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Theater 30.3 (2000) 76-81
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Kurt Weill's American Dreams
Kim H. Kowalke
When Life Magazine ran a feature story in 1947 about the Broadway opera Street Scene and its "German composer," Kurt Weill fired off a letter to the editor: "I have a gentle beef about one of your phrases. Although I was born in Germany, I do not consider myself a 'German composer.' The Nazis obviously did not consider me as such either, and I left their country (an arrangement which suited both me and my rulers admirably) in 1933. I am an American citizen, and during my dozen years in this country I have composed exclusively for the American stage and written the music for Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, The Firebrand of Florence (ouch!) and Street Scene." Later that year, Weill returned to Europe (for the first--and last--time), but he avoided Germany. When he got back to his home in Rockland County, he confided to his neighbor and collaborator, Maxwell Anderson: "Coming home to this country had some of the same emotion as arriving here 12 years ago. With all its faults (and partly because of them), this is still the most decent place to live in, and strangely enough, wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America. . . . I'll write a few more Whitman songs (which will be recorded) and a symphonic suite from Street Scene."
America was indeed "home" for Weill--and had been for a long time. A passionate commitment to the ideals of democracy, justice, and freedom shaped his career in the United States, as he wholeheartedly embraced American audiences, idioms, institutions, and issues. "In a deeply democratic country like ours," he wrote in 1946, "art should belong to the people. It should be 'popular' in the highest sense of the word. Only by making this our aim can we create an American art, as opposed to the art of the old countries." Continuing to work in the commercial theater where he could reach out to a broad audience, Weill focused almost exclusively on American themes. Although since 1926 he had frequently incorporated into his musical language "exotic" elements of what he took to be "American" popular music and dance idioms, in New York he set about a [End Page 76] systematic study of American folk music, popular song forms, and the latest dance crazes, including jitterbug and boogie-woogie. Yet, just as he never lost his German accent (even when pronouncing his own name with a W rather than a V-sound), Weill's musical vernacular, though remarkably fluent, was always inflected.
Weill's allegiance to his new country allowed no analogous ambiguities of tone. He attributed his success in America to that "very positive and constructive attitude toward the American way of life and the cultural possibilities in this country, of which most of the German intellectuals who came here at the same time were critical and doubtful." He refused to speak German in public and only rarely did so in private. He avoided association with émigrés who clung to Old World customs and still thought of themselves as being "in exile" from Berlin or Vienna. After Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, he tried to rally the nation against his former homeland. "Everybody tries to help the enormous war effort in his own way," Weill wrote to his parents in Palestine. He composed for films, broadcasts, and recordings made by the Office of War Information and the War Department. He served as a Civil Defense plane spotter and as production chairman of the "Lunchtime Follies," which presented shows intended to boost morale and productivity in military-related industries. He composed the United Nations anthem "Song of the Free" and four songs on texts by Walt Whitman. He wrote the music for Ben Hecht's pageant We Will Never Die, first performed at Madison Square Garden in 1943 and "dedicated to the Two Million Jewish Dead of Europe"). He even registered for the draft...