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Kurt Weill, from Berlin to Broadway

By Fredric Dannen


America gave refuge to many of the great creative minds that fled Nazi Germany: the painter Marc Chagall, the writer Thomas Mann, and the director Max Reinhardt, to cite three examples.

Concert, The Third Stream Ensemble Ft. Kurt Weill, Wed, Jul 25, 7pm, Teatro Ángela Peralta, Crr. Hernández Macías & Mesones

Perhaps no one assimilated better than the Berlin composer Kurt Weill. Weill could trace his German heritage back to the fourteenth century, and he did not set foot in the United States until he was 35. And yet, he once said, “The moment I landed, I knew I was home.” Weill embraced the American idiom with a passion. When he died of a heart attack in 1950, at the premature age of 50, he was at work on a Broadway musical version of Huckleberry Finn.

Kurt Weill’s musical journey from Berlin to Broadway will be a centerpiece of a concert at the Teatro Ángela Peralta. The Third Stream Ensemble, a San Miguel-based group of musicians who specialize in classical music with a jazz bent, will perform a number of his most popular compositions, starting with a violin and piano arrangement of songs from The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper), including Weill’s best-known work, Mack the Knife. Special guest vocalists will sing selections from the composer’s German and American periods, including Broadway gems such as the haunting Speak Low, the boisterous Saga of Jenny, and the delightful torch song That’s Him. Weill was one of the most thoroughly trained musicians to compose for Broadway. His only serious rivals in that regard were Vernon Duke (née Vladimir Dukelsky) and Leonard Bernstein (whose music will also be featured in the Peralta concert). At 18, Weill enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik, and when he turned 21 he became a private pupil of the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni. By 1928, the year he wrote the music for The Threepenny Opera, he had composed a symphony, two string quartets, and a concerto for violin and wind orchestra.

From that point on, however, Weill wrote mainly for the musical stage. The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, was immensely popular in Berlin, until the Nazis banned it in 1933 as “degenerate,” both for its leftist politics and because Weill was Jewish. That year, Weill and his wife, Lotte Lenya, fled Germany for Paris, and, two years later, they settled in New York. Weill became fluent in English, and for the rest of his life rarely ever spoke German again.

Even before Weill left Germany, he had had a fascination with American music, and his Berlin works are suffused with jazz and ragtime. Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (German: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), another collaboration with Brecht, is set in the American Wild West. (Its most famous number, Alabama Song, was covered by the Doors and David Bowie.)

Weill’s first Broadway success was the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, set in the seventeenth century New York of Peter Stuyvesant. Walter Huston, who played Stuyvesant, introduced September Song, now a standard. Weill’s next hit, Lady in the Dark, with a book by Moss Hart and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, was set in then-present day 1940 New York. It starred Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye, and is best remembered for The Saga of Jenny, and the ballad My Ship.

Weill personally asked the American poet Ogden Nash to write the lyrics for his next Broadway success, One Touch of Venus, which debuted in 1943 with Mary Martin in the title role. Though Nash was known for light verse, and had never before written lyrics, he surpassed himself with Speak Low and the witty I’m a Stranger Here Myself. The latter song, which will also be performed at the Peralta concert, is one of Weill’s most sophisticated compositions for Broadway. In its final bars, it suddenly modulates down a minor third, possibly to suit Mary Martin’s vocal range. (Noel Coward once told her, “You always hoot when you go over E flat.)” Whatever the reason, the effect is startling – and beautiful.

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