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Theater 30.3 (2000) 107-117

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From Myth to Monograph:
Weill Scholarship, Fifty Years After

Bruce D. McClung

IMAGE LINK= On the eve of CBS's broadcast of Kurt Weill's 1940 radio cantata, The Ballad of Magna Carta, the New York Sun's William G. King interviewed the composer. After settling into one of the Lotos Club's larger chairs and getting his pipe going smoothly, Weill began to discuss his reasons for composing for the commercial theater. "I wanted to reach the real people, a more representative public than any opera house attracts. So I've made that theater, which exists without benefit of subsidy, my life work." Near the middle of the wide-ranging interview, Weill reflected on how posterity might regard his music and that of a fellow émigré. "I'm convinced," he explained, "that many modern composers have a feeling of superiority toward their audiences. Schoenberg, for example, has said he is writing for a time fifty years after his death. . . . As for myself, I write for today. I don't give a damn about writing for posterity." 1

Since Weill's death in 1950, archives have been established to preserve his legacy, conferences and exhibits devoted to the composer have generated collections of essays, and specialized monographs and sourcebooks on his works have appeared. The first tomes of The Kurt Weill Edition, a collected critical edition projected to fill forty volumes, have been published. During the current centennial celebration of the composer's birth, it has been possible for the first time to see and hear virtually every one of his works in hundreds of performances around the globe. Major festivals, retracing the trajectory of the composer's career, have been held in Dessau, Berlin, London, and New York. American and European premieres, new recordings and books, a traveling exhibition, and an interactive Web site rounded out the activities. Posterity, it seems, has given a damn about Kurt Weill.

That is not to say that the posthumous reception of Weill's music has been carefree--anything but. For example, in 1951 his American publisher, Max Dreyfus, offered this opinion: "None [of Weill's works] can be considered 'popular' music in the sense that they have been or will be widely played; furthermore, I cannot foresee any widespread market for any of these musical compositions." 2 Despite such a dire appraisal, [End Page 107] the 1954 off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera (English translation by Marc Blitzstein) sparked the rediscovery of Weill's German works. Ensconced at the Theater de Lys, it ran for 2,611 consecutive performances to become (for a time) the longest-running musical in American history. One of its songs, "Mack the Knife," sold no less than ten million records, proving, pace Dreyfus, both enduring popular appeal and a widespread market.

Featured in the Theater de Lys production was Lotte Lenya, twice Weill's wife and often his muse. She went on to achieve stardom in important recordings of her late husband's music, and then on her own in films (notably The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and From Russia with Love) and on stage (originating the role of Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret). Lenya became the medium through which Weill was posthumously recognized, yet her voice tended to mask the operatic requirements of many of Weill's works from the European half of his career (1920-35). As central a role as her voice played in the popularization of Weill's German works during the 1950s, Lenya herself was now in her midfifties, with a timbre and range to match. Not surprisingly, she sang everything transposed down, and her recordings of Die sieben Todsünden [The seven deadly sins] and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [The rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny] used uncredited arrangements that were construed as having some claim to authenticity. Lenya's idiosyncratic and legendary style of delivery caused imitators to assume that her vocal deficiencies were implicitly required for Weill's music.

The "Weill renaissance" of the 1950s and rediscovery of his German...


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