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Exploring Music: Exuberant, Vital, and Authentic

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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Robert Maxwell Stern


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Kurt Weill began his musical studies in his native Dessau with conductor Albert Bing. In 1918 he went to Berlin where he studied composition with Humperdinck( (briefly) and for three years with Busoni. He was a radical innovator creating rather dissonant, atonal music of the school of Alban Berg, with whom he also studied. By 1928 Weill had composed The Threepen­ny Opera; during that time he increasing­ly came under the influence of Italian and Russian music, and more still of jazz. He never again returned to the grim tenets of atonality.

After a few moderately successful years in Paris, Weill settled in the United States, and the composer of Broadway fame came into being. Here was the composer of what we might refer to as "adult musicals": Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars, Une Touch of Venus, and Lady in the Dark, to name but a few. The Broadway Weill wrote in a highly polished Tin Pan Alley style. Who hasn't been haunted by "My Ship'"? And one must admit that "September Song" is a more than perfect Broadway ballad.He came to New York a political and religious refugee and an already established composer, based upon his Berlin successes, and had the miraculous talent to completely change his style in order to comply with the contem­porary fashion of theater composition; in that way he stayed in business.

Two of his greatest Berlin successes were The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). Four months after its premiere, the suite from The Threepenny Opera was heard for the first time. It was commissioned for the Berlin Opera Ball in February 1929 and conducted by Otto Klemperer. Different from most suites, which are simply con­venient extractions from available sources, the Threepenny Suite is a composition in its own right.

It has been suggested that Weill wrote this suite as a means of hearing his music under conditions which were not possible in the theater. Properly called Suite for Wind Instruments, the orchestration in­cludes 12 wind instruments (including two saxophones), timpani, piano, percussion, banjo, guitar, and bandoneon (a type of ac­cordion). This instrumentation was a dif­ficult order to fill as far as personnel was concerned, and the structure of the music was difficult to market because it fit neither the "serious" nor the "pop" field. Therefore Weill rarely, if ever, heard his suite in his lifetime.

The Threepenny Suite came after the suc­cess of the original theater piece; however, the Mahagonny songspiel predates the opera by three years. The songspiel was the result of a commission by the Deutsche Kammermusikfest, which was a festival of modern German chamber music. Weill was asked to write a piece which could be per­formed on a program of short operas for chamber ensemble. He and his librettist Berthold Brecht were at that time plann­ing the Mahagonny opera, so they decid­ed upon the songspiel as a style-study for the yet-to-come major piece.

On July 17, 1927 the first of Weill's Mahagonny compositions premiered along with pieces by Milhaud, Toch, and Hindemith. There was a moderate staging and projections were used to set each of the three scenes at this Baden-Baden per­formance, but there was no linking dialogue as many have suggested. It is im­portant to note as well that the songspiel anticipated none of the dramatic elements found in the later opera. The version presented here is the authentic Baden­Raden Mahagonny songspiel. (I mention this to avoid confusion with the Berliner Ensemble's recording of Das kleine Mahagonny [Little Mahagonny] which is a shortened version of the opera libretto presented in pseudo-Brechtian style.)

The London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Atherton, was founded in 1968 and is supremely dedicated to the performance of 20th-century music. On this release, their performance is exuberant, vital, and authentic. Sonically the recording has the immediate presence which is so desirable for bathing oneself thoroughly in Weill's grotesquely appealing harmonies.

Review of Suite for Wind Orchestra from Kurt Weills Threepenny Opera

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