Composer Kurt Weill died on April 3, 1950, at the age of 50. Although Weill – who may be best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” originally written for his “Threepenny Opera” – achieved significant popularity and success during his lifetime, particularly in his native Germany, it is only in the half-century that has followed his death that he has become more fully appreciated for both the wide range of musical genres in which he worked, and the sophistication of his artistic creations.
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Kurt Julian Weill was born on March 2, 1900, in the Jewish quarter of Dessau, Germany, where his father was a cantor from a family of rabbis and Jewish scholars with roots that can be traced back to the 13th century. By the age of 13, Weill had composed a setting for the Hebrew text of “Mi Addir,” a wedding song; three years later he wrote “Ofrahs Lieder,” a cycle of melodies for translations of five poems by the medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi.
After studying and working in several different locations, by 1920, Weill had settled in Berlin, where he studied composition with Ferrucio Busoni, and composed not only his first symphony and other orchestral pieces, but also his first work of musical theater. It was in Berlin that he became caught up in the city’s cultural and political ferment, and joined a group of left-wing artists that called themselves the Novembergruppe.
A positive review he wrote of Bertolt Brecht’s radio play “Man Equals Man” earned him a dinner invitation by the radical playwright, a meeting that led to the beginning of collaboration between the two. Most famously, composer Weill and librettist Brecht created “The Threepenny Opera” (1928) and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” (1930).
Weill’s operas met with both critical and popular success, but both the musical style and the social criticism integral to much of his work – not to mention the fact that he was Jewish – guaranteed that he would face opposition with the rise of Nazism. By March 1933, after he learned that he and his wife, actress Lotte Lenya, were about to be arrested, he fled Germany, with his first stop being Paris.
Two years later, he moved again to the United States, where he and Lenya, who had divorced in the meantime, were reunited and married for a second time. Lenya, who was not Jewish, not only performed in many of Weill’s shows, but also became his collaborator and, after his death, the head of the foundation that worked to preserve and promote his work. (As an actress, Lenya is probably best remembered for her 1963 performance as the sharp-toed villain Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”)
Once in the U.S., Weill resolved to become American and to work in English. Later, he noted that “my success here (which people usually subscribe to ‘luck’) is mostly due to the fact that I took a very positive and constructive attitude towards the American way of life and the cultural possibilities in this country.” After a few years of struggle, he began writing for Broadway – with plays like “Johnny Johnson,” “Knickerbocker Holiday” (a collaboration with Maxwell Anderson) and “Lady in the Dark” (with lyrics by Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin). He also wrote scores for a number of Hollywood movies.
The war also turned Weill into a Jewish patriot, as well as an American one, who felt compelled to use his art to raise awareness of what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Weill famously participated in three big Jewish-themed pageants, the first being “The Eternal Road” – which is what initially brought him to New York, in 1935 – a spectacle about the history of the Jews, with a special emphasis on their persecution, written by Franz Werfels and directed by Max Reinhardt. The opera-oratorio, which put 245 people on the stage, and ran for 135 performances in 1937 (but was only revived in 1999), offered the idea of a reborn Jewish state in Palestine as the solution of the plight of the Jewish people. In 1943 and 1946, respectively, Weill collaborated with Ben Hecht on two other works, “We Will Never Die” and “A Flag Is Born.” The former, which was intended to awaken public opinion to support efforts to rescue the Jews of Europe, played before 40,000 people in one day in two performances at Madison Square Garden. The latter, which starred Marlon Brando and Paul Muni, overtly espoused the Revisionist Zionist cause, and was performed both in New York and on tour.
Kurt Weill died of a heart attack, shortly after his 50th birthday. His gravestone bears a text by Maxwell Anderson (based on a quote from the Venerable Bede), taken from the musical “Lost in the Stars”: “This is the life of men on earth:/ Out of darkness we come at birth/ Into a lamplit room, and then –/ Go forward into dark again.”
Since his death, Weill’s work has been widely rediscovered and revived. A wide range of artists have given new interpretations to much of his material. The fact that he wrote for different genres, and that his work can be understood as both “popular” and “classical” has made it the object of critical controversy, but there is little doubt that he is one of the 20th century’s most influential composers.