Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900 – April 3, 1950), was a German, and in his later years American, composer active from the 1920s until his death. He was a leading composer for the stage. He also wrote a number of works for the concert hall.
Kurt Julian Weill was born on March 2, 1900, the third of four children to Albert Weill (1867–1950) and Emma Weill née Ackermann (1872–1955). He grew up in a religious Jewish family in the "Sandvorstadt", the Jewish quarter in Dessau, Germany, where his father was a cantor. At the age of twelve, Kurt Weill started taking piano lessons and made his first attempts at writing music; his earliest preserved composition was written in 1913 and is titled Mi Addir. Jewish Wedding Song.
In 1915, Weill started taking private lessons with Albert Bing, Kapellmeister at the "Herzogliche Hoftheater zu Dessau", who taught him piano, composition, music theory, and conducting. Weill performed publicly on piano for the first time in 1915, both as an accompanist and soloist. The following years he composed numerous Lieder to the lyrics of poets such as Eichendorff, Arno Holz, and Anna Ritter, as well as a cycle of five songs titled Ofrahs Lieder to a German translation of a text by Yehuda Halevi.
Weill graduated with an Abitur from the Oberrealschule of Dessau in 1918, and enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik at the age of 18, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt, and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch, and also attended philosophy lectures by Max Dessoir and Ernst Cassirer. The same year, he wrote his first string quartet (in B minor).
Early work and compositions
Weill's family experienced financial hardship in the aftermath of World War I, and in July 1919, Weill abandoned his studies and returned to Dessau, where he was employed as a répétiteur at the Friedrich-Theater under the direction of the new Kapellmeister, Hans Knappertsbusch. During this time, he composed an orchestral suite in E-flat major, a symphonic poem of Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as Schilflieder, a cycle of five songs to poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December 1919, through the help of Humperdinck, Weill was appointed as Kapellmeister at the newly founded Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid, where he directed opera, operetta, and singspiel for five months, and also composed a cello sonata and Ninon of Lenclos, a now lost one-act operatic adaptation of a play by Ernst Hardt. From May to September 1920, Weill spent a couple of months in Leipzig, where his father had become the new director of a Jewish orphanage. Before he returned to Berlin, in September 1920, he composed Sulamith, a choral fantasy for soprano, female choir, and orchestra.
Studies with Busoni
Back in Berlin, Weill had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December 1920. After examining some of Weill's compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of five master students in composition at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin. From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with him and also counterpoint with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin. During his first year he composed his first symphony, Sinfonie in einem Satz, as well as the lieder Die Bekehrte (Goethe) and two Rilkelieder for voice and piano. In order to support his family in Leipzig, he also worked as a pianist in a Bierkeller tavern. In spring of 1922, Weill joined the November Group's music faction. That year he composed a psalm, a divertimento for orchestra, and Sinfonia Sacra: Fantasia, Passacaglia, and Hymnus for Orchestra. On November 18, 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm; it was the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of musical theatre.
Out of financial need, Weill taught music theory and composition to private students from 1923 to 1925. Among his students were Claudio Arrau, Maurice Abravanel, Henry (then known as Heinz) Jolles, and Nikos Skalkottas. Arrau, Abravenel, and Jolles, at least, would remain members of Weill's circle of friends thereafter, and Jolles's sole surviving composition predating the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933 is a fragment of a work for four pianos he and Weill wrote jointly. Weill's compositions during his last year of studies included Quodlibet, an orchestral suite version of Die Zaubernacht, Frauentanz, seven medieval poems for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, french horn, and bassoon, and Recordare for choir and children's choir to words from the Book of Lamentations. Further premieres that year included a performance of his Divertimento for Orchestra by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Heinz Unger on April 10, 1923, and the Hindemith-Amar Quartet's rendering of Weill's String Quartet op. 8, on June 24, 1923. In December 1923, Weill finished his studies with Busoni.
Success in the 1920s and early 1930s
In February 1924 the conductor Fritz Busch introduced him to the dramatist Georg Kaiser, with whom Weill would have a long-lasting creative partnership resulting in several one-act operas. At Kaiser's house in Grünheide, Weill also first met the actress and future wife Lotte Lenya in summer 1924. The couple got married twice: In 1926 and again in 1937 (following their divorce in 1933). Lenya took great care to support Weill's work, and after his death she took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation.
From November 1924 to May 1929, Weill wrote hundreds of reviews for the influential and comprehensive radio program guide Der deutsche Rundfunk. Hans Siebert von Heister had already worked with Weill in the November Group, and offered Weill the job shortly after becoming editor-in-chief.
Although he had some success with his first mature non-stage works (such as the String Quartet, Op. 8 or the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12), which were influenced by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Weill tended more and more to vocal music and musical theatre. His musical theatre work and his songs were extremely popular with the wider public in Germany at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. Weill's music was admired by composers such as Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky, but it was also criticised by others: by Schoenberg, who later revised his opinion, and by Anton Webern.
His best-known work is The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Engel directed the original production of The Threepenny Opera in 1928. It contains Weill's most famous song, "Mack the Knife" ("Die Moritat von Mackie Messer"). The stage success was filmed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst in two language versions: Die 3-Groschen-Oper and L'opéra de quat' sous. Weill and Brecht tried to stop the film adaptation through a well publicised lawsuit that Weill won and Brecht lost. Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to an end over differing politics in 1930. According to Lenya, Weill commented that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."
Paris, London and New York
Weill fled Nazi Germany in March 1933. As a prominent and popular Jewish composer, he was a target of the Nazi authorities, who criticized and even interfered with performances of his later stage works, such as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), Die Bürgschaft (1932), and Der Silbersee (1933). With no option but to leave Germany, he went first to Paris, where he worked once more with Brecht (after a project with Jean Cocteau failed) — the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins.
On April 13, 1933 his musical The Threepenny Opera was given its premiere on Broadway, but closed after 13 performances to mixed reviews. In 1934 he completed his Symphony No.2, his last purely orchestral work, conducted in Amsterdam and New York by Bruno Walter, and also the music for Jacques Deval's play, Marie Galante.
A production of his operetta Der Kuhhandel (A Kingdom for a Cow) took him to London in 1935, and later that year he went to the United States in connection with The Eternal Road, a "Biblical Drama" by Franz Werfel that had been commissioned by members of New York's Jewish community and was premiered in 1937 at the Manhattan Opera House, running for 153 performances. Weill and his wife, the actress and singer Lotte Lenya, settled in New York City on 10 September 1935, living first at the St. Moritz Hotel before moving on to an apartment at 231 East 62nd Street between Third and Second Avenues. Weill became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943. Weill believed that most of his work had been destroyed, and he seldom (and reluctantly) spoke or wrote German again, with the exception of, for example, letters to his parents who had escaped to Israel.
Rather than continue to write in the same style that had characterized his European compositions, Weill made a study of American popular and stage music, and his American output, though held by some to be inferior, nonetheless contains individual songs and entire shows that not only became highly respected and admired, but have been seen as seminal works in the development of the American musical. Unique among Broadway composers of the time, Weill insisted on orchestrating every note of his scores himself. He worked with writers such as Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin, and even wrote a film score for Fritz Lang (You and Me, 1938). Weill himself strove to find a new way of creating an American opera that would be both commercially and artistically successful. The most interesting attempt in this direction is Street Scene, based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. For his work on Street Scene Weill was awarded the inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.
In the 1940s Weill lived in Downstate New York near the New Jersey border and made frequent trips both to New York City and to Hollywood for his work for theatre and film. Weill was active in political movements encouraging American entry into World War II, and after America joined the war in 1941, Weill enthusiastically collaborated in numerous artistic projects supporting the war effort both abroad and on the home front. He and Maxwell Anderson also joined the volunteer civil service by working as air raid wardens on High Tor Mountain between their homes in New City, New York and Haverstraw, New York in Rockland County. In 1943, he became a United States citizen.
Apart from "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from the Threepenny Opera, his most famous songs include "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), "Speak Low" (from One Touch of Venus), "Lost in the Stars" (from the musical of that name), "My Ship" (from Lady in the Dark), and "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday).
Weill suffered a heart attack shortly after his 50th birthday and died on April 3, 1950 in New York City. He was buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw, New York. The text and music on his gravestone come from the song "A Bird of Passage" from Lost in the Stars, itself adapted from a quotation from the Venerable Bede:
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.
(lyric: Maxwell Anderson)
Over 50 years after his death, Weill's music continues to be performed both in popular and classical contexts. In Weill's lifetime, his work was most associated with the voice of his wife, Lotte Lenya, but shortly after his death "Mack the Knife" was established by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin as a jazz standard. His music has since been recorded by many performers, ranging from The Doors, Judy Collins, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, John Zorn, Dagmar Krause, and PJ Harvey to New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Singers as varied as Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Gisela May, Anne Sofie von Otter, Max Raabe, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Marianne Faithfull have recorded entire albums of his music.
Amanda Palmer, singer/pianist of the 'Brechtian Punk Cabaret' duo The Dresden Dolls, has Kurt Weill's name on the front of her keyboard (a pun with the name of the instrument maker Kurzweil) as a tribute to the composer. In 1991, seminal Swiss Industrial music band The Young Gods released their album of Kurt Weill songs, The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill. In 2008, Weill's songs were performed by Canadian musicians (including Sarah Slean and Mary Margaret O'Hara) in a tribute concert as part of the first annual Canwest Cabaret Festival in Toronto. In 2009 Duke Special released an EP, entitled Huckleberry Finn, of five songs from an unfinished musical by Kurt Weill based on the novel by Mark Twain.