Kurt Weill revived: the return of the Mack
Weill with his wife Lotte Lenya in circa 1940. 'I see it as my mission to keep this music alive, to sing it for younger generations,' says Lemper. 'As a postwar German, to sing this music is to tell the story of a composer that is very painful.' photograph: gd hackett/hulton archive/getty images
Singer Ute Lemper.
Dagmar Manzel in The Seven Deadly Sins at the Komische Oper Berlin. photograph: monika rittershaus
Kurt Weill supplied the soundtrack to Weimar Berlin. Now, 80 years after he fled the Nazis, Germany is rediscovering a great ‘might-have-been’ of its culture
On a snowy winter’s night, a ghost floats in the gilded auditorium of the Komische Oper in Berlin. Ute Lemper, the statuesque first lady of German song, stands on the bare stage of the opera house in a glittering black evening dress and whistles four familiar notes. Without prompting, the audience joins in.
Thanks to Bobby Darin and a catchy four-note hook – da-da-daa-daa – Mack the Knife is one of the most recognisable songs in popular music. You’d be forgiven for thinking its composer, Kurt Weill, was a one-hit wonder, but you’d be wrong.
The song premiered in The Threepenny Opera, in Berlin, in 1928, and sparked a five-year successful run for the Jewish composer. Then, exactly 80 years ago, he fled Germany and never returned.
Weill continued composing music, but his later work has never achieved real recognition in his homeland. After decades of neglect, the Komische Oper Berlin is now championing the cause of Kurt Weill, one of the great might-have-beens of German culture.
It’s the morning after Lemper’s concert, Last Tango in Berlin, a musical journey from the jittery Weill to the mournful Ástor Piazzolla. Lemper is wearing a black jumper and grey trousers, and swings her sinewy frame on to a white sofa with lazy, catlike movements. A sardonic gaze is framed by thin, arched eyebrows; Lemper looks like a film star, not a mother-of-four anxious to get back to New York, to her children and to recording sessions for her new album.
For most of her 30-year career, Lemper has kept the Kurt Weill flag flying around the world. Now she’s brought him home again.
“I see it as my mission to keep this music alive, to sing it for younger generations,” says Lemper. “As a postwar German, to sing this music is to tell the story of a composer that is very painful.”
Kurt Weill was born in Dessau, in 1900, the son of a cantor – he sang the liturgical music in a synagogue – and began composing aged 13. He moved to Berlin aged 18 to study composition and, in 1924, married the actress Lotte Lenya, his lifelong muse. She starred in the premiere of The Threepenny Opera, an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with scathing, satirical lyrics and libretto by Bertolt Brecht.
The show’s vicious slice of street life, revolving around the gentleman crook Mackie Messer – or Mack the Knife – struck a nerve in the seething chaos of 1920s Berlin. Post-Kaiser Germany was undergoing a chaotic reinvention and Weill supplied the soundtrack. Thanks to dance-band sheet music and the innovation of gramophone records, the Weimar Republic, overnight, went wild for Weill.
His 1931 follow-up, another Brecht-penned satire called Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, was another hit, and yielded the popular Alabama Song.
But the duo’s critiques of capitalism and the farcical politics of the day soon caught the attention of the Nazis. When Hitler took office in January 1933, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels began a cultural crackdown. Weill saw the writing on the wall and, in March, packed his bags and fled.
Exile on fame street
Exiled in Paris he wrote The Seven Deadly Sins, a ballet-song-cycle hybrid, then boarded a boat for New York. Broadway welcomed him with open arms and Weill scored one success after another, from One Touch of Venus, about a statue that comes to life, to the fashion-meets-psychoanalysis extravaganza Lady in the Dark. Collaborators such as Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes and Ira Gershwin helped Weill to a second career with the haunting September Song and jaunty I’m a Stranger Here Myself.