Theater 30.3 (2000) 83-95
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The Eternal Road and Kurt Weill's German, Jewish, and American Identity
A Discussion with Kim H. Kowalke, Jürgen Schebera,
Christian Kuhnt, and Alexander Ringer
The following discussion took place on March 5, 2000, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on the occasion of The Eternal Road's American performances. The original panel also included Tamara Levitz; her remarks appear in the form of an article that follows this discussion and have been omitted here. The moderator was Guy Stern. The discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
The Eternal Road BAMdialogues is a program of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Department of Education and Humanities, Jayme Koszyn, director.
KIM KOWALKE Critics have long talked about "the two Weills," as if the composer's European and American careers could not be ascribed to a single artistic persona, as if so wide-ranging a career could not be comprehended as a whole and thus needed to be divided into two compartments--and sometimes even further sub-divided into Berlin, Paris, London, New York, and Hollywood Weills. Shortly after Weill's death, on the occasion of the German premiere of Street Scene in Düsseldorf, its lyricist, the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, addressed this issue head-on:
Kurt Weill was a great musical communicator. He had something to say and he said it in the most simple and direct terms, in the surface language of each country in which he lived, but [also] in the universal language of that world beyond worlds to which all human souls are related. No man belongs to any one country really. You don't. I don't. No-body does. And least of all (yet most of all) does the true artist. That's why Germany can claim Kurt Weill as German, France as French, America as American, and I as a Negro. . . . Some people contend that when Kurt Weill worked in the vein of the popular theatre he became commercial. I contend instead that he became universal.
"Where does the stable essence of an 'I' reside?" asks Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed, his remarkable collection of essays on modernism. "Over what period of time can we consider a man identical to himself?" Such [End Page 83] questions are, of course, relevant to our present subject: Kurt Weill's identity as a composer. Kundera suggests that in Tolstoy's novels
man is the more himself, the more an individual, when he has the strength, the imagination, the intelligence to transform himself. . . . A person is an itinerary; a winding road; a journey whose successive phases not only vary, but often represent a total negation of the preceding phases. I've said road, a word that could mislead because the image of a road evokes a destination. Now, what is the destination of these roads that end only randomly, broken off by the happenstance of death?
Kundera's "road" is a particularly apt metaphor on this occasion as we consider the roads that lead to and from The Eternal Road. Rather than set out in search of the "many Weills" or even the "real Weill," today I'd like to seek out the one among the many and follow six threads that wind through the fabric of his entire career.
1. In 1919 Weill wrote to his brother Hans: "I need poetry to set my musical imagination into motion. And my imagination is not a bird, it's an airplane." Weill recognized al-ready then that he would need words to ignite his inspiration, to propel his intellect. We now know, for example, that several of his early instrumental works are merely recompositions of lieder that he wrote only as precompositional studies. From these earliest efforts through his deathbed sketches for the unfinished Huck Finn project, Weill recruited and cultivated as collaborators the finest literary and dramatic talents in each language and location in which he worked. Not only Kaiser, Brecht, Goll, Deval, Hughes, Nash, Green...