More than half a century after his premature death, the life and the art of Kurt Weill continues to fascinate. On many levels he is sui generis among the émigré composers of the 1930s, and perhaps among all American composers—especially in his juxtaposition of styles. His music mirrors the various artistic, moral, political, and spiritual contradictions of his generation and his times.
Weill was born in Dessau, Germany, the son of a cantor and scion of a family of rabbis and rabbinic scholars whose Judeo-German roots have been traced to the 13th century. He began composing at age twelve; his first surviving piece is a setting of mi addir in Hebrew, a text sung at Jewish weddings, but his first substantial piece was a song cycle on poems (in German translation) by the great medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi. While at the Berliner Musikhochschule, he studied with Engelbert Humperdinck and was briefly an assistant to the conductor Hans Knapperstbusch at the Dessau Opera. He then entered the master class of the legendary Ferruccio Busoni and became acquainted with the music of some of the composers who would become important leaders of the German avant-garde. During those years, Weill wrote his first stage work, as well as his first symphony, a string quartet, and other concert pieces.
In 1926 while in Dresden, Weill enjoyed his first major theatrical success: a one-act opera with a libretto by George Kaiser, with whom he would collaborate on other important works. It was in Kaiser’s home that Weill met his future wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, who is generally acknowledged as the pervasive, propelling energy behind his work and certainly the champion of his legacy.
Weill began a collaboration with the left-wing, socially critical, and sympathetically communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht that would yield a half dozen musical theater works, including the full-length opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and the social satire Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), which is based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera and is, to this day, regarded as Weill’s greatest international success; it has been translated into eleven languages.
The social messages and leftist perspectives in Weill’s works were sure to invite contempt from the Nazis and their followers, who viewed social reformers as the agents of Germany’s defeat in the First World War and considered Weill’s art an example of the quintessential “cultural Bolshevism” that was lethal to German society. This, together with his affiliation with the egregious communist Brecht, as well as the wider circles of Weimar’s leftist avant-garde, made Weill a focus of efforts to discredit him and sabotage his performances. His so-called leftist sympathies, however, must be appreciated in the 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 artistic isolation drove him from Germany in 1933, it was probably less as a Jew at that stage and more for his unwillingness to reorient his work to an art devoid of social 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, a unique amalgam of biblical pageant, music drama, Jewish passion play, and theatrical extravaganza in the service of a Jewish ideological message. His collaborators were director Max Reinhardt and playwright Franz Werfel. Inspired by the anti-Jewish measures of the new Nazi regime in Germany as well as by the ideals of the Zionist movement, the work was conceived to reflect the broad spectrum of Jewish history and persecution through biblical accounts in the context of—and related to—events of the modern era. It attempted to convey the perpetual homelessness of the Jewish people and to suggest an ultimate solution to their suffering and wandering: a return as a national entity to their reclaimed and rebuilt ancient home in Palestine—the Land of Israel.
The “American” Weill turned away from the opera house per se, even though some of his American musical theater works have been considered operatic—or even prototypes of a new form of American opera. He focused instead on commercial theater, becoming a leading figure in the revitalization of the Broadway musical and the exploration of a distinctly American musical-dramatic genre. Weill’s first full-fledged Broadway show was Knickerbocker Holiday, in which Walter Huston sang “September Song,” followed by other scores including Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars. He was working on a musical based on Huckleberry Finn at the time of his fatal heart attack in 1950.
Although as an adult Weill shed his Judaism in terms of ritual observance or religious commitment, he never disavowed his Jewish roots. To the contrary, he was always proud of his father’s cantorial calling and his distinguished rabbinical lineage, and he bemoaned the difficulty of active Jewish identity outside a communal context.
Of the major American musical theater composers and songwriters 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. His imaginative 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 willingness to compose additional Hebrew liturgical settings.
After The Eternal Road, Weill collaborated on two further large-scale Jewish pageants—We Will Never Die (1943) and A Flag Is Born (1946)—whose purposes, though ultimately unsuccessful, were to galvanize public support in order to effect changes in government policies. Weill’s literary partner for both was playwright Ben Hecht, who had published the first indisputable graphic evidence that the Holocaust and the “final solution” were already under way. We Will Never Die was conceived to 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 and cantors, 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 in its support of the Revisionist Zionist cause, which thus separated it from a large part of American Jewry, including advocates in Washington, as well as from mainstream Zionist circles. Nonetheless, with a high-profile cast that included Marlon Brando, Paul Muni, and Luther Adler, the production had 120 New York performances followed by a tour, and it raised respectable sums for its Revisionist sponsors and their faction in Palestine.
There may always be some debate about the extent and evolution of Weill’s “Jewish identity,” especially over whether his Judaically oriented works represent either a form of spiritual “return to his 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 earlier universalist and pacifist Weill had become Weill the fervent Jewish nationalist. Many have been convinced that The Eternal Road represented his own personal “road back” to Jewish identification, while others have claimed that his Jewish works arose more simply from the feeling of solidarity among Jewish artists that was precipitated by Germany’s war against the Jews and the enthusiasm for the Zionist enterprise as a response. On balance, though, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine Weill the composer as divorced from the genuine Jewish and humanitarian concerns expressed so artistically in his Jewish works.