Composer. An influential figure in 20th Century musical theatre, active in Germany, France and the United States. Weill made no distinction between "light" and "serious" music and characteristically combined popular idioms with classical and modern techniques. His best known work, the Bertolt Brecht collaboration "The Threepenny Opera" (1928), was written in the style of Jazz Age German cabaret. In America he found success on Broadway and received the first Tony Award in the best original score category for the operatic "Street Scene" (1947). The son of a Jewish cantor, Kurt Julian Weill was born in Dessau, Germany. He studied music in Berlin with Engelbert Humperdinck (1918 to 1919) and with Ferruccio Busoni at the Prussian Academy (1921 to 1923), while gaining professional experience as a nightclub pianist and theatre conductor. In his early compositions, among them the Symphony No. 1 (1921), Divertimento (1922), the Violin Concerto (1924), and two string quartets (1919, 1923), he experimented with post-romanticism, atonality and neoclassicism; and he enjoyed a succès d'estime with the one-act expressionist opera "The Protagonist" (1926), based on a play by Georg Kaiser. But Weill's desire to communicate with a wider public - and perhaps the realization that he was a natural tunesmith - drew him closer to jazz and dance music. In this spirit he sought out Brecht, newly arrived in Berlin, and they began their brief, fruitful partnership with the "Mahagonny Songspiel" (1927), in which he introduced an edgy but populist song-based style. Critics accused Weill of "selling out" but he pursued this vein with incomparably greater results in "The Threepenny Opera". A forerunner of the modern "book musical", it was an adaptation of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" (1728), which satirized corruption and the lower levels of 18th Century English society. Brecht updated the story to Victorian London but gave it a contemporary anti-bourgeois spin with his sardonic lyrics, set to the bittersweet melodies of Weill's foxtrots, tangos and ballads. The hit number "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" was a last-minute addition, written at the insistence of the actor playing the gangster Macheath. "The Threepenny Opera" was an immense success in Germany and was made into a film (1931) by director G. W. Pabst; Weill adapted some of the material into the orchestral concert suite "Little Threepenny Music" (1929). Ironically, it now stands as a vivid symbol of the decadent Weimar Republic era the authors had meant to condemn. He and Brecht subsequently worked together on the musical "Happy End" (1929), the cantatas "Berlin Requiem" (1928) and "Lindbergh's Flight" (1929), the didactic opera for students "The Yes Sayer" (1930), and an expansion of the "Mahagonny Songspiel" into the satirical opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (1930), though they never developed a close friendship. When Hitler came to power Weill was among the first German artists to be branded "degenerate" by the Nazis, and in March 1933 he fled to Paris. There he effectively bid farewell to his creative past through his final collaboration with Brecht, the "sung ballet" "The Seven Deadly Sins" (1933), and his last purely instrumental work, the Symphony No. 2 (1934). Settling in New York in 1935, Weill made a conscious effort to become Americanized; he quickly learned English and from then on spoke German only to his dog. He became a US citizen in 1943. Toning down the spikiness and satire of his previous music, he focused on writing for the Broadway stage in a more warmly lyrical style that attempted to bridge the gap between traditional opera and American musical theatre. This culminated in his "Broadway opera" "Street Scene" and the "musical tragedy" "Lost in the Stars" (1949), though his biggest hits were the comedies "Lady in the Dark" (1941) and "One Touch of Venus" (1943). His other shows are "Johnny Johnson" (1936), "Knickerbocker Holiday" (1938), "The Firebrand of Florence" (1944), and "Love Life" (1948). Long afflicted with high blood pressure, he died of a heart attack at 50, leaving a planned musical adaptation of "Huckleberry Finn" unfinished. Weill's muse and finest interpreter was singer-actress Lottie Lenya. They married in 1926, divorced amicably in 1933, and remarried in 1937. After his death she vigorously promoted his legacy, establishing the Kurt Weill Foundation in 1962. Lenya was the star and driving force behind Marc Blitzstein's Tony-winning (and sanitized) English-language adaptation of "The Threepenny Opera", which ran in New York for a record 2,611 performances (1954 to 1961) and was the first great triumph of the Off Broadway scene. Blitzstein's version of "Mack the Knife" became one of the most popular songs of the later 1900s, scoring a Number One hit for Bobby Darin (1959) and covered by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and many other artists. Other Weill standards are "Pirate Jenny" from "The Threepenny Opera", "Surabaya Johnny" and "Bilbao Song" from "Happy End", "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" from "Mahagonny", "September Song" from "Knickerbocker Holiday", "The Saga of Jenny" and "My Ship" from "Lady in the Dark", and "Speak Low" from "One Touch of Venus". He was inducted into the ASCAP Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. To date "The Threepenny Opera" has been translated into 18 languages and performed over 10,000 times on stages around the world.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
1898–1981 (m. 1926)
This is the life of men on Earth:
Out of darkness we come at birth
Into a lamplit room, and then -
Go forward into dark again.