Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was a German composer whose musical theatre works have come to exemplify the Weimar Republic period in Germany. He was born in Dessau to Jewish parents. By World War I, when he was a teenager, he was a professional theatre accompanist. He studied composition in Berlin, composing standard instrumental fare like tone poems and an orchestral suite. In the 1920s, he began to make his mark on German music with theatrical pieces that played with American dance rhythms. In many of these works he collaborated with the writer and political activist Bertolt Brecht. His fortunes turned sour in the early 1930s, as the new Nazi regime ramped up a propaganda campaign against his popular, politically subversive works. He fled first to Paris in 1933, then to the United States in 1935. In America, he continued his successful career as a music theatre composer, collaborating with Ira Gershwin and Langston Hughes, among others. He was still active on the Broadway scene when he died of a heart attack at age 50.
One of Weill’s most famous pieces was Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). He wrote the music in 1928 to words by Bertolt Brecht, based on The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. It tells the story of Macheath (Mack the Knife), a murderer in Victorian London. In the spirit of the Weimar Republic, it also lampooned German society and capitalism. It was one of the most popular works of the period: within five years, it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times in Europe. It had also attracted the attention of the serious music establishment in Germany. Just four months after its premiere, conductor Otto Klemperer commissioned Weill to create a concert suite from the opera in the tradition of opera suites for winds from Mozart’s day. Titled Little Threepenny Music (Kleine Dreigroschenmusik), Weill’s suite retains all of the unique character of the opera, with instrumentation that includes saxophones, a rudimentary drum set, and combination of guitar, banjo, and bandoneon among the more traditional wind instruments. He even added some musical material, presumably because the original opera was written for actors who happened to sing rather than trained singers. The suite comes in 8 movements:
II. The Moritat of Mack the Knife
III. The Instead-of Song
IV. The Ballad of the Easy Life
V. Polly’s Song
VI. Cannon Song
VII. Threepenny Finale
Each one uses material from somewhere in the stage show. The Overture is exactly that, using material that recurs at no point later in the show:
II. The Moritat of Mack the Knife is a thread that runs through the entire show as a narration of sorts, beginning with an exposition of Macheath’s background and character. Here it is in the suite:
And here it from the 1931 film – that’s Mack himself swinging the cane at the back of the crowd and being generally creepy:
The number “Mack the Knife” took on a life of its own as a jazz standard and pop song with worldwide popularity that persists today. Louis Armstrong is among the many renowned musicians to have recorded a version of the song:
III. The Instead-of Song happens when the Peachums (gangsters themselves) discover that their daughter did not come home overnight. What they don’t yet know is that she’s gone and married Mack the Knife:
Here’s a cabaret version of it:
And a German pop version from the 80s:
IV. The Ballad of the Easy Life comes when Mack is in jail, having been betrayed by his inside man on the police force, and sings about how life is easy as long as you have money. (Don’t mind the wrong title on the video below – this whole series got mixed up.):
Here’s a snippet from an American stage production:
V. Polly’s Song is a truly tender moment from the show, when Mack and Polly (the Peachums’ daughter and his new wife) are parting:
Here it is from a London production:
Va. Tango Ballad comes in stark contrast to Polly’s Song: Mack has made his way to a bordello (“It’s Thursday,” he says), where he reconnects with Jenny, who works there:
Raul Julia leads as Mack the Knife in this version from the 1989 film remake (containing plenty of extra tango flourish):
VI. Cannon Song is our introduction to Brown, the police chief who is Mack’s old war buddy. They sing of old times as soldiers:
Here it is from a 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival production:
VII. Finale blends several elements from the end of the show. It begins when Mack is about to be hanged and is singing bitterly of the injustice of his impending death. Much of the rest of the movement comes from the “Ballad in which Macheath begs all men for forgiveness”. The Chorale at the end comes after Mack has been (absurdly) pardoned by the queen and given a pension.
The opening “Call from the Grave”:
Macheath begs all men for forgiveness:
The closing Chorale:
I have to admit, when I think of Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, I can’t help but think of this:
both of which were certainly influenced by Weill’s work.
Read up on Kurt Weill on Wikipedia and the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. More info on The Threepenny Opera can be found at Wikipedia and its own website, run by the same Kurt Weill Foundation. There is also a great entry on Little Threepenny Music at the Wind Repertory Project.