Kurt Weill biography
Lotte Lenya biography
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The Princesse du Polignac 🔗 was an artist and a noted patron of the arts, especially music. Born Winnaretta Singer, she was an American and the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Very much a lesbian, in 1893 she legally married the equally gay (and considerably older) Prince Edmond de Polignac 🔗, a destitute composer from a ci-devant 🔗 noble family.
The pair established a salon whose participants included Marcel Proust 🔗 and Maurice Ravel 🔗; one of her lovers was Virginia Woolf. By the time she commissioned a symphony from Weill, she had outlived the Prince by three decades. The list of clients of her patronage is far too long to reproduce here; suffice it to say that in having a piece commissioned by her, Weill was in very good company.
She was also quite a good artist in her own right: the picture here is a self-portrait around age 20.
(The image is from c. 1885 and is in the public domain)
We and Weill return to Paris after a period of taking stock in summer 1933. As far as I can tell, Weill, like me, decided that the only possible reason that Seven Deadly Sins, his last major work with Bertolt Brecht had failed to be a hit in France and Britain is that it was just too GERMAN, a consummate irony for a man the Nazis were attempting to define as the epitome of the un-German.
His money is stuck in Germany, but as recounted last time, thanks to the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles he has a roof over his head. In November, at the Salle Pleyel 🔗, frequent Weill conductor Maurice Abravanel leads the Orchestre de Paris in three songs from the play Silbersee, which Weill had written with Georg Kaiser before leaving Germany. As recounted last time, this is interrupted by fascist hecklers, which Weill finds rather depressing.
Weill continues work on his Second Symphony (here's a nice concert recording on YouTube by Houston-based ROCO, if you want to hear it), commissioned by and dedicated to the Princesse du Polignac 🔗. Completed February 1934, it will premiere 11 October 1934 in Amsterdam, with Bruno Walter 🔗 conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Weill happily attends the rehearsals. The piece goes over reasonably well. Walter would perform it several times over the next several years with different orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic in December 1934, and in Vienna months before the Anschluss 🔗. It was his last major work that was intended for the concert hall rather than the stage, and after the performannces conducted by Bruno Walter I believe it was not much performed until the 1960s; it is now something of a staple. Although I've listened to it quite a few times, I really don't have much intelligent to say about it. It's a more than decent piece of 1930s symphonic music; I don't think it would have drawn me to Weill, though, if I didn't know him from his theatrical music. I'd love to have a guest blog post from someone who has engaged with it more deeply, especially anyone who has been involved in performing it, if someone would like to write that.
As remarked the previous blog post, in 1933 the Nazi anti-Semitism had not become a standard fascist doctrine, and Hans Curjel arranged a performance of Der Jasager and the Mahagonny Songspiel 29 December 1933 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia 🔗 in Rome, with Weill in attendance. The Zurich Youth Choir performed Der Jasager, and Maurice Abravanel conducted Lenya, Otto Pasetti and others in Mahagonny. The performance, doubtless similar to what Curjel and Abravanel had put together a year earlier at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, apparently went over reasonably well, but was not quite the event the Paris show had been.
Meanwhile, in Paris in 1933, Weill was becoming closer with Jean Cocteau 🔗 and Darius Milhaud 🔗, with Lenya also joining their gatherings when she was in town. They communicated mainly in French, but to Weill's surprise Cocteau had a smattering of elementary German, and with Weill's encouragement tried his hand at writing a song in German. The result was "Es Regnet". Weill fixed a few phrases that sounded wrong to a native ear and set it to music. It's no masterpiece, but it's Weill and Cocteau and it's certainly not bad. Here's a nice take on it by a singer named Cooper Grodin 🔗 about whom I know almost nothing. The video would have been much improved by a tripod, but he sings the song very well.
Weill and Cocteau appear to have pretty seriously kicked around doing a Faust opera, but they never seem to have gone anywhere with the idea.
Marlene Dietrich was also in town in a far more voluntary exile from Germany than Weill's. As with filmmaker Fritz Lang and doubtless many others, the Nazis would have been glad to have her, but she wanted nothing to do with them. Weill and Dietrich made another of their several attempts to collaborate, but as usual little came of it. Weill did write a song for her—a setting of Erich Kästner's 🔗 "Der Abscheiedsbrief" (roughly "Dear John Letter")—but Dietrich never recorded or performed it. Six months later Dietrich tried to bring Weill into a project with von Sternberg in Hollywood. Weill was enthusiastic—America beckoned strongly—but, again, nothing came together.
Erich Kástner circa 1930, photographed by Austrian photographer Grete Kolliner. Kástner is probably best known in the English-speaking world for a children's book, Emil and the Detectives 🔗. My mother read that to me when I was young enough that of course my mother read it to me. Needless to say, at the time I had no idea of anything else on this blog page.
(Image is now Public Domain in Germany, and believed to be Public Domain in the U.S.)
As mentioned in our previous blog post, lacking any opportunities for Weill's music in Germany, his Vienna-based publisher Universal Edition had his stipend in the spring dropped him completely before the end of the year. (I gather that something of a mess around copyrights then ensued, eventually sorted out, but I don't know the details.) In October, Weill signed a new contract with Paris-based publisher Heugel 🔗. In many ways this, rather than his arrival in Paris half a year earlier, is the start of Weill's French period. Although mainly a classical publisher, Heugel had a "light music" imprint, Editions Coda. Weill wrote musical settings of two pre-existing poems by Maurice Magre 🔗, "Complainte de la Seine" and "Je ne t'aime pas", both for cabaret artist Lys Gauty 🔗. "Complainte de la Seine", which we will be performing, is hardly the sort of thing you would normally call a cabaret song, and also, if I did not know it was Weill's, I would never have imagined this tune was by a German. Magre's very dark lyric lists the many things the forgiving (clemente) River Seine accepts and welcomes: flowers, gold jewelry, human bodies, the "would-be spawn of sterile wombs." Weill's tune is a good fit for the theme of a river: it swells and builds tension before ending with a more gentle flow. In June 1934 Editions Coda issued sheet music for these two songs; Heugel also connected Weill to Jacques Deval 🔗 to adapt the latter's novel Marie Gallante into a play with music.
Marie Gallante premiered 22 December 1934 at the Théâtre de Paris. It starred Florelle 🔗, who had played Polly Peachum in the French-language version of the film of Threepenny Opera. I won't bother to recount the rather melodramatic plot; if you want that you can look at Wikipedia's article on an American film made from the novel 🔗; the film dates from the same year as the play, and was a completely separate adaptation. The play was not a success: it is remembered today almost exclusively for its songs, and the Weill Foundation and Deval's heirs won't even allow the play as such to be performed. Still, it showed Weill could write music in a French style that would become popular in France. Editions Coda issued separate sheet music for each of seven songs from the play in 1934. One of these, "J'attends un naivire" ("I'm waiting for a ship") later became identified with the French Resistance during World War II. In 1935, the French actor and trade union organizer Roger Bertrand, writing under the pseudonym "Roger Fernay" wrote lyrics for a tango used as incidental music in the play, and Editions Coda published the resulting piece as "Youkali." The lyrics describe an idyllic island "almost at the the end of the world" that proves in the end to be only a dream. Here's our "living room recording" of "Youkali", recorded in July 2021, a few weeks before our first time performing any of this material in front of even a small, private audience.
Overlapping with his work with Deval, Weill and Robert Vambery worked together on Der Kuhhandel; it eventually became an English-language work, A Kingdom for a Cow. Vambery had been dramaturg at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where Threepenny Opera and Happy End had premiered. That's really all I know about him, and I find just this side of nothing about him online. He approached Weill in autumn 1933 with a libretto satirizing capitalism and militarism (and a title that is another lost-in-translation pun: "Kuhhandel", literally "cattle-trading", has the same sort of connotations in German that "horse-trading" does in English.) They started working on it along the line of an Offenbach 🔗 operetta, but when it became clear that their best opportunity to get it performed was in London, it was reshaped into more standard West End fare (that is, the British equivalent of Broadway); they even took on two English collaborators, Desmond Carter 🔗 and Reginald Arkell 🔗; Carter, at least, was a pretty interesting figure in his own right, but we've been down enough rabbit holes. Decades later, Lys Symonette 🔗 did what is considered a credible reconstruction of the German-language operetta, which has now probably been performed more than the West End version. (Symonette was musical assistant to Weill in the last five years of his life, a musical advisor to Lenya in the decades after that, and a key figure in the Weill Foundation.)
A Kingdom for a Cow premiered 28 June 1935 at the Savoy Theatre. It got good reviews, but was not a popular success, and had only a three-week run. More importantly: while in London for rehearsals, Weill spent more private time with Lenya than he had at any time is several years. Weill had not seen Erika Neher in a year (she and her husband visited him at Louvenciennes in May 1934) and, on Lenya's side, Otto Pasetti was now out of the picture. The two, who had remained friends throughout, reconciled as a couple, and that summer Lenya moved in with him at Louvenciennes.
[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: The Eternal Road
Next Weill biography blog post: The Eternal Road
Original date: 1 November 2021
Last modified: 1 November 2021
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