The Weill Party
The 20th Century’s Most Influential Composer Turns 100
By Michael Feingold Tuesday, Mar 7 2000
Fill in the missing term that links each of the following pairs: Ferruccio Busoni and Fred MacMurray; Jean Cocteau and Lee Strasberg; Fritz Lang and Langston Hughes. Hint: It’s a composer whose music has been recorded by rock groups, avant-garde ensembles, lounge acts, Broadway stars, opera houses, and Anjelica Huston’s grandfather. Second hint: I’m writing this on his 100th birthday. Final hint: Most people, misguidedly, only think of his name as coming immediately after „Bertolt Brecht.“ A hundred years ago, on March 2, 1900, Kurt Julian Weill was born in Dessau, a midsize city in eastern Germany.
Since another of Brecht’s major musical collaborators was a composer named Dessau, you might say that the ironies and confusions around Weill began at his birth. But Paul Dessau did not write the tune of „Mack the Knife“—nor, for that matter, did Bertolt Brecht, though in later life he enjoyed hinting he’d had a hand in it. That sums up, in a way, the struggle Weill’s had establishing his reputation: His tremendous force and originality as a composer were only equalled by his ability to subsume himself, as any theater artist must, in the collaborative act. He changed the face of theater music, and permanently altered the way we think about music in general, but people still think first of „Brecht and Weill.“ And yet he wrote with over 25 other lyricists, an astonishing array that includes everyone from Cocteau and Hughes to the Berlin cabarettist Walter Mehring and the Tin Pan Alley scribbler Sam Coslow. Brecht’s may be the most lasting theatrical voice among Weill’s librettists, but the others—Georg Kaiser, Franz Werfel, Jacques Deval, Maxwell Anderson, Alan Jay Lerner—make up a list from which you could easily build a course on the modern history of the popular stage. Wherever you go in music theater, from mass spectacle to surrealist caprice, Weill was there ahead of you, humanizing the didactic and bringing depth to the divertissement. „He was an architect,“ Virgil Thomson wrote when he died, „a master of musico-dramatic design, whose works, built for function and solidity, constitute a repertory of models.“ And he did it all in 50 years: The centennial of Weill’s birth is also the 50th anniversary of his death (April 3, 1950, of heart failure). The ongoing celebration of his work is both a birthday party and a memorial.
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