Kurt Weill biography
Lotte Lenya biography
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Bonfire of books on the Opernplatz (later Bebelplatz), Berlin, 11 May 1933.
(Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
We last left Weill vacationing in Italy in the summer of 1933, taking stock of his situation after the relative failure of the Seven Deadly Sins, which turned out to be his last major collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. I'd also like to take stock of his situation, but inevitably from a different angle.
Weill was among the most accomplished composers of Germany's Weimar era. He was also among those many Germans who had underestimated the Nazi threat. (The account given in Escape to Life by Erika and Klaus Mann, daughter and son of the writer Thomas Mann, illustrates that Weill was far from alone in this respect.) As Hitler took over the reins of power in Germany in the first months of 1933, while Weill was hardly oblivious to the danger, he had focused mainly on being a composer, not a person with good reason to be fearful for his life. A number of his friends and colleagues, including many Gentiles, left Germany well before he did. Brecht left February 28, the day after the Reichstag Fire 🔗. The young philosopher Hannah Arendt 🔗 lingered to try to document what was happening to her fellow Jews, and ultimately escaped only because when she was arrested that summer her interrogation was left to an unusually sympathetic policeman. As we've recounted, Weill and Georg Kaiser 🔗 continued to focus on their "winter's tale", Silbersee. Its premiere on 18 February 1933 was the last great cultural event of the Weimar years. Nine days later the Reichstag burned 🔗. With that and the Nazi victory in the March 5 elections 🔗, Germany's constitutional era effectively ended (though in theory it would linger another few weeks). Weill left Berlin for Paris March 23.
Why wasn't the Seven Deadly Sins a success in Paris and London? From a distance of nearly 90 years, it is hard to imagine. The Weill Foundation can now honestly describe it as "One of Kurt Weill's most beloved and frequently performed works" 🔗. When Lenya turned the copyright over to the Foundation, she left less wiggle room on how this piece should be performed than any other, knowing it to be one of the "crown jewels." After years of holding out against authorizing any reductions of the piece, the Foundation finally broke down (a little) in 2015 and authorized a two-piano arrangement, but only for amateur and school performances. Besides the 1933 English-language text rapidly thrown together for performance in London, it has been translated into English by both W.H. Auden 🔗 and Michael Feingold (who amazingly doesn't have a Wikipedia article. Feingold was musical secretary to Ira Gershwin toward the end of the latter's life, for decades he was the lead theater critic for the Village Voice, and he edited Grove's anthology New American Theater). Really, the only thing I can come up with is that it was just too GERMAN.
Because that is the irony. Few people could have been more German than Kurt Weill up to this point in his life, but the Nazi racial theory did not count him as a German. As recounted in our first biographical blog post, as a boy he was a Wagnerian and was something of a protégé of Friedrich II, Duke of Anhalt 🔗. Of course he'd reacted against much of that, but he'd reacted by adopting what amounted to a leftist form of German patriotism: he had been one of the most important writers about the rise of broadcast radio in Germany, had premiered pieces at several of the country's most important music festivals and venues, was as engaged as anyone in the national debates about the role of art in society and education, and the one song for which he wrote the lyrics was "Berlin im Licht" ("Berlin In Light") which was and is something of an anthem for Germany's capital. And while his music was certainly in some ways very cosmopolitan (a Russian-influenced approach to tonality, American and even South American rhythms), no one could mistake any but a few songs he had written by this time as being from anywhere other than Germany. From a French or British point of view at the time: just too GERMAN.
I'll be damned if I'm running a picture of Florent Schmitt unless I get to throw darts at it. Instead: I ran across this 1922 Paris oil painting by Jacques-Émile Blanche which depicts several people, mostly composers, who were involved in one or another degree in Weill's world.
At center left, facing us, is Darius Milhaud (who had a piece at Baden-Baden in 1927 when the Mahagonny Songspiel premiered, and another in Les Ballets 1933, when the Seven Deadly Sins premiered). Behind him is Arthur Honegger (also represented in Les Ballets 1933). In the background at right, poet-filmmaker-etc. Jean Cocteau had attented the December 1932 concert of Weill's music at the Salle Gaveau (as had Milhaud, for that matter).
The others depicted here are (at right) Germaine Tailleferre, (in the center) pianist Marcelle Meyer, (in the background, possibly conducting) composer Jean Wiener, (next to Cocteau) Francis Poulenc, and (seated at right) Georges Auric. Along with Louis Durey (not in this picture), Auric, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre were the composers known as Les Six. Weill would soon become closer with Cocteau and Milhaud.
So it should come as no surprise that Weill took it personally to have a German government that redefined German-ness in a way that excluded him. By 1947 he could write about it almost calmly: that year he wrote to Life magazine, "Although I was born in Germany, I do not consider myself a 'German composer.' The Nazis obviously did not consider me as such either, and I left their country (an arrangement that suited both me and my rulers admirably) in 1933. I am an American citizen, and during my dozen years in this country I have composed exclusively for the American stage…" In 1933, that embrace of a non-German identity was a long way off.
As early as 1931 the Nazi monthly Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte had singled Weill out as bringing the "Negro rhythms" of jazz into German music (one of the many cases where you can't really argue with the analysis, just with the view of this as something bad). Now the Nazis had power and spoke in the name of the German state, and the philistine Nazi critics were being promoted as experts. Weill and his music soon became a leading target of the Nazi attacks on "Jewish cultural Bolshevism" and "degenerate art." There were officially sanctioned public burnings of his works as early as June 1933. Nazi "reference books" such as Die Juden in Deutschland and the Lexicon der Juden in Musik singled him out for special oppobrium as the supposed musical descendant of Mendelssohn 🔗, Offenbach 🔗, and Korngold 🔗, attacking his "banal" melodies and the "stolen texts" of Brecht. About eight months into his Paris stay, in November 1933, fascist hecklers led by French composer Florent Schmitt 🔗 disrupted a concert at the Salle Pleyel because it included three songs from the Weill/Kaiser play Silbersee. Although in Paris Weill was relatively safe from physical attacks by the Nazis, he took these verbal attacks very personally, to the point of suffering a period of depression.
Notwithstanding Florent Schmitt, there was not yet anything like a uniform fascist cultural policy, nor even a general fascist policy of anti-Semitism. Weill had no problem vacationing in Italy at this time, and toward the end of 1933 there was an all-Weill concert at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia 🔗 in Rome. And of course Weill was a musical hero to the German exiles, émigrés, and dissidents. Paul Bekker in Wandlungen der Oper ("Changes in Opera") singled him out as the most important innovator in opera (in Bekker's broad sense) in the Weimar era. Foreign visitors attest to surreptitious listening to records of Weill's music among those in Germany who despised the Nazis. Georg Kaiser and his daughter were mildly amazed when visiting Berlin in the summer of 1933 to hear a cafe pianist at the Eden Bar sneak the "Moritat" ("Mack the Knife") into his set.
Looking at one more aspect of where Weill stood in the summer of 1933: atypically, he doesn't seem to have had much of a love life at this time. He and Lenya happily remained colleagues and collaborators, but their divorce was moving forward and would be finalized 18 September 1933. Weill's affair with Erika Neher was also inevitably grinding to a halt, as she and her husband Caspar Neher had decided to take their chances on remaining in Germany. (She and her husband did visit Weill in France in May 1934.)
As for what Weill may have been musing upon in the summer of 1933, besides emotions and politics there were immediate considerations of money. He had failed to get most of his money out of Germany, and would certainly never see anything for the house he had bought the prior year. Further, lacking any opportunities in Germany, his Vienna-based publisher Universal Edition had cut his stipend and would drop him completely in November 1933 (while retaining his copyrights; the whole situation was a mess), a year before his ten-year contract was supposed to end. To some extent he was rescued by patrons: in Germany he had already begun his Second Symphony, commissioned by and dedicated to the Princesse du Polignac. And now, when paying for hotel living became an issue, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles (who had arranged the December 1932 concert of his music at the Salle Gaveau) lent Weill their Paris apartment and in November 1933 arranged him a cottage—once Madame du Barry's servants' quarters—in Louvenciennes, a suburb near Saint-Germain, which remained his home for the rest of his time in France.
We know in retrospect that two years later Weill would head for the United States, live there for the rest of his life, and become an American citizen, but before that he would make some very interesting attempts to adapt to the culture of France, while simultaneously making his first venture into specifically Jewish music since the choral works he wrote during his student years.
[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).]
Next blog post: Paris (2): Sojourn
Next Weill biography blog post: Paris (2): Sojourn
Original date: 25 October 2021
Last modified: 25 October 2021
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