- Kurt Weill, Modernism, and Popular Culture: Offentlichkeit als Stil
There were, as nearly everybody knows by now, two Kurt Weills . . . . The first Weill, it has been said, wrote “authentic” works with a claim on the art music world; the second “sold out” for popular success.— Edward Rothstein, 1987 1
In September 1942, Kurt Weill reported to Lotte Lenya on his six-hour meeting with Marlene Dietrich, during which he had tried to persuade her to play the title role in One Touch of Venus: “Marlene liked the music, but started that old business about the different quality of my music here in America. I cut it short by saying, ‘Never mind those old German songs. —We’re in America now and Broadway is tougher than the Kurfürstendamm.’ That stopped her.” 2 But it hasn’t stopped others. In the subsequent five decades, that familiar theme, the “different quality” of Weill’s American music, has become evermore an evergreen, subject to countless variations, most of which have deftly shifted accentuation from “different quality” to “different quality.” Meanwhile, posthumous professional productions of Weill’s American stage works have been infrequent and access to them at best only partial (through vocal scores and recordings) and at worst entirely misrepresentative (through film adaptations). The perceived stylistic and qualitative differences between Weill’s American and European music—already “old business” in 1942—have become so pronounced that today it is commonplace to speak of “two Weills.” [End Page 27]
This critical construct has even been institutionalized in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, where the final section of David Drew’s Weill entry is actually entitled “The Two Weills.” Drew asserts that “while some notable artists have simply stopped creating at a certain stage in their careers and a few have put an end to their lives, Weill is perhaps the only one to have done away with his old creative self in order to make way for a new one . . . . With Lady in the Dark a new Weill was born, to the horror of the handful of old admirers who were waiting for an American Dreigroschenoper.” 3 Drew infers the genuine composer’s suicide from the circumstantial evidence of an alleged sea change in the music Weill composed in America. “This has nothing to do with normal evolutionary processes,” he explained in 1969. “It is . . . a psychological and indeed historical phenomenon for which there is no parallel in music. It means that in Weill we have not one, but two composers. The first and important one can and should be evaluated without reference to the second.” 4
Today such an opinion cannot be dismissed out of hand as merely Eurocentric, for the “two-Weill” conceit was, in fact, coined in America amid shadows cast by the critical response of French-connected musical modernists to Lady in the Dark’s triumphant premiere in January 1941. Weill’s erstwhile admirer Virgil Thomson, who five years earlier had claimed in Modern Music that “Weill has almost created style,” lamented in the New York Herald Tribune that the émigré composer’s effort to master a distinctively American and populist Broadway idiom had failed: “All is monotonous, heavy, ponderously German. It reminds one of Berlinese jazz from the early 1920s, of revues called ‘Die Schokoladen Kiddies,’ of sentimental ditties called ‘Ein kleiner Slow-Fox mit Mary.’ . . . His music is just as banal as before; but its banality expresses nothing.” 5 Samuel L. M. Barlow, whom Thomson had recommended to the editorial staff of Modern Music, echoed Thomson’s views and invoked, for possibly the first time, the notion of a “true Weill” in contrast to the one who had composed Lady in the Dark:
In this long score, there are not three minutes of the true Weill. And in this new medium, this new life, this new success, the promise has been buried under a branch of expensive but imitation laurel. This is sad, and no joking matter. Something first-rate has gone third-rate, which is a loss for everyone who cares deeply for an art, beyond any prejudice or timeliness or mode.” 6
Shortly before Weill’s death, the...