In Celebration of Israel
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In Celebration of Israel
More than half a century after his premature death, the lifeand the art of Kurt Weill
(1900-1950) continue to fascinate. On manylevels he is sui generis
among the emigre
composers of the 1930s,and perhaps among all American composers -- especially in his juxtaposition ofstyles. His music mirrors the various artistic, moral, political, and spiritualcontradictions of his generation and his times.
Weill was born in Dessau, Germany, the son of a cantor andscion of a family of rabbis and rabbinic scholars whose Judeo-German roots havebeen traced to the 13th century. He began composing at age 12; his firstsurviving piece is a setting of mi addir
in Hebrew, a text sung atJewish weddings, but his first substantial piece was a song cycle on poems (inGerman translation) by the great medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi.
While at the Berliner Musikhochschule, he studied with Engelbert Humperdinckand was briefly an assistant to the conductor Hans Knapperstbusch at the DessauOpera. He then entered the master class of the legendary Ferruccio Busoni andbecame acquainted with the music of some of the composers who would become importantleaders of the German avant-garde. During those years, Weill wrote his firststage work, as well as his first symphony, a string quartet, and other concertpieces.
In 1926 in Dresden, Weill enjoyed his first major theatricalsuccess: a one-act opera with a libretto by George Kaiser, with whom he wouldcollaborate on other important works. It was in Kaiser's home that Weill methis future wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, who is generally acknowledged as thepervasive propelling energy behind his work and certainly the champion of hislegacy.
Weill began a collaboration with the left-wing, sociallycritical, and sympathetically communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht thatwould yield a half dozen musical theater works, including the full-length operaAufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny
(The Rise and Fall of the City ofMahagonny) and the social satire Die Dreigroschenoper
(The Threepenny Opera),which is based on John Gay's 18th-century The Beggar's Opera
and is, tothis day, regarded as Weill's greatest international success; it has beentranslated into 11 languages.
The social messages and leftist perspectives in Weill's workswere sure to invite contempt from the Nazis and their followers, who viewedsocial reformers as the agents of Germany's defeat in the First World War andconsidered Weill's art an example of the quintessential "cultural Bolshevism"that was lethal to German society. This, together with his affiliation with theegregious communist Brecht, as well as the wider circles of Weimar's leftistavant-garde, made Weill a focus of efforts to discredit him and sabotage hisperformances. His so-called leftist sympathies, however, must be appreciated inthe context of the universalist and pacifist orientations of his time and circle,rather than as a form of political commitment. When Weill's sense of artisticisolation drove him from Germany in 1933, it was probably less as a Jew at thatstage and more for his unwillingness to reorient his work to an art devoid ofsocial or political dimension.
After a sojourn as a refugee in Paris, Weill went to New York in 1935, initially to supervise the production of The Eternal Road,
aunique amalgam of biblical pageant, music drama, Jewish passion play, and theatricalextravaganza in the service of a Jewish ideological message. His collaboratorswere director Max Reinhardt and playwright Franz Werfel. Inspired by theanti-Jewish measures of the new Nazi regime in Germany as well as by the idealsof the Zionist movement, the work was conceived to reflect the broad spectrumof Jewish history and persecution through biblical accounts in the context of --and related to -- events of the modern era. It attempted to convey the perpetualhomelessness of the Jewish people and to suggest an ultimate solution to their sufferingand wandering: a return as a national entity to their reclaimed and rebuiltancient home in Palestine -- the Land of Israel.
The "American" Weill turned away from the opera houseper se
, even though some of his American musical theater works have beenconsidered operatic -- or even prototypes of a new form of American opera. Hefocused instead on commercial theater, becoming a leading figure in therevitalization of the Broadway musical and the exploration of a distinctlyAmerican musical-dramatic genre. Weill's first full-fledged Broadway show was KnickerbockerHoliday
, in which Walter Huston sang "September Song," followedby other scores including Lady in the Dark
, One Touch of Venus
, and Lost in the Stars
. He was working on a musical based on HuckleberryFinn
at the time of his fatal heart attack in 1950.
Although as an adult Weill shed his Judaism in terms of ritualobservance or religious commitment, he never disavowed his Jewish roots. To thecontrary, he was always proud of his father's cantorial calling and his distinguishedrabbinical lineage, and he bemoaned the difficulty of active Jewish identityoutside a communal context.
Of the major American musical theater composers andsongwriters who happened to be Jews -- among them Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin,Harold Arlen, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim -- Weill was one of the very few,along with Leonard Bernstein, to write even a single synagogue piece. Hisimaginative setting of the kiddush
, commissioned in 1946 by New York's Park Avenue Synagogue for its annual Sabbath eve service devoted to new music,is today considered a liturgical masterpiece. And he expressed his willingnessto compose additional Hebrew liturgical settings.
After The Eternal Road
, Weill collaborated on twofurther large-scale Jewish pageants -- We Will Never Die
(1943) and AFlag Is Born
(1946) -- whose purposes, though ultimately unsuccessful, wereto galvanize public support in order to effect changes in government policies.
Weill's literary partner for both was playwright Ben Hecht, who had publishedthe first indisputable graphic evidence that the Holocaust and the "finalsolution" were already under way. We Will Never Die
was conceivedto bring the Holocaust to public attention and to provoke Allied action to save Europe's remaining Jews. With an all-star cast and a chorus of 400 rabbis andcantors, it played to 40,000 people in a single day in two performances at New York's Madison Square Garden, and then toured several cities.
A Flag Is Born
had an even more overtly propagandist and militant aim inits support of the Revisionist Zionist cause, which thus separated it from alarge part of American Jewry, including advocates in Washington, as well asfrom mainstream Zionist circles. Nonetheless, with a high-profile cast thatincluded Marlon Brando, Paul Muni, and Luther Adler, the production had 120 New York performances followed by a tour, and it raised respectable sums for itsRevisionist sponsors and their faction in Palestine.
There may always be some debate about the extent andevolution of Weill's "Jewish identity," especially over whether hisJudaically oriented works represent either a form of spiritual "return tohis roots" or an awakening of a related ethnic-national consciousness -- or,on some level, both. Certainly by the mid-1940s it would seem that the earlieruniversalist and pacifist Weill had become Weill the fervent Jewishnationalist. Many have been convinced that The Eternal Road
representedhis own personal "road back" to Jewish identification, while other