Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000

M U S I C:
From Berlin to Broadway
Kurt Weil's centenary celebrated
at London's Barbican Centre

Charlotte Purkis

As part of its series of intensive annual weekends devoted to re-examining the life, work and reputation of a single composer, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, supported by the Kurt Weill Foundation of New York, presented a packed series of ambitious concerts and associated events at London's Barbican Centre and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next door to mark the hundredth anniversary of Weill's birth.

Claimed by both German and American national musical traditions as authentically representative of crucial decades in the international history of musical modernism, the selections made from Kurt Weill's large and varied output presented audiences with an unrivalled opportunity to re-examine the stylistic characteristics, extra-musical enthusiasms and cultural politics of the early 20th century. It was also a chance to reconsider the performability of the "populist" and "esoteric" repertoire of lesser and better known pieces with the hindsight of half a century - as many years as the world has been without Weill.

Judging by the extensive notes by leading scholars in the detailed programme booklet, notably the British musicologist Erik Levi, Weill would doubtless have approved of the intensive BBC radio coverage which enhanced the accessibility of the event and brought it to a wider audience. This is not only because of the rather chequered interest the early BBC had had in him, but also due to Weill's particular enthusiasm for the medium of radio in its early years.

Youthful works

This era, the 1920s, was well represented in a selection of works which revealed further fascinations with a whole range of contemporary culture - a crucial work, which is not often performed live, being the cantata The New Orpheus (1925), a feverishly energetic setting of Iwan Goll's surrealist reflections on street life which paraphrases a range of now-popular classical styles - Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg.

Now described as one of the "key milestones along Weill's musical journey" because of its internal confrontation with his own compositional personality, this piece was then rejected for broadcast by the BBC due to alleged "distasteful" and "unhealthy" elements. Perhaps Ferruccio Busoni's designation of his former pupil as "a poor man's Verdi" didn't help build Weill's reputation in an organisation concerned with promoting high cultural values. In contrast, the contemporary reception of this piece was certainly helped along by the skilled renditions of soprano Kathryn Harries and violinist Michael Davis.

Other works from the 1920s, included premiere live performances in the UK of significant contributions to the genre of German Zeitoper: The Protagonist and Royal Palace were expertly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and sung in the original German. In addition to these operas was the orchestral suite made out of his renowned Brechtian collaboration on a British theme, Little Threepenny Music, designed specifically to reach more discerning audiences on the concert hall circuit.

Bridging the Atlantic

Another operatic highlight was a reconstruction of a further piece of musical theatre from the 1930s made by Lys Symonette in a new English translation by Jeremy Sams, the more than bizarre Arms and the Cow, originally commissioned for an audience of Gilbert and Sullivan Savoyards. Perhaps its instantaneous flop was because Weill, at that time, preferred to see himself as following in the footsteps of Offenbach. Robert Ziegler's leadership gave this work added zest, and this should help its retention in the minds of opera producers looking for that unique Weillian combination of committed politics and ironic wit, as well as for a bridge between Weimar and Broadway musical idioms.

Later works from Weill's output, which helped to solidify the reconnections aimed for by the BBC weekend between the first phase of German and the second phase of American works, led to a real sense of celebration due to performances of hitherto neglected works from the period of his exile and establishment in North America. Capping it all was his little-known collaboration with a member of the famous Gershwin family, Ira, The Firebrand of Florence (1944). It is difficult to grasp that there was still scope for a European premiere from such a well-known composer as Weill and a piece written for Broadway as well as for his new wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, who became very well known as a promoter of Weill after his death.

Rekindling interest

A key consequence of the weekend's events is without a doubt the resuscitation of Weill's importance in the British cultural context 100 years after his birth and the consolidation, notably from the sparkling Ute Lemper cabaret evening also conducted by Ziegler, of his reputation as an exuberant entertainer with intensity of soul.

The impact of this celebration compares extremely favourably with the immediate aftermath of his death, when Weill went virtually unacknowledged by the British media, receiving only a few lines in The Times obituary column. As is common at moments of centenary reflection, British listeners have now been presented wholeheartedly with the renewed challenge to stoke up that flame ignited in the 1950s by the translation of warmer, more informed homage from overseas.

Perhaps due to the enormous revival of interest in musical theatre in London's West End and to the closeness of current links with Broadway, - 21st-century popular culture might encompass an even greater affection for Weill's energetic enthusiasm for the modern urban landscape, its people and their emotions.

There might develop more understanding of the dynamics of his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht and other artists of his communities, and a deeper respect for the range of his relationships to his audiences, both as they were and how he perceived them, recognising ever closer connections between the apparently "progressive" German and "retrenched" American facets to his personality and between the uniqueness of this combination and that of the contemporary pluralist experiences of our post-modern "crossover" culture.

Brave journey

Another UK premiere which seemed to symbolise the cross-roads Weill's reputation has reached at this hundred-year mark, was of a piece from another turning point; Trains Bound for Glory was written in 1939, the year of the outbreak of the Second World War. First performed only in 1992 in New York, the performance, in a form adapted by David Drew, couldn't recapture the open air feeling instrumental of its original source Railroads on Parade, yet it was valuable for the reopening of another unique sound world.

As a result of this weekend at the Barbican, bravely and provocatively acknowledged as "a journey for our times," contemporary audiences were stimulated anew by and asked for a response to the question which has dogged Weill appreciation during the last fifty years: what is the relationship in his music between ideological challenge and playful conformity? Where then, as listeners of today, shall we strike the balance?

Charlotte Purkis, 14 February 2000

Recommended listening

Kurt Weill: From Berlin to Broadway
Kurt Weill: From Berlin to Broadway, Vol 2
Berliner Requiem
Der Neue Orpheus
Speak Low - Songs by Kurt Weill
The Unknown Kurt Weill
Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill


Septmeber Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill

A tribute album with Weill covers by Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Elvis
Costello, PJ Harvey, William S Burroughs and others.

Further surfing

There are numerous sites devoted to Kurt Weill on the web. The most impressive of them is the one for the Kurt Weill Foundation, with a biography, news and extensive information on publications, scores and CDs.


Kurt Weill Feste
18 February - 5 March 2000
Dessau, Germany

Two weeks of Weill-related events, including concerts and a symposium, in the composer's hometown. The website is in German only.

Music and Metropolis: Recontextualising Krenek and Weill
Sunday 25 November 2000
King's College, London

The year 2000 marks the centenary of the births of Ernst Krenek (August) and Kurt Weill (March). Conceived in part as a commemoration, in part as a means of drawing musicological attention to the significance of the modern urban landscape in shaping the production and reception of 20th century musical modernism, this one-day conference will explore music theatre works of both composers from the 1920s to the mid 1930s.

It will seek to recontextualise aspects of and perspectives on these works against the backdrop of not only the physical environments of the modernist metropolis, but also of the forms of identity, social interaction and cultural production, the search for pleasure and the struggle for political self-realisation constructed by the rhythms and responses to modern urban life. Just as Lang's iconic film Metropolis (1926) is a futuristic vision set around the year 2000, the conference will, furthermore, consider whether any significant conclusions can be drawn from revisiting the music and ideas of Krenek and Weill for our own times.

For more information contact:

Charlotte Purkis
School of Community and Performing Arts
King Alfred's College
Sparkford Road
Winchester SO22 4NR
United Kingdom

Tel: 01962 827500/841515
Fax: 01962 842280


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