Kurt Weill revived: the return of the Mack


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.

By the time of his premature death, in 1950, Weill had built up a diverse legacy of plays with music, operas, musicals and symphonies that remains a source of musical inspiration for artists from David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull to Cyndi Lauper.

But in his homeland, save for threadbare productions of The Threepenny Opera, Weill vanished down a memory hole.

The artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper, Barrie Kosky, is determined to right that wrong. The Australian-born grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe has just organised a special Weill Week, that included rarities such as the little-seen Der Kuhhandel (A Kingdom for Cow).

This 1935 operetta tells of a farcical arms race between two tropical states populated by luckless lovers, a pompous military dictator, devious arms dealers, and a cow called Francisca.

“In the music you can hear the home-sickness for Berlin, Offenbach’s Paris and even the West End, ” says Kosky to the first-night crowd. The show, a lightweight mix of Bernstein’s Candide and Chaplin’s Great Dictator, is a pleasant surprise to the Berlin audience.

People here learned to loathe the oft-heard Weill – The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny – linked as it was to Brecht and East Germany’s official embrace of the Marxist playwright. Others shunned Weill in favour of saccharine, anodyne entertainment as they rebuilt the country in the postwar years.

“I think many people repressed anything that reminded them of what went before, including the musical tradition of the 1920s and 1930s,” says Dagmar Manzel, a German actress and star of a daring new production of the Seven Deadly Sins at the Komische Oper.

The Berlin opera’s attempt to rehabilitate Kurt Weill in Germany is easier said than done, given a barrier that runs like a cultural Berlin Wall between “serious” opera and ballet, and more popular entertainment forms. Separating worthy from fun soon became the new norm, and German audiences forgot that cross-fertilisation was once a given in prewar Berlin. Indeed, it was this mix of gutter and glamour, classic and jazz that was the essence of Weill’s music. But that world was forgotten with the Nazis and, like its chief practitioners, never returned.

Today much of Weill’s work, particularly his later work in the US, is dismissed as a commercial sell-out, and thus falls foul of the culture of compartmentalisation. The Komische Oper is optimistic that younger audiences, tired of this cultural apartheid, are ready to embrace Weill once more as a precursor to Stephen Sondheim and Quentin Tarantino.

“It’s very arduous to build up this tradition again,” says Manzel. “It was lost, but it’s coming again. I see myself as a founder, the Komische Oper as a new home.”

If the enthusiastic audiences at the Weill Week are anything to go by, Berlin has made peace with its lost son.

Weill on song

Here’s a Kurt Weill playlist, featuring songs of charming crooks and prostitutes dreaming of romance.

Mack the Knife, Bobby Darin

Pirate Jenny, Marianne Faithfull

Alabama Song, David Bowie

Tango Ballad, Ute Lemper and Neil Hannon

September Song, Bryan Ferry

I’m a Stranger Here Myself , Mary Martin

Barbara-Song, Ute Lemper

My Ship, Julie Andrews

The Saga of Jenny, Dawn Upshaw

Speak Low, Billie Holiday

Surabaya Johnny, Lotte Lenya

Ballad of the Pimp, Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming

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