakob Schmidt." The opening was hyped as a major event. Those who attended the first night received a 78 RPM recording of "Alabama Song" and "Denn wie man sich bettet" ("We All Make the Bed We Must Lie In") performed by Emil Róosz & sein Künstler-Orchester ("Emil Róosz& his Artists' Orchestra"). One of the first "picture discs," and certainly the first in Europe, it featured art by Nina Tokumbet, a Russian-born artist (1900-1947) about whom there is all too little to be found online.

Mahagonny opened in Berlin on 21 Dec 1931. There were 40 performances over the next three or four months and miscellaneous recordings. The Nazis and other far-right forces made a stink, of course, but they did not yet dominate Berlin at that date as they did some other parts of Germany. At the same time, the Great Depression meant what seemed so radical to Otto Klemperer's colleagues in April 1929 now seemed entirely appropriate to a broad swathe of the theater-going public. Still, a justifiable fear of right-wing violence meant there would be few other productions. It was performed in Vienna in 1932 and Copenhagen in 1933, and an adaptation of the Kleine Mahagonny was performed in Paris 11 December 1932, but after that it would be a long time until Mahagonny was again performed in Europe, nor would there be a comprehensive recording until 1956.

[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).]

Harald Paulsen, photographed by Alexander Binder
Harald Paulsen, photographed by Alexander Binder. Public domain.
Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill at a piano in New York, 1942
Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in New York, 1942. Wide World Photos. Public domain.
Trude Hesterberg, photographed by Alexander Binder
Trude Hesterberg, photographed by Alexander Binder. Public domain.

Next blog post: Brecht (5): Jasager & Neinsager

Next Weill biography blog post: Brecht (5): Jasager & Neinsager

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Original date: 13 September 2021
Last modified: 13 September 2021

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