Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

the reputation of the German-Jewish
composer, Kurt Weill, has rested largely on the popular success of his
satirical collaborations with the playwright and lyricist Bertolt Brecht,
during the 1920s and 1930s (Die Dreigroschenoper, Aufstieg und
Fall der Stadt
Mahagonny) — with Lotte Lenya’s rendition of
‘Mack the Knife’ ubiquitous and perennial.

Noting that critical opinion has been divisive along cross-Atlantic lines,
with German critics in the post-war period discounting Weill’s American works
as ‘historically and aesthetically negligible’ while their counterparts in
the US showered praise primary on the composer’s Broadway works, in this
densely informative book the esteemed Weill scholar Stephen Hinton sets out to
challenge the misleading conception of the ‘two Weills’ — the European
modernist and the American popularist. Hinton argues that it is only in the
last couple of decades that scholars have done justice to the works written
after Weill left Germany. Refuting the biographer who declared that Weill was
‘a composer without a stable identity, someone who “seemed to change styles
more often than countries”’ (1), he aims to show that the development of
Weill’s style, form and theatrical concerns was in fact continuous,
consistent and coherent.

Hinton begins his comprehensive, immensely detailed, inter-disciplinary
study of the works and aesthetic of Kurt Weill with a quotation, citing Weill
in 1947, three years before his death at the age of 50: ‘Ever since I made up
my mind, at the age of 19, that my special field of activity would be the
theatre, I have tried continuously, in my own way, to solve the form-problems
of the musical theatre, and through the years I have approached these problems
from all angles.’ (ix)

This statement offers a clear guide as to the ambitions of this book, which
explores the composer’s achievements from biographical, musicological,
philosophical and historical ‘angles’, and whose intended readership
comprises not only music historians and the lay reader interested in Weill’s
music, but also ‘theatre practitioners, especially those considering future
productions’ (xv). Through analytical case studies which illuminate Weill’s
compositional methodology, comparative evaluations of other scholarly
biographies and musical enquiries, scrutiny of the composer’s own writings,
and consideration of the influence of significant collaborators and aesthetic
theories, Hinton presents a discerning and enlightening account of Weill’s
contribution to the theatre — its forms, reforms and aesthetics. He examines
the inherent tension in the ‘hybrid’ forms of musical theatre which the
composer employed and devised, noting that often this tension – between the
works themselves and their generic traditions — is often at the heart of the
work’s ‘meaning’. And, in exploring Weill’s engagement with the
Urform’ — what Weill described as a ‘“prototype” of opera
that combines the traditional elements of the genre, its rudimentary forms and
conventions, in a novel and provocative way’ (xiii) — Hinton raises
interesting structural and institutional questions about opera itself.

We begin with some ‘Biographical Notes’ which are less a survey of the
chief events of the composer’s life and more an evaluation of how previous
critical histories have contributed to the formation of Weill’s posthumous
reputation, and a reassessment of that reputation. Hinton refutes the commonly
held view of Weill as a ‘chameleon’, and challenges those who question the
calibre of Weill’s American works. Admitting that Weill’s own artistic
positions were at times contradictory, he turns to the primary evidence —
Weill’s letters, statements and writings — to show how the composer
evaluated his own compositional processes in relation to both the past and
present. Thus, Weill compared himself, a composer who needed ‘“words to set
my imagination in motion”’ (3), to Beethoven, a ‘paradigmatic composer of
instrumental music; and, he engaged optimistically with contemporary technology
and culture, in works such as a cantata marking Charles Lindbergh’s
transatlantic flight, and Railroads on Parade, a ‘pageant-drama of
transport’ written to celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad.

Hinton notes those works which established Weill first in Europe and later
on Broadway, and examines the formation of Weill’s own personal and musical
identity, considering the composer’s ambiguous response to his Jewishness,
his early interest in studying with Schoenberg, and his desire — in
contradiction to Schoenberg who ‘“said he is writing for a time fifty years
after his death”’ (6) — to write for contemporary audiences, engaging
enthusiastically with the new media of radio and motion pictures. Referring
frequently to Weill’s own writings, the author ranges widely, and includes an
exploration of Weill’s aesthetic ideology — for example, the distinction he
made between Verbrauchmusik (music which would be short-lived) and
Gebrauchsmusik (‘genuinely useful music’) and Kunstmusik
(‘art music’, which ‘might eventually be erased’ (7)).

Hinton also presents a review of previous biographies and studies of the
composer, evaluating not only their content and conclusions, but also their
critical methods and intent. There are some ‘side-tracks’, such as a
discussion of the relative merits of Weill and Hindemith, and the reader needs
to work quite hard to follow all the balls that the author keeps aloft, but the
style is engaging and the various threads absorbing.

The influence of Weill’s teacher, Busoni, introduced in the first chapter
— for example, Hinton notes Weill’s concern for good ‘craftsmanship’
and voice-leading — is explored in detail in the second, ‘The Busoni
Connection’, and it is here that Hinton perhaps risks losing his reader’s
attention, as Busoni’s profound influence on Weill’s compositional practice
and artistic priorities is examined through a comprehensive account of
Busoni’s theories. Certainly, Weill’s response to the man he termed ‘the
last renaissance man’, in essays such as ‘Busoni and the New Music’ sheds
interesting light on the personal debt that the composer felt: Weill described
his teacher as a man with a ‘“cast of mind whose very integrity already
placed him above his contemporaries … the enchanting harmony of this artist
cause[d] people within his immediate orbit to feel happier … [his] serene
goodness would disperse any malice or badness”’ (40). As Hinton remarks,
Weill clearly viewed Busoni as a luminary or, even, a prophet, and eulogised
his artistic achievements; interestingly, Busoni also seems to have contributed
to Weill’s interest in film; in this context, the composer’s observations
illuminate his own modernity: ‘“He had a vision of the changing social
order. He foresaw the enormous possibilities of the form as a vehicle of a new
form of tone-drama”’ (41). Here we see the formation of Weill’s belief in
the socially regenerative power of music (gesellschaftsbildende Kraft,
literally ‘socially formative’) which could have an active effect upon
‘the masses’, evident for example in the composer’s remark that radio
music could ‘directly oppose “superficially oriented concerts that are full
of pomp and circumstance, and which have become superfluous”’ (57).

The accounts of Weill’s idealisation of Mozart, his rejection of Wagner,
and his early interactions with Bertolt Brecht are thought-provoking. Things
get more challenging for the reader, though, when Hinton describes Busoni’s
philosophy of art, ‘New Classicality’ or Junge Klassizt‰t, and a
digression into the linguistic distinctions between Klassizismus and
Klassik may be a tangential step too far for many. But, the account of
Busoni’s influence on Weill’s concept of the ideal Urform of
musical theatre is instructive, particularly as Hinton shows how the
composer’s desire for the creation of a new, popular form of music theatre
was connected to his cinematic aspirations. And, the ideas presented do inform
the reader’s understanding of the musicological and analytical studies which
follow. For example, we see how Busoni’s aesthetics of opera — ‘when and
how should music be implemented on stage’ (70) — may have influenced
Weill’s use of ballet in the early one-act entertainment,

The main body of the book comprises a more or less chronological survey of
Weill’s works, the case studies gathered together under ‘generic’ titles:
‘One-Act Opera’, ‘Songspiel’, ‘Plays with Music’, ‘Epic Opera’,
‘Didactic Theater’, ‘Musical Plays’, ‘American Opera’. Hinton
describes Weill’s various collaborations with writers and directors, the
creation of libretti and Weill’s musical responses to the texts, the
circumstances of composition and Weill’s musical processes and techniques,
musical influences (such as Stravinsky’s instrumentation, formal structures,
and use of rhythmic ostinati), as well as the themes and ideas
presented in the narratives and dramas. Comparisons with works by other
composers support Hinton’s sustained examination of genre and form, and his
consideration of the structural and expressive function of dance and film
sequences in Weill’s compositions.

Chapter five, ‘Plays with Music’, not only vividly illuminates Weill’s
personal and professional relationship with Brecht — and the radical nature
of their artistic experimentation and programmatic reform — but also engages
the reader in a debate about genre, as Hinton considers the function of music
in opera and in ‘play with music’, and the changes, if any, wrought upon an
existing play when music is added. Hinton is keen for the reader to make
connections and recognise the integration of Weill’s influences. Thus in
‘Epic Theatre’, he argues that the relevance of the concept of ‘epic
theatre’ extends far beyond dry theory or actual practice (i.e. the plays and
operas he wrote with Brecht): ‘Busoni’s teachings, which foreshadowed some
of Brecht’s ideas about epic theater, exerted a vital influence … Another
defining influence came from the music-theater works of Stravinsky, in
particular L’histoire du soldat, but also Oedipus rex.’
(138) Throughout, Weill’s own commentaries underpin Hinton’s ideas and

In the penultimate chapter, ‘Concept and Commitment’, Hinton’s account
of Weill’s last two works for the musical theatre, Love Life (a
‘vaudeville’, 1948) and Lost in the Stars (a ‘musical
tragedy’, 1949) affirms his conviction in Weill’s achievements in uniting
past and present, and in assimilating styles, structures, musical language,
media in richly inventive, socially and culturally progressive ways — and in
so doing creating theatrical forms for the future. Thus he observes, ‘By
looking back to earlier forms of American theatrical entertainment, Weill’s
“vaudeville” also looks forward. Its subversion of conventional linear
plot-construction foreshadows a genre that would not become commonplace until a
couple of decades later, the “concept musical.” In this, Weill, was
building on recent trends in musicals, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s
Allegro and his own Lady in the Dark, as well as on
innovations in dramaturgy evinced in plays such as Thornton Wilder’sOur
, all of which have demonstrable connections to Weill’s own earliest
German stage works’ (403). Such arguments are impressive and convincing.

As Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University,
Hinton’s research has focused on modern German music history and in this book
his knowledge of his subject is second to none. He is the author of Kurt
Weill: The Threepenny Opera
, the founding editor of the Kurt Weill Edition
presenting the first critical study of Weill’s complete stage works, and the
co-editor of Weill’s collected writings.

This is a valuable and engrossing re-assessment of the depth and range of
Weill’s career, one that bridged Europe and America, and which embraced
opera, singspiel, theatre, ballet, musicals, radio and film, often over-riding
or eradicating distinctions between the genres. And, Hinton shows how what he
terms Weill’s ‘protean gifts’ (ix) enabled the composer to balanced
aesthetic idealism with commercial pragmatism.

The scholar of music theatre will undoubtedly find this book richly
rewarding; a wealth of information about Weill’s artistic achievements and
intentions is supplement by an integrated evaluation of the work of numerous
scholars, interwoven with Weill’s own commentaries, and Hinton does indeed
present a persuasive case for the coherence of Weill’s dramaturgy in
conception and evolution.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform
product_title=Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform
product_by=A book review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Stephen Hinton, Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), ISBN 978-0-520-27177-7, hardback, xvi, 569pp, 78 music examples, 7 b/w illustrations, appendix, notes, index.