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Which Kurt Weill?

Rick FulkerMarch 17, 2015

A festival for a musical chameleon: The Kurt Weill Fest in Dessau has brought the enigmatic composer a little closer to the German public. However, more remains to be done.

German Composer Kurt Weill. Copyright: AP Photo/Dan Grossi
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/D. Grossi

One biographer wrote: "He changed styles more often than countries" - not meant as a compliment. And in the obituary for Kurt Weill after his death in 1950, philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno described him not as a composer but as a music stage director. Indirectly recognizing Weill's achievements during his second career as a composer of Broadway musicals, Adorno decried a lack of authenticity in Weill’s late oeuvre, maintaining that he'd severed himself from his roots, sacrificed his autonomous creativity in pandering to public taste and essentially sold out to the American theater machinery.

In post-war Europe, Kurt Weill was a point of contention, but after the Kurt Weill Fest was founded in Dessau, he’s been celebrated there. Having just completed its 23rd season, the world's only Weill festival has also been deciphering the "American Weill." This year the fest took place at 20 locales in Dessau and in the nearby cities of Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Halle.

Kurt Weill Fest 2015, Ute Lemper. Copyright: Lucas Allen
Cabaret queen Ute Lemper was on the bill this yearImage: Lucas Allen

Cantor's son and composer of musicals

He is among the artists who enjoy a greater status worldwide than in the country of their birth. Born in 1900 as the son of a cantor at a Dessau synagogue, Kurt Julian Weill learned the composer's craft in Berlin with musical Renaissance man Ferruccio Busoni. In the Roaring Twenties, Kurt Weill and author Bertold Brecht created masterpieces like "The Three Penny Opera" and "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." In 1933, the Jewish composer went into exile, first to Paris and later, with his wife, singer Lotte Lenya, to New York; became a naturalized citizen, refused - although he spoke only broken English - to speak German even with his wife. The severing of connections to his homeland went along with a change in style so extreme that in musicals like "Street Scene," "Lady in the Dark" and "One Touch of Venus," it wasn't easy to hear that they'd come from the pen of Kurt Weill.

Yet he is one of the few "classical" composers to have written melodies - such as the "Mackie Messer Song" and "September Song" - that are familiar to people who can't name the composer. With the motto "From the Lied to the Song," the 23rd Kurt Weill Fest in Dessau took up the theme. From chamber music to cabaret, from Berlin to Broadway, with opera, jazz and symphonic concerts, the roughly 60 events in two and a half weeks gave a glimpse into a variety of styles and realms of music.

The focus is on the "modern classical" era from the early decades of the 20th century. "A proper wording would actually be 'From the Aria and the Art Song to the Song'," said festival director Michael Kaufmann in an interview for DW. "Weill achieved the feat of developing texts relevant to people's lives together with music in a manner that is absolutely topical, even today."

Kurt Weill Fest 2015 Prof. Michael Kaufmann. Copyright: Hardy Mueller
Festival director Michael Kaufmann hopes to be able to fully stage Weill's musicals in the futureImage: Hardy Mueller

Soul for sale?

"I need words to set my fantasy into motion. My fantasy isn't a bird but a plane," wrote Kurt Weill. His topicality is paradoxical in light of another statement: "As for myself, I write for today. I don't give a damn about writing for posterity." That was also a jibe at his composer-contemporary Arnold Schönberg, obsessed by his position in music history and convinced that his music would be popular in 50 years - a wish that still hasn't come true.

Did Weill sell his soul to Broadway? Absolutely not, says conductor Ernst Theis, who led the final concert juxtaposing Weill's one-act "Royal Palace" with three works by Richard Strauss. "Take 'Street Scene' for instance. It’s simply one of the best musicals ever," says Theis. "And if listening to it, somebody says he doesn’t hear any Kurt Weill in it, he'll have to come to me and I'll explain it to him. He is completely authentic despite the often different stylistic techniques he opts for."

Michael Kaufmann explains Weills stylistic diversity and the rejection of the composer in postwar Germany with reference to his biography. "He was actually an ideal in terms of what we in Germany wish for when people come to us in exile looking for a new homeland," said Kaufmann. "We want them to immediately integrate themselves into our society and function perfectly with every aspect of our culture. But with people who had to leave Germany and find refuge in foreign lands, we sometimes say they have to fail or will have great problems but they shouldn#t assimilate. They're expected to remain German."

Kurt Weill Fest Dessau 2015. Copyright: Andrea Vollmer
An adaptation of Weill: 'Good Soldier Johnny' at the festival openingImage: Andrea Vollmer

To thine own self be true

In 1936 the composer wrote, "The stage has a reason for existence today only if it aspires to a rarer level of truth." One work that illustrates that statement was presented at the opening of the Kurt Weill Fest: "Braver Soldat Johnny" ("Good Soldier Johnny"), an adaptation of Weill's musical "Johnny Johnson" of 1936. His first stage work in the US, running on Broadway for 50 performances, is described by Joachim Landgraf, head of the Kurt Weill Center in Dessau as "a parody on war - and that on American soil. In it he takes a clear stand and gives clear expression to his pacificism." That, although the freshly-immigrated American patriot was participating in efforts to mobilize his new homeland against Nazi Germany. "Weill remained true to his convictions. Of course he also did incidental works, but he took a political stance also in his American period," said Landgraf.

Kurt Weill Fest 2015, Kurt Weill. Copyright: Kurt Weill Foundation
'There is only good music and bad music' - Kurt WeillImage: Kurt Weill Foundation

The festival in the small city of Dessau doesn't have the resources to stage Kurt Weill's major works of musical theater in the proper style - a situation the festival organizers hope to change in the future. For the interim, the fest focuses on the man, the zeitgeist and his baffling stylistic breadth. Two quotes heard during the final days of the festival remain in memory and make this composer of contradictions a bit more understandable. Working to the point of exhaustion and dying at a young age, he is said to have told his wife Lotte Lenya on various occasions: "First comes music, then you." And then, his oft-quoted sentence: "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' and 'light' music. There is only good music and bad music."

The Kurt Weill Fest took place in Dessau from February 27 until March 15