Kurt Weill

Early Years

Kurt Weill was born on 2 March 1900 in Dessau, Germany. The son of a cantor, Weill displayed musical talent early on. By the time he was twelve, he was composing and mounting concerts and dramatic works in the hall above his family's quarters in the Gemeindehaus. During the First World War, the teenage Weill was conscripted as a substitute accompanist at the Dessau Court Theater. After studying theory and composition with Albert Bing, Kapellmeister of the Theater, Weill enrolled at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, but found the conservative training and the infrequent lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck too stifling. After a season as conductor of the newly formed municipal theater in Lüdenscheid, he returned to Berlin and was accepted into Ferruccio Busoni's master class in composition. He supported himself through a wide range of musical occupations, from playing organ in a synagogue to piano in a Bierkeller, by tutoring students (including Claudio Arrau and Maurice Abravanel) in music theory, and, later, by contributing music criticism to Der deutsche Rundfunk, the weekly program journal of the German radio.

Early Works & Operas

By 1925, a series of performances in Berlin and at international music festivals established Weill as one of the leading composers of his generation, along with Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek. Already at nineteen, he decided the musical theater would be his calling. In 1926, he made a sensational theatrical debut in Dresden with his first opera, Der Protagonist, a one-acter on a text by Georg Kaiser. Weill considered Der neue Orpheus (1925), a cantata for soprano, violin, and orchestra on a poem by Iwan Goll, to be a turning point in his career; it prefigured the stylistic multiplicity and provocative ambiguity typical of his compositional style. Modernist aesthetics are most apparent in the one-act surrealist opera Royal Palace (1926) on a libretto by Iwan Goll (exceptional in its incorporation of film and dance), and the opera buffa Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1927) on a libretto by Georg Kaiser. By this time in his career, Weill's use of dance idioms associated with American dance music and his pursuit of collaborations with the finest contemporary playwrights had become essential strategies in his attempts to reform the musical stage.

Collaborations with Brecht

A commission from the Baden-Baden Music Festival in 1927 led to the creation of Mahagonny (Ein Songspiel), Weill's first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, whose Mann ist Mann and whose poetry collection, Die Hauspostille, had captured Weill's imagination and suggested a compatible literary and dramatic sensibility. The succès de scandale of Mahagonny encouraged Weill and Brecht to continue work on the full-length opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (premiered at Leipzig in March 1930). Exploiting their aggressive popular song-style, Weill and Brecht also wrote several works for singing actors in the commercial theater, including Die Dreigroschenoper and Happy End. They explored other alternatives to the opera establishment in the school-opera Der Jasager and the radio cantatas Das Berliner Requiem and Der Lindberghflug. Increasingly uncomfortable with Brecht's restriction of the role of music in his political theater, Weill then turned to another collaborator, the famous stage designer Caspar Neher, for the libretto of his three-act epic opera, Die Bürgschaft (1931), and again to Georg Kaiser for the daring play-with-music Der Silbersee (1932). In both he refined his musical language into what he called "a thoroughly responsible style," appropriate for the serious and timely topics he addressed.

These later works outraged the Nazis. Riots broke out at several performances and carefully orchestrated propaganda campaigns discouraged productions of his works. In March 1933, Weill fled Germany; he and Lotte Lenya divorced soon thereafter. In Paris, Weill completed his Second Symphony and renewed briefly his collaboration with Brecht for Die sieben Todsünden, a "ballet with singing" for George Balanchine's troupe "Les Ballets 1933." He also wrote a number of cabaret chansons, as well as the score for Jacques Deval's Marie galante. When a German-language premiere of his Der Kuhhandel (libretto by Robert Vambery) seemed hopeless, Weill arranged for a London production of this operetta, which had been adapted as a British musical comedy and retitled A Kingdom for a Cow. In September 1935, Weill went to America, with Lenya, to oversee Max Reinhardt's production of Franz Werfel's biblical epic Der Weg der Verheissung, for which Weill had written an extensive oratorio-like score. After many delays, the work was finally staged in 1937 but in truncated form as The Eternal Road.

Broadway and Hollywood

In the interim, the Group Theatre had recruited Weill to collaborate with distinguished playwright Paul Green on a musical play loosely based on Hasek's Good Soldier Schweik. Weill's innovative and extensive score for Johnny Johnson, though still recognizably European in accent, established the composer on the American scene. For a brief period in 1937, Weill had two works running simultaneously in New York. Encouraged by his reception and convinced that the commercial theater offered more possibilities than the traditional opera house, Weill and Lenya decided to stay in the United States, remarried, and applied for American citizenship. Weill followed the Group Theatre to Hollywood and completed two film scores, including Fritz Lang's You and Me (1938). But he found the motion picture industry hostile to the type of film-opera he envisioned and thereafter always considered Broadway "home."

During the next decade, he established himself as a new and original voice in the American musical theater. He continued to enlist leading dramatists for the cause of musical theater, including the foremost playwright of the day, Maxwell Anderson. Their first collaboration, Knickerbocker Holiday, was only a modest success, but it showcased Weill's first American "standard," "September Song." Weill's first hit was Lady in the Dark, a musical play about psychoanalysis by Moss Hart with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, his return to the theater after his brother's death in 1937. A daring experiment, with music restricted to only the dream sequences (a technique analogous to the use of color in The Wizard of Oz), Lady in the Dark broke Broadway records for production costs but recouped all of it in its 777 performances, with Gertrude Lawrence appearing as Liza both on Broadway and national tour. Weill quickly acquired the reputation of being the finest craftsman in the business, no less for his large-scale musical forms than his unique insistence on orchestrating all of his own works.

The even greater success of One Touch of Venus (1943, book by S.J. Perelman, lyrics by Ogden Nash) gave Weill the credibility to embark on a series of bold ventures. He was elected as the only composer-member of the distinguished Playwrights Producing Company, which brought Elmer Rice's Pulitzer-Prize winning drama Street Scene to Broadway as an American opera, the first real successor to Porgy and Bess. With lyrics by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Street Scene garnered more favorable reviews than had Porgy and enjoyed a longer Broadway run. Next teaming up with Alan Jay Lerner for an original musical entitled Love Life (1948), Weill used American musical idioms and a vaudeville frame to chronicle in non-linear form the impact of 150 years of "progress" on the marriage and family of Sam and Susan Cooper, who never age. Now considered the first "concept musical," its first genuine successor was Cabaret (1965), and even Stephen Sondheim found Love Life "very useful" for his own work. Weill's last Broadway piece was no less daring: the musical tragedy Lost in the Stars, adapted by Anderson from Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Starring Todd Duncan and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, it challenged the Broadway institution and audience to a degree that would not be exceeded until the 1970s in the Sondheim-Prince collaborations.

During the forties, Weill had also contributed extensively to the American war effort, as well as a series of Jewish and Zionist pageants. Although all of the Hollywood adaptations of his musicals mutilated his scores, he enjoyed his work with Ira Gershwin on the original film musical Where Do We Go from Here? (1945). He was also very proud of his folk-opera Down in the Valley (1948), which received hundreds of productions in schools and communities throughout the nation. Weill was at work on a musical version of Mark Twain's Huck Finn and was planning another American opera (for baritone Lawrence Tibbett) when he suffered a heart attack shortly after his fiftieth birthday. He died on 3 April 1950. In his obituary Virgil Thomson identified Weill as "the most original single workman in the whole musical theater, internationally considered, during the last quarter century... Every work was a new model, a new shape, a new solution to dramatic problems."

His death came at the time that his German works were beginning to be rediscovered. Yet, the resulting dichotomy of the "two Weills" has thus remained for posterity to resolve. Although Weill claimed that he "didn't give a damn about writing for posterity," Maxwell Anderson prophesied in his eulogy that "it takes decades and scores of years and centuries to sift things out, but it's done in time -- and Kurt will emerge as one of the very few who wrote great music."


Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1921 Symphony No 1 4.00 out of 5 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Symphony No 1 - Symphony No 2 Comments:
Music on the verge of being Entartete Kunst

BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Gary Bertini
1924 Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra Opus 12 4.00 stars CD

Chantal Julliet - Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin cond. John Mauceri


1927 Der Zar laesst sich photographieren 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Place: a photographic studio in Paris
Time: 1914

An offstage male chorus chants the opera's title (and comments on the action from time to time). Angèle (the proprietress) and her male assistants, one of them a boy, have little work to do, but a telephone-call brings news that the Tsar wishes to have his photograph taken. A large box-camera is set up, but, before the Tsar arrives, four members of a gang of revolutionaries burst in. They bind and gag Angèle and her staff. Three of the gang dress up as Angèle, her assistant and the boy, and the leader of the gang, proclaiming that the revolution is imminent, conceals a gun in the camera. It will fire at the Tsar when the bulb used for taking the photograph is squeezed. The captives are put in another room, the leader hides, and the Tsar is announced.

The Tsar is dressed in a summer suit and accompanied only by an equerry. He wants an informal portrait rather than an official one. He is attracted by the False Angèle and asks to be left alone with her. She is keen to take the photograph (i.e. to "shoot" him), but he flirts with her and offers to take her photograph first. She manages to avoid being accidentally shot by the Tsar, and is finally about to press the bulb to shoot him when the equerry re-appears to report that the police have followed some assassins to the studio. The false Angèle, realising that the game is up, puts on a seductive gramophone record (the "Tango Angèle") and asks the Tsar to avert his eyes while she undresses. She and the rest of the gang escape through the window just before the police arrive with the real Angèle and her assistants, who had previously themselves escaped and raised the alarm. The gun is removed from the camera, and the Tsar, though dismayed that the real Angèle is not as attractive as the false one, finally, as the chorus again says, "has his photograph taken".

The opera's music is continuous, rather than arranged in "numbers". There are big orchestral climaxes at dramatic moments but also some popular-music forms, such as the foxtrot which accompanies the entrance of the Tsar. The "Tango Angèle" was specially recorded for the first performance, and is one of the earliest examples of pre-recorded music being used on stage in a dramatic work. It was Weill's first best-selling record.

WDR Rundfunkorchester Koeln cond. Jan Latham-Koenig

1928 Die Dreigroschenoper 4.50 out of 5 stars DVD
Kurt Weill - Die Dreigroschenoper [OST] Comments:
This is a scary movie about German society in the 1920's (Weimar).
Text is by Bert Brecht.
Music by Kurt Weill. (His best know and liked work) Later Weill went to Hollywood. You can guess why.

Recorded from a BBC broadcast. With English sub-titles.
1928 Die Dreigroschenoper 4.50 out of 5 stars LP
A 1977 Italian very low budget release of the original recording
1928 Die Dreigroschenoper 4.00 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik Review:


The Threepenny Opera proclaims itself "an opera for beggars," and it was in fact an attempt both to satirize traditional opera and operetta and to create a new kind of musical theater based on the theories of two young German artists, composer Kurt Weill and poet-playwright Bert Brecht. The show opens with a mock-Baroque overture, a nod to Threepenny's source, The Beggar's Opera, a brilliantly successful parody of Handel's operas written by John Gay in 1728. In a brief prologue following the overture, a shabby figure comes onstage with a barrel organ and launches into a song chronicling the crimes of the notorious bandit and womanizer Macheath, "Mack the Knife." The setting is a fair in Soho (London), just before Queen Victoria's coronation.

Act I

Act I begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who runs a rather unusual business-he is the boss of London's beggars. He equips and trains them in return for a cut of whatever they can beg. In the first scene, he enrolls a new beggar with the help of his wife. After finishing with the new man, they notice that their grown daughter Polly did not come home the previous night. The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is about to marry Polly, as soon as his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and tosses off "Pirate Jenny," showing a surprisingly tough side of herself. The gang gets nervous when Chief of Police Tiger Brown arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and has prevented Mack from being arrested all these years. The old friends duet in the "Cannon Song" ("Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Mack by singing the "Barbara Song." She stands fast against Mr. and Mrs. Peachum's anger, but she does let slip Brown's connection to Mack, which they will use to their advantage.

Act II

Polly tells Mack that her father will have him arrested. He is finally persuaded that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Pimp's Ballad" ("Tango Ballad") about their days together, but Mack doesn't know Mrs. Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and off Mack goes to jail. After he sings the "Ballad of the Easy Life," another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Jealousy Duet." After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Mack's escape. When Mr. Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and informs him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.


Jenny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her bribe money, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Mack is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Mack and have him executed. In the next scene, Mack is back in jail and desperately trying to raise enough of a bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled. Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can raise any money, and Mack prepares to die. Then a sudden reversal: A messenger on horseback arrives to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a castle and pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be

Well known interpretation from 1957? with Lotte Lenya

1928 Die Dreigroschenoper 4.00 out of 5 stars 2CD
The same recording as above on CD
1928 Fragments from Die Dreigroschenoper 4.00 out of 5 stars 3 CD
Lotte Lenya - Gisela May
Orchestras conducted by Henry Krtischi and Theo Mackeben
1929 Happy End 4.00 out of 5 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Happy End Comments:
Text: Bertold Brecht

Lotte Lenya singer and artistic direction
Hamburger Staatsoper cond. Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberger

Includes Surabaya Johnny
1929 Der Lindbergflug 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Kurt Weill - Lindbergflug Comments:

Text: Bertold Brecht

1930 historical recording:
(Version with arrangements by Paul Hindemith)
Berliner Funkchor - Berliner Fumkorchester cond. Hermann Scherschen

1989 digital recording:
Pro Musika Koeln - Koelner Rundfunkorchester cond. Jan Latham-Koenig

1929 Kleine Dreigroschenmusik 4.00 out of 5 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik Comments:
Lively performance of the orchestral suite from the Opera.

Contemporary Chamber Ensemble cond. Arthur Weisberg
1930 Der Jasager 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik Comments:
Text: Bertold Brecht

Fredonia Chamber Singers
Kammerchor der Universitaet Dortmund
WestfaelischesKammerorchester cond. Willi Gundlach

1933 Die Sieben Totsünden der Kleinbürger 4.00 out of 5 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Die Sieben Totsünden der Kleinbürger Comments:
This is the original version of the  Seven Deadly Sins.
Words by Bertold Brecht

Ballet in nine parts. Choreographer at the premiere version: George Balanchine.
Read background Info

Anna I and Anna II - Gisela May
The family:
Peter Schreier - Tenor
Hans-Joachim Rotzsch - Tenor
Günther Leib - Baritone
Herman Christian Polster - Bass
Radio Symphony Orchestra Leipzig cond. Herbert Kegel

My record is on the old VEB Eterna label. The central comittee approved.
1933 The Seven Deadly Sins 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Lotte Lenya,
Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeber

Includes songs from:
- Dreigrosschenoper
- The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
- Happy End
- Berlin Requiem
- A Winter's Tale

1933-1934 Symphony No 2 4.00 out of 5 stars LP
Kurt Weill - Symphony No 1 - Symphony No 2 Comments:
Pro Musika Koeln - Koelner Rundfunkorchester cond. Jan Latham-Koenig
1940 The Ballad of Magna Carta 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Kurt Weill - Lindbergflug Comments:
Pro Musika Koeln - Koelner Rundfunkorchester cond. Jan Latham-Koenig
1945-1948 Down the Valley 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik Comments:

Fredonia Chamber Singers
Kammerchor der Universitaet Dortmund
WestfaelischesKammerorchester cond. Willi Gundlach