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The Weill Project blog: Brecht (5): Jasager & Neinsager

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

Oil painting of Arthur Waley by Ray Stratchey
Oil painting of Arthur Waley by Rache "Ray" Strachey 🔗, circa 1930s. Public domain. Waley translated Tanikō from Japanese to English; Elisabeth Hauptmann then translated Waley's English to German, and Brecht used that as the basis for Der Jasager.

As the Grosse Mahagonny was headed into production, Brecht and Weill were working on what would prove to be the last collaboration of their years in Germany. Der Jasager, sometimes known in English as He Said Yes would divide the German public and the critics, but this time—much as with Fritz Lang's film Metropolis—not along the usual left-right lines. Its advocacy of individual sacrifice for the greater good produced a "both ends against the middle" response; even some associates of Brecht's found his "yes-sayer" far too close to the soldiers who had dutifully gone off to die in the World War. Brecht, separately from Weill, would eventually write a companion piece Der Neinsager, sometimes known in English as He Said No, with exactly the opposite message.

Weill and Brecht had become the sensation of the German theater and music scenes in 1927 when their Mahagonny Songspiel made its way into a makeshift boxing ring at the Baden-Baden Festival. Two and a half years later, their opera-scaled expansion of this work was coming to the stage, the Baden-Baden Festival had moved to Berlin renamed as the Festival Neue Musik, Germany was falling into economic depression, and Social Democratic Chancellor Hermann Müller 🔗 was hanging on by the skin of his teeth (he was forced to resign in late March). Social Democrats still governed Berlin, though, and the Nazis did not yet seem to be an existential threat to the Weimar constitution. The Festival Neue Musik had announced its theme as "school music," and Brecht and Weill decided to prepare their version of a Lehrstück, a teaching piece. From January to May 1930, they collaborated on Der Jasager. Elisabeth Hauptmann—their seldom acknowledged, but near-equal, collaborator—had translated four Noh plays, retranslating Arthur Waley's 🔗 not necessarily very faithful English translations rather than working from the originals. Tanikō, "The Hurling Into the Valley", would become the basis for Der Jasager.

In Tanikō a boy goes on a ritual pilgrimage to pray for his mother, who is ill. Both his mother and his teacher try to talk him out of the perilous pilgrimage. En route, the boy tires and does not have the energy to go on. Tradition calls for him to be hurled to his death; he assents to that death, and his fellow pilgrims assent to killing him. Brecht's text secularized this: the boy is traveling to fetch medicine; a larger portion of the play than in the original focuses on the teacher and mother trying to talk him out of the journey; rather than the reason for his death being strictly a matter of tradition, his fatigue en route endangers the traveling party; the boy not only assents to his death rather than have the group turn back, but is far more determined than his travelling companions that that is the right thing to do. Also Brecht, seeing the entire piece as a teaching exercise, added the specific theme of Einverständnis ("acquiesence"): "They should know that a community which one joins demands that one actually bear the consequences." A Greek-style chorus firmly underlines this message, and it is clear that, despite the growing political gap between Brecht and Weill, Weill endorsed it unreservedly; he would even single out Der Jasager as his own most important European work. For once, I'm not on Weill's side. A lot of us even who might accept that communitarian principle in the abstract would not extend it to dying so willingly, and it should be no surprise that the play's message of self-sacrificial conformity was welcomed far more by the right, especially the Catholic right, than by the left. Brecht was, of course, unhappy with that, and his unhappiness was compounded a year or so later when working-class students in Berlin-Neuköln pushed back hard against the message of the play. He (with no involvment from Weill) then wrote Der Neinsager, a parallel piece in which the boy refuses death, insists his own life is as valuable as anyone else's, and suggests a new custom: that foolish old customs be scrapped. Brecht intended that the two pieces always be performed together, which inevitably did not happen.

A scene from "Der Jasger" as staged at Hebbel-Theater Berlin, May 1946
A scene from Der Jasager as staged at Hebbel-Theater 🔗, Berlin, May 1946. Photo by Avraham Pisarek 🔗, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license by the Deutsche Fototek. The Hebbel was the only Berlin theater to survive World War II without significant damage.

The piece was conceived as a teaching piece, in every sense. Brecht's language here is very simple, easily understood by a twelve-year-old (or by a second-year student of the German language). Further, the piece was the first of Brecht's to call for a highly visual, Japanese-influenced, style of acting, so that the plot could be followed even by someone who was deaf or ignorant of German. Weill's music is also simple, at least in comparison with his usual style, intended to be played by a student orchestra and sung by a cast of students; he specifies the appropriate age range for each part, stipulates that "All… vocal parts must be sung by students" and that the orchestra should have "as many string players as possible," allows for an ad lib addition of flute, clarinet, alto sax, plucked instruments, and percussion, "And finally the entire school chorus should also participate." Still, the piece is by no means without its challenges: "The music for a school opera," wrote Weill, "has to involve a long and careful period of study," going on to say that such study was much more important than the ultimate performance.

Speaking of performance: the piece did not end up in the Festival Neue Musik. The festival turned down another piece of Brecht's, a Lehrstück called Die Maßnahme ("The Measure"") set to music by Hanns Eisler; the piece was rejected for its hard-left politics. Weill appears to have had no hesitancy in showing solidarity with Brecht by pulling Der Jasager as well. Instead, Der Jasager premiered 23 June 1930 at Berlin's Zentralinstitut für Unterreicht und Erziehung (Berlin Central Institute for Teaching and Education), directed by Brecht and frequent collaborator Caspar Neher, and featuring students of Berlin's Staatliche Akademie für Kirchen- und Schulmusik (State Academy for Church and School Music). Student Kurt Drabek conducted; the same cast performed the piece again 7 Dec 1930 at the Krolloper, directed by Heinrich Martens.

Der Jasager became a standard of the school music movement for the remainder of the Weimar era, with hundreds of performances by various schools. It was put on both by schools specializing in music education and by more ordinary schools. Certainly it was more musically appropriate for school performance than any other Brecht/Weill material, and the fact that its libretto was not as hated by the right as most of Brecht's work could not have hurt. Of course, like the rest of their work, it would be banned in Germany within months of the Nazi takeover in 1933.

[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). Most of the information about Der Neinsager is drawn from Ronald Hayman's biography Brecht (1983, Oxford University Press).]

Next blog post: Die Bürgschaft

Next Weill biography blog post: Die Bürgschaft

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Original date: 20 September 2021
Last modified: 20 September 2021

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