Weill, not vile


Last week, I had the joyous task of creating a subject bibliography, my first assignment for my distance-learning MSc in Library and Information Studies.  The bibliography could be on any subject we chose, but could only cover material from the last five years and had to be arranged with a particular audience in mind.  Of course, I absolutely had to do this on a musical theatre subject, but the options are rather limited in this regard, as the only musical theatre people who tend to receive more than cursory academic attention are Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim.  I chose to compile a bibliography on the American theatre works of Kurt Weill, most famous for his German piece Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), source of ‘Mack the Knife’.  Why the American works?  Well, I don’t speak German, so I’ve always found it harder to connect with the works in that language.  Must try harder, I suppose.

This exercise was simultaneously fascinating and boring.  Searching for information can be interesting, and the hunt becomes a sort of game, but it can also be very frustrating to spend an age wrestling with a particularly high-profile data source only to find absolutely nothing of value.  I also discovered things about Kurt Weill that I never knew before, largely through use of the Kurt Weill Foundation‘s website, but also through reading extracts from some of the books and articles which I discovered.  I hadn’t known, for instance, that he provided music for a number of political pageants while in America, generally connected to his Jewish roots.  And I had forgotten that he’d been working on a musical version of Huckleberry Finn when he died, a concept that truly makes the mind boggle.

Working on this assignment also gave me an excuse to ponder the various songs and scores that Kurt Weill left behind during his short life (50 years) and to listen to some of the sundry recordings I have that feature his music.  My favourite Weill is, predictably enough, The Threepenny Opera, the adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera that he and Brecht made so successful.  There are various, very different, translations, of this piece floating around out there, and my particular favourite is the recent one by Jeremy Sams, which was used for the Donmar Warehouse and the National Theatre.  I suspect that my fondness for it is due to having seen it in action on stage, but I think I generally find Sams’ version more visceral and raw than the more familiar Blitzstein translation which gave us Bobby Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife’.  More sex, blood and death, which gets closer to the feel of how I think Threepenny should be.

Several of Weill’s other scores contain a song that particularly stands out in my mind.  ‘September Song’ from Knickerbocker Holiday, is one example of this.  A song which has lived on (in Britain, partly through being adopted as the theme music for May to December, a television series) long after the show it came from, which is not exactly performed very often.  Another is Street Scene, a score which I generally admire rather than actually like.  ‘Lonely House’, however, is a song I adore, possibly because it’s a great tenor song, but also because both music and lyrics create such an exquisitely sad sense of loneliness.

It is, I’m afraid, Weill’s more Broadway-sounding scores that I gravitate towards in his American work.  Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus, both of which I could never grow tired of hearing.  The first is a wonderful mix of styles, with each musical sequence embodying a dream related by the main character to her psychiatrist.  Songs like ‘The Saga of Jenny’ and ‘Tschaikowsky’ make me smile (or laugh), while ‘My Ship’ is just plain beautiful.  And One Touch of Venus proves that Weill could write in a completely American idiom, with great musical comedy numbers.

The thing I admire most about Weill is his versatility.  Musicologists like to write about ‘the two Weills’, emphasising an apparent shift in the style and purpose of his music when he was exiled from Germany and made his way to America.  I think there were far more than two.  Each of his musicals, operas and classical works was written in exactly the right style for the piece, and thus it would be very hard to guess that Weill’s output all belongs to one man.  He could sound German, Jewish or American, he could make his music fit right in on Broadway, in the German cabaret scene or on the opera stage.  He was, quite simply, a versatile genius who did not engage in any ‘dumbing down’ when he began to write in America.  Instead, he liked to challenge himself and his audiences with constantly changing styles and sounds in his melodies, themes and orchestrations.  Like Richard Rodgers, he adapted his own style to suit the style of his lyricist, and like Leonard Bernstein, he wasn’t afraid to write ‘proper music’ for Broadway, often viewed as a second-class musical milieu.  He could bounce, he could soar, he could pierce the heart and he remained utterly committed to various social and political causes.  A great and fascinating man.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to sit down and listen to Kurt Weill: The Centennial, a celebratory concert featuring many of his best songs.

  1. Thank you for another interesting and informative post!

  2. I emant to say this at the time, but I found this ab absolutely fascinating glimpse into the professional life of a librarian.

    But I did find myself wondering if this is the sort of purely intellectial exercise you have to do a librarian school or whether you often get called upon to sort out a bibliography for people in real life. Also, under what circs. I mean, do you guide people who are starting out on research, or is it a sort of after the fact thing so others can get more depth after someone’s investigated a subject themselves?

  3. I seem to be stuttering there a bit. Sorry!

  4. This was,I think, more of a ‘prove you’ve actually picked up the skills we’ve been trying to teach you’ sort of thing, really. It is more likely that a librarian would help someone with a literature review, finding out exactly what has been written on a particular subject. In effect, helping someone compile their own bibliography tailored to their specific needs. I can’t actually think of any circumstances where you’d prepare a bibliography to hand out to someone unless you were preparing a guide to what was available through your particular library.

    We had to hand a search report in with our bibliographies, explaining which resources we used, and how we used the resources. So it was really about effective search strategies and demonstrating knowledge of a wide range of reference sources.

  5. Ah, yes, that makes sense. Mind you, I can quite believe the image I had there as librarians as the machiavellian power behind every research project throne…

  1. August 28th, 2010

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