Kurt Weill, Youkali’s Inspiration
Youkali takes its name from a beautiful, mournful tango written by the German-American composer Kurt Weill — whom verdi has asked me to say a bit about. (For Youkalites still struggling through school, the magic words “Kurt Weill” will always get you bonus points with your finest teachers.)
Kurt Weill was born in Desau, Germany in 1900, the son of a synagogue cantor. He studied composition with Humperdink (of “Hansel and Gretel” fame) and Busoni, and by 22, the Berlin Philharmonic had premiered two of his compositions.
Weill came of age at the end of World War I, in a Europe that was both spiritually exhausted, ghastly, frightening, desperate — and remarkably creative. The carnage of World War I had shattered the smug 19th-century illusion that Western societies had achieved perfect, rational civilizations under wise, benign leaders. When the smoke cleared and the millions of bodies were buried, every art form underwent radical change, from old styles of simplistic (and often schmaltzy) charm and harmony to new, terrifying visions of fear, dread, satire, revolt and despair. Even the old recognizeable forms could not disguise the war’s hideous legacy; the era produced many compositions for brilliant young pianists returning home minus one of their hands.
Weill’s musical legacy is enormous, and all of it broke new musical and theatrical ground. His most famous and enduring works were his Berlin cabaret and theater collaborations with the poet Bertolt Brecht, “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny.” “Mack the Knife” is from the former; “The Whiskey Bar Song,” made famous by Jim Morrison and The Doors, is from the latter. Mahagonny is a very different place from the serene island of Youkali — it’s an Alabama city catering to every human depravity, where the only crime is Not Paying the Bill:
Oh, show us the way to the next
Oh, don’t ask why! Oh, don’t ask why!
For if we can’t find the next little boy
I tell you we must die!
Brecht and Weill also wrote “Surabaya Johnny,” a bone-chilling wail by a tormented woman hopelessly in love with a brutal sailor:
You said lots of things, Johnny!
Not a word was true, Johnny —
You lied from the moment we met!
I hate you so, Johnny!
I hate how you stand there
laughing at me!
Take that pipe out of your mouth, you filthy dog!
and “Pirate Jenny,” a brooding revenge fantasy; in the depth of night, a bitter hotel chambermaid drools over a night in the future when her pirate ship …
… the Black Freighter
With its fifty cannon
Slips silently into the harbor
And on board is me …
Weill’s favorite singer, for whom he wrote many of his most famous songs, was his wife, Lotte Lenya (who plays a fiendish terrorist in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”). Lenya lovingly preserved Weill’s music for modern audiences, and in the last years of her life passed the torch to the Greek-Canadian-American soprano Theresa Stratas, now considered the leading interpreter of Weill’s songs.
Weill’s lyricists were the greatest poets, novelists and playwrights, in at least three languages, of Europe and America. “Der Silbersee” (“Silver Lake”) was co-written with Georg Kaiser, author of the “Gas” play trilogy; it features a plaintiff lament from the orphan Fennimore, an ill-treated, unwanted waif shuffled from relative to relative:
Sometimes I dream I don’t have any family
I don’t have to duck their fists and
slave for them
I shake my neighbor’s hand; I’m so happy —
I’m not related to him!
That’s the life for me! How pleasant
If I could just forget I have to be related!
When Weill fled to America as the Nazis took power in Germany (the clearly anti-fascist Brecht-Weill works were among the first to be banned and burned), he quickly linked up with writers and lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, the humorist S.J. Perelman, and the literary giant of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (pictured at right). Hughes’ “Lonely Town” is one of Weill’s most beautiful ballads; surrounded by the late-night sounds of his neighbors, a man cries out:
The night for me is not romantic;
Unhook the stars and take them down!
I’m lonely in this lonely house,
In this lonely town.
Weill also adapted “Lost in the Stars” from the tragic novel of South African racial oppression, “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Patton.
Though adept at light romantic comedy, with many Broadway hits to his credit (“Knickerbocker Holiday,” with its memorable “September Song,” and “One Touch of Venus,” and its romantic standard “Speak Low”), Weill instinctively sought projects with serious political and human themes. Typical of this genre — and very atypical of Broadway musicals — is “Johnny Johnson,” a tragedy about a young, idealistic, pacifist soldier in World War I.
It’s a tribute to the sophistication and courage of the New York stage that so many of these controversial works were produced during the ultra-conservative 1950s. (Fellow exile Brecht wasn’t so lucky; he was hauled before a hostile House Un-American Activities Committee, and before the U.S. could deport him for his leftist ideas, returned to Communist East Germany and resumed his theater career.)
Beyond his brilliance, Weill’s contemporaries remember him as warm, generous, thoughtful and fun-loving. Despite America’s conservative chill after the war, Weill fell instantly in love with his adopted New York City. His favorite haunts were Manhattan’s drug store soda fountains. He died of a heart attack in one of them in 1950. At the time he was working on a musical version of “Huckleberry Finn” with Maxwell Anderson.
Musically, Weill was in the avant-garde of 20th-century European composition. Much of his most serious symphonic and choral work shares a sharp, hypermodern edge with Bartok, Hindemith, Webern and Berg, with strong echoes of jazz and city honky-tonk; Weill was rarely trying to give a mass audience happy, feel-good tunes they could whistle as they left the theater. Instead he was constantly trying to find ways to touch the deepest parts of the human soul and challenge the highest realms of the intellect. Some music lulls us to sleep; Weill’s is always a startling awakening.
Yet none of his music is detached, technical and cold; all of it is infused with constant, tumultuous, immediate passion. One of his greatest ambitions was to use music to describe the lives and emotions of “ordinary” women and men to audiences whose sophistication had isolated them from real human experience. Every note of Weill’s music expresses love and hope as much as it expresses rage and despair.
Never confuse Weill’s work with a painful, highbrow experience; almost every encounter with Weill’s music is an instant and intimate pleasure and thrill; genuine laughter, sweeping romance, and just the electric joy of being alive are marbled throughout his work.
There are many delightful ways to make Weill’s acquaintance. My favorites are “Lost in the Stars,” a compilation CD of his songs by Sting, Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, Aaron Neville, and other superb contemporary artists; and two CDs by Theresa Stratas, “The Unknown Kurt Weill” and “Stratas Sings Weill.” (Stratas, IMHO, is the voice and soul of a lifetime, like Caruso or Billie Holiday.) There are videos of “The Threepenny Opera,” but best of all, there are frequent live performances of Weill’s work throughout the world. The Web is littered with references to Weill, and a free membership in the Kurt Weill Foundation (in NYC) brings you bulletins of these upcoming concerts and performances.
Enjoy this ethereal music of Youkali!
©1996 by droog4