Kurt Weill: Biography, Songs & Musicals

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about the life and career of Jewish-German composer Kurt Weill. In his operas and musicals, he explored the darker side of life and created startlingly original works like ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Street Scene.''

Finding His Own Song

Have you ever wanted to express yourself through song? Or have you ever heard a song on the radio and thought, 'wow, that is exactly how I feel'? Jewish-German composer Kurt Weill grew up in a musical family and his desire to express himself though music stayed with him from childhood all the way into adulthood.

Early Years

Kurt Weill (1900 - 1950) was born in Dessau, Germany, to religious Jewish parents. In part because his father was a cantor, an official who sings religious service music in a synagogue, his parents supported his musical interest. As a teen, Weill studied with a local opera house conductor and began writing music at the tender age of 12. Weill later moved to Berlin to continue his studies. He briefly received lessons from opera composer Engelbert Humperdinck and studied composition with Ferruccio Busoni. Weill supported himself with odd jobs, including giving music lessons, teaching music theory, and cantoring. He wrote instrumental works during this time, but really wanted to focus on vocal music.

Kurt Weill was surrounded by music his entire life.
Kurt Weill

In 1924, Weill met actress Lotte Lenya. They married in 1926, the same year he wrote his first opera The Protagonist. It was a hit and Weill became a well-known figure in 1920s Weimar Berlin. His music mixed diverse influences from jazz and popular music, as well as avant-garde, or new and revolutionary, sounds he was hearing from other composers who were experimenting with untested musical ideas.

Actress Lotte Lenya married Weill in 1926.
Lotte Lenya

Collaboration With Brecht

Weill's most fruitful work began when he met and started collaborating with writer and poet Bertolt Brecht. The two didn't always agree and they were very different people. In temperament they were polar opposites: Weill shy and disciplined, Brecht talkative and boastful. Weill wanted to write good entertaining music. Brecht, an avowed Marxist (someone who follows the socialist ideas of Karl Marx), wanted everything to be political, to the point that Weill once grumbled about him trying to set The Communist Manifesto to music.

Weill and Brecht were not good friends but they produced great work. Their The Threepenny Opera premiered in Berlin in 1928, staring Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya. The plot involved love, robbery, and betrayal among thieves, beggars, and prostitutes. Doesn't sound promising, right? Wrong! It was immediately a huge hit in Berlin and featured songs like Mack the Knife that are still popular today. Weill also collaborated with Brecht on Happy End, which ran into problems when Brecht's wife stood in front of the audience in the third act and read a long Communist rant, which was not a very happy ending for Weill.

Despite that incident, they collaborated again on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, an opera with a twisting plot that warned of the dangers of pleasure without consequences. Three escaped prisoners try to start a city named Mahoganny in Alaska. But their plans come to ruin through murder, gluttony, drunkenness, and prostitution. When it premiered in 1930, critics labeled it depraved and Nazi protesters rioted because they didn't like the message, considering it an insult to the purity of German cultural heritage (an ominous indicator of things to come).

Moving to the United States

As Germany's political climate deteriorated, Weill found himself on a list of artists blacklisted by the Nazis. Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, and Weill fled to Paris but struggled to find interest in his work. In 1935, he went to the United States to work on The Eternal Road, part musical and part biblical Jewish pageant meant as a response to Nazi ideology, which promoted Germans as the master race. The musical also featured Zionist ideas, which supported the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland. It premiered in 1937.

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