19 Aug 2013

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —

the reputation of the German-Jewish composer, Kurt Weill, has rested largely on the popular success of his satirical collaborations with the playwright and lyricist Bertolt Brecht, during the 1920s and 1930s (Die Dreigroschenoper, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) — with Lotte Lenya’s rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’ ubiquitous and perennial.

Noting that critical opinion has been divisive along cross-Atlantic lines, with German critics in the post-war period discounting Weill's American works as ‘historically and aesthetically negligible’ while their counterparts in the US showered praise primary on the composer’s Broadway works, in this densely informative book the esteemed Weill scholar Stephen Hinton sets out to challenge the misleading conception of the ‘two Weills’ — the European modernist and the American popularist. Hinton argues that it is only in the last couple of decades that scholars have done justice to the works written after Weill left Germany. Refuting the biographer who declared that Weill was ‘a composer without a stable identity, someone who “seemed to change styles more often than countries”’ (1), he aims to show that the development of Weill’s style, form and theatrical concerns was in fact continuous, consistent and coherent.

Hinton begins his comprehensive, immensely detailed, inter-disciplinary study of the works and aesthetic of Kurt Weill with a quotation, citing Weill in 1947, three years before his death at the age of 50: ‘Ever since I made up my mind, at the age of 19, that my special field of activity would be the theatre, I have tried continuously, in my own way, to solve the form-problems of the musical theatre, and through the years I have approached these problems from all angles.’ (ix)

This statement offers a clear guide as to the ambitions of this book, which explores the composer’s achievements from biographical, musicological, philosophical and historical ‘angles’, and whose intended readership comprises not only music historians and the lay reader interested in Weill’s music, but also ‘theatre practitioners, especially those considering future productions’ (xv). Through analytical case studies which illuminate Weill’s compositional methodology, comparative evaluations of other scholarly biographies and musical enquiries, scrutiny of the composer’s own writings, and consideration of the influence of significant collaborators and aesthetic theories, Hinton presents a discerning and enlightening account of Weill’s contribution to the theatre — its forms, reforms and aesthetics. He examines the inherent tension in the ‘hybrid’ forms of musical theatre which the composer employed and devised, noting that often this tension - between the works themselves and their generic traditions — is often at the heart of the work’s ‘meaning’. And, in exploring Weill’s engagement with the ‘Urform’ — what Weill described as a ‘“prototype” of opera that combines the traditional elements of the genre, its rudimentary forms and conventions, in a novel and provocative way’ (xiii) — Hinton raises interesting structural and institutional questions about opera itself.

We begin with some ‘Biographical Notes’ which are less a survey of the chief events of the composer’s life and more an evaluation of how previous critical histories have contributed to the formation of Weill’s posthumous reputation, and a reassessment of that reputation. Hinton refutes the commonly held view of Weill as a ‘chameleon’, and challenges those who question the calibre of Weill’s American works. Admitting that Weill’s own artistic positions were at times contradictory, he turns to the primary evidence — Weill’s letters, statements and writings — to show how the composer evaluated his own compositional processes in relation to both the past and present. Thus, Weill compared himself, a composer who needed ‘“words to set my imagination in motion”’ (3), to Beethoven, a ‘paradigmatic composer of instrumental music; and, he engaged optimistically with contemporary technology and culture, in works such as a cantata marking Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and Railroads on Parade, a ‘pageant-drama of transport’ written to celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad.

Hinton notes those works which established Weill first in Europe and later on Broadway, and examines the formation of Weill’s own personal and musical identity, considering the composer’s ambiguous response to his Jewishness, his early interest in studying with Schoenberg, and his desire — in contradiction to Schoenberg who ‘“said he is writing for a time fifty years after his death”’ (6) — to write for contemporary audiences, engaging enthusiastically with the new media of radio and motion pictures. Referring frequently to Weill’s own writings, the author ranges widely, and includes an exploration of Weill’s aesthetic ideology — for example, the distinction he made between Verbrauchmusik (music which would be short-lived) and Gebrauchsmusik (‘genuinely useful music’) and Kunstmusik (‘art music’, which ‘might eventually be erased’ (7)).

Hinton also presents a review of previous biographies and studies of the composer, evaluating not only their content and conclusions, but also their critical methods and intent. There are some ‘side-tracks’, such as a discussion of the relative merits of Weill and Hindemith, and the reader needs to work quite hard to follow all the balls that the author keeps aloft, but the style is engaging and the various threads absorbing.

The influence of Weill’s teacher, Busoni, introduced in the first chapter — for example, Hinton notes Weill’s concern for good ‘craftsmanship’ and voice-leading — is explored in detail in the second, ‘The Busoni Connection’, and it is here that Hinton perhaps risks losing his reader’s attention, as Busoni’s profound influence on Weill’s compositional practice and artistic priorities is examined through a comprehensive account of Busoni’s theories. Certainly, Weill’s response to the man he termed ‘the last renaissance man’, in essays such as ‘Busoni and the New Music’ sheds interesting light on the personal debt that the composer felt: Weill described his teacher as a man with a ‘“cast of mind whose very integrity already placed him above his contemporaries … the enchanting harmony of this artist cause[d] people within his immediate orbit to feel happier … [his] serene goodness would disperse any malice or badness”’ (40). As Hinton remarks, Weill clearly viewed Busoni as a luminary or, even, a prophet, and eulogised his artistic achievements; interestingly, Busoni also seems to have contributed to Weill’s interest in film; in this context, the composer’s observations illuminate his own modernity: ‘“He had a vision of the changing social order. He foresaw the enormous possibilities of the form as a vehicle of a new form of tone-drama”’ (41). Here we see the formation of Weill’s belief in the socially regenerative power of music (gesellschaftsbildende Kraft, literally ‘socially formative’) which could have an active effect upon ‘the masses’, evident for example in the composer’s remark that radio music could ‘directly oppose “superficially oriented concerts that are full of pomp and circumstance, and which have become superfluous”’ (57).

The accounts of Weill’s idealisation of Mozart, his rejection of Wagner, and his early interactions with Bertolt Brecht are thought-provoking. Things get more challenging for the reader, though, when Hinton describes Busoni’s philosophy of art, ‘New Classicality’ or Junge Klassizt├Ąt, and a digression into the linguistic distinctions between Klassizismus and Klassik may be a tangential step too far for many. But, the account of Busoni’s influence on Weill’s concept of the ideal Urform of musical theatre is instructive, particularly as Hinton shows how the composer’s desire for the creation of a new, popular form of music theatre was connected to his cinematic aspirations. And, the ideas presented do inform the reader’s understanding of the musicological and analytical studies which follow. For example, we see how Busoni’s aesthetics of opera — ‘when and how should music be implemented on stage’ (70) — may have influenced Weill’s use of ballet in the early one-act entertainment, Zaubernacht.

The main body of the book comprises a more or less chronological survey of Weill’s works, the case studies gathered together under ‘generic’ titles: ‘One-Act Opera’, ‘Songspiel’, ‘Plays with Music’, ‘Epic Opera’, ‘Didactic Theater’, ‘Musical Plays’, ‘American Opera’. Hinton describes Weill’s various collaborations with writers and directors, the creation of libretti and Weill’s musical responses to the texts, the circumstances of composition and Weill’s musical processes and techniques, musical influences (such as Stravinsky’s instrumentation, formal structures, and use of rhythmic ostinati), as well as the themes and ideas presented in the narratives and dramas. Comparisons with works by other composers support Hinton’s sustained examination of genre and form, and his consideration of the structural and expressive function of dance and film sequences in Weill’s compositions.

Chapter five, ‘Plays with Music’, not only vividly illuminates Weill’s personal and professional relationship with Brecht — and the radical nature of their artistic experimentation and programmatic reform — but also engages the reader in a debate about genre, as Hinton considers the function of music in opera and in ‘play with music’, and the changes, if any, wrought upon an existing play when music is added. Hinton is keen for the reader to make connections and recognise the integration of Weill’s influences. Thus in ‘Epic Theatre’, he argues that the relevance of the concept of ‘epic theatre’ extends far beyond dry theory or actual practice (i.e. the plays and operas he wrote with Brecht): ‘Busoni’s teachings, which foreshadowed some of Brecht’s ideas about epic theater, exerted a vital influence … Another defining influence came from the music-theater works of Stravinsky, in particular L’histoire du soldat, but also Oedipus rex.’ (138) Throughout, Weill’s own commentaries underpin Hinton’s ideas and theories.

In the penultimate chapter, ‘Concept and Commitment’, Hinton’s account of Weill’s last two works for the musical theatre, Love Life (a ‘vaudeville’, 1948) and Lost in the Stars (a ‘musical tragedy’, 1949) affirms his conviction in Weill’s achievements in uniting past and present, and in assimilating styles, structures, musical language, media in richly inventive, socially and culturally progressive ways — and in so doing creating theatrical forms for the future. Thus he observes, ‘By looking back to earlier forms of American theatrical entertainment, Weill’s “vaudeville” also looks forward. Its subversion of conventional linear plot-construction foreshadows a genre that would not become commonplace until a couple of decades later, the “concept musical.” In this, Weill, was building on recent trends in musicals, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and his own Lady in the Dark, as well as on innovations in dramaturgy evinced in plays such as Thornton Wilder’sOur Town, all of which have demonstrable connections to Weill’s own earliest German stage works’ (403). Such arguments are impressive and convincing.

As Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, Hinton’s research has focused on modern German music history and in this book his knowledge of his subject is second to none. He is the author of Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera, the founding editor of the Kurt Weill Edition presenting the first critical study of Weill’s complete stage works, and the co-editor of Weill’s collected writings.

This is a valuable and engrossing re-assessment of the depth and range of Weill’s career, one that bridged Europe and America, and which embraced opera, singspiel, theatre, ballet, musicals, radio and film, often over-riding or eradicating distinctions between the genres. And, Hinton shows how what he terms Weill’s ‘protean gifts’ (ix) enabled the composer to balanced aesthetic idealism with commercial pragmatism.

The scholar of music theatre will undoubtedly find this book richly rewarding; a wealth of information about Weill’s artistic achievements and intentions is supplement by an integrated evaluation of the work of numerous scholars, interwoven with Weill’s own commentaries, and Hinton does indeed present a persuasive case for the coherence of Weill’s dramaturgy in conception and evolution.

Claire Seymour