Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill collaborated in the first manifestation of “epic theater” in the Mahagonny Songspiel; their use of Gebrauchsmusik in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and in The Threepenny Opera introduced “cheap” music into opera and theater.

Summary of Event

The meeting in 1927 between the avant-garde composer Kurt Weill and the revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht and their ensuing collaboration was significant for the development of both men’s careers. When Weill heard a radio production of Brecht’s Mann ist Mann (pr. 1926; A Man’s a Man, 1961), he responded with a highly complimentary review and subsequently asked Brecht whether he could use some of Brecht’s poems for a song cycle he was preparing for the festival of new music in Baden-Baden. Brecht was interested in Weill’s ideas about “gestic” music, as they corresponded to attempts he was making to popularize drama through the use of popular culture motifs from cinema and the cabaret. According to Weill, gestic music, a concept that also relates to Paul Hindemith’s notion of Gebrauchsmusik, Gebrauchsmusik or functional music, instead of processing the text for purely musical ends focuses on the manner through which the words of a song communicate the gest, or social attitude, through rhythmic means, including pauses. The object was to extend the communicative quality of music in order to make social statements. Composers such as Weill sought corresponding texts with simplicity of diction and clarity of sense. Similarly, Brecht was attempting to strip drama of figurative language in order to bring out the “epic,” or communicative, nature of his texts. He did this by concentrating on the message rather than the subtext in order to foreground the social rather than the psychological situations of his plays. [kw]Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel (July 17, 1927) [kw]Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel, Brecht and (July 17, 1927) [kw]Mahagonny Songspiel, Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the (July 17, 1927) Mahagonny Songspiel (Brecht and Weill) Musical theater Theater;musical [g]Germany;July 17, 1927: Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel[06890] [c]Music;July 17, 1927: Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel[06890] [c]Theater;July 17, 1927: Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel[06890] Brecht, Bertolt Weill, Kurt Lenya, Lotte Hindemith, Paul Busoni, Ferruccio

Brecht and Weill were not alone at this time in considering the traditional theater and opera to be out of step with an egalitarian modern society, for these were notions central to Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, New Objectivity in the arts. In particular, Hindemith was influential in exploring applied music. He and the composers in his group rejected the purely aesthetic explorations of atonality represented by Arnold Schoenberg and others. The new music was to project an ease of execution and accessibility to the unsophisticated ear. For that reason, Hindemith and Weill, as well as composers such as Igor Stravinsky and the group known as Les Six, established a kinship with the dynamic rhythms and unsnobbish popular appeal of jazz and cabaret songs. From the outset, Brecht’s songs, initially with simple tunes of his own, were central to his attempts to popularize theater. At the same time, Weill, one of the most prominent of Ferruccio Busoni’s students, was the first German composer of any consequence to show an interest in setting to music texts by contemporary German writers such as Iwan Goll, Georg Kaiser, and ultimately Brecht. For that reason, the collaboration between Brecht and Weill was particularly fruitful. It gave both the opportunity to explore similar concerns regarding the relationship between popular culture and the arts.

Weill and Brecht’s collaboration began with the Mahagonny Songspiel, sometimes known as The Little Mahagonny, which consisted of six songs with orchestral interludes, lasting about forty-five minutes in all. Brecht and Weill chose the English word “song” as part of the title as an obvious gesture to disassociate it from the German word Lied, which to them seemed to relate too strongly to the classical Lieder tradition. The Mahagonny Songspiel was produced at the Deutsche Kammermusik festival in Baden-Baden on July 17, 1927. The work can be described as a chamber opera that thematically represents the degeneration of life in a mythical American city and is set to music with a jazzy accent. Caspar Nehar, Brecht’s scenic designer, produced a series of sketches for the setting with themes relating to the greed and corruption of capitalism in the symbolic American city of Mahagonny, with a location kept intentionally vague in order to project the allegorical universality of social conditions. In addition, a small boxing ring, as a metaphor for the fighting inherent in capitalistic competition, became the platform for the performance. Weill requested that his wife, Lotte Lenya, sing the leading role. Her obviously untrained, gravelly voice, with its grotesque mispronunciations of the English words of the “Alabama Song,” symbolized the rejection on the part of the Brecht/Weill duo of the accepted standards of high culture. In addition, Weill, having caught Brecht’s eagerness to tweak the pretensions of high culture, made good musical capital out of the glottal catch between “Ma” and “hagonny,” imbuing the setting of the six poems with a musical accompaniment that brought out its comic quality and an aggressive provocative edge as well.

The audience reaction was divided: There was booing, whistling, cheering, and stomping. The singers participated, pulling whistles out of their pockets. Later that evening in the bars throughout town, however, everyone seemed to be singing lyrics from the opera. The Mahagonny Songspiel brought Weill popular success and also projected him into a striking new area of emphasis on “song,” a development that was to endure for the remainder of his career, both in his collaboration with Brecht and later in his Broadway musicals.


The immediate consequence of the attention that Weill and Brecht received in Baden-Baden was the continuation of their collaboration in Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), Happy End (pr. 1929; English translation, 1972), Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (pb. 1929; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1957), the ballet Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger (pr. 1933; The Seven Deadly Sins, 1961), and songs for a revival of A Man’s a Man. In particular, The Threepenny Opera Threepenny Opera, The (Weill and Brecht) became the rage of the season and immediately was translated into many languages, bringing Weill a reputation in the United States even before he arrived in 1935. The text for The Threepenny Opera was based on the eighteenth century play by John Gay called The Beggar’s Opera. Its plot concerns Macheath, a thief of thieves, who marries Polly, daughter of his fellow crook, the entrepreneur Peachum. Peachum plans Macheath’s arrest, and, although Macheath flees, he is caught through the treachery of Jenny and other whores. He is sentenced to be executed but is reprieved in a deliberately artificial happy ending. Brecht’s text was cobbled together quickly from a translation of Gay’s work, and Weill composed the music virtually overnight. The Threepenny Opera opened in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on August 31, 1928. Lenya had one of the leading roles, that of the whore Jenny, and once again Weill’s score infected the public. The audience would barely allow the song “Mack the Knife” "Mack the Knife" (Weill and Brecht)[Mack the Knife] to finish before demanding an encore. Theatergoers left humming and whistling such tunes as the “Cannon Song” and “Mack the Knife.” It is no exaggeration to say that the play swept across Europe. Within its first year, it was performed more than four thousand times. In addition, it was recorded by seven companies. Overnight, Weill was transformed from a serious composer to a commercial success.

A year after the premiere of The Threepenny Opera, its producer, hoping to capitalize on its phenomenal success, persuaded Brecht and Weill to write another play with songs. Happy End, Happy End (Weill and Brecht) which opened in Berlin in September of 1929, did not, however, justify its title and was both a critical and a popular flop. Brecht was later to repudiate writing it, but several of Weill’s songs for the play, in particular “Surabaya-Johnny,” belong to the general repertory of famous Weill songs. At the same time, Brecht and Weill continued working on the full-length opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill and Brecht) first produced in Leipzig in March, 1930, then in Berlin in December, 1931, with Lenya once again singing the leading role. The political content of that opera became a source of conflict between Brecht and Weill. Brecht saw the opera as a parable of capitalism and wanted members of the cast to sing and march about the stage carrying placards as Mahagonny goes up in flames. Weill became less interested in the political view and saw the opera as a parable of greed. With the rise of Nazism, the opera was met with resistance from the public, although critics noted Weill’s musical accomplishment of blending the teachings of Busoni with his popularized version of jazz.

In addition to his collaboration with Brecht, Weill also composed songs, choral numbers, and instrumental movements for Georg Kaiser’s Silbersee, which unfortunately opened as Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Immediately after the burning of the Reichstag, Brecht emigrated to Prague, and performances of Weill’s music were prohibited until 1945. In addition, as both Weill and Lenya were Jewish, they left Germany in March of 1933, escaping across the border to France.

Upon his arrival in the United States in September of 1935, Weill began a second career, composing for Broadway. Although his compositions were not generally known by the American public, his work was known to a number of important musicians and theater directors, and he soon was presented with a number of projects. One of the first was Knickerbocker Holiday, based on Washington Irving’s book, which met with considerable success when it opened in October of 1938. It was not until Lady in the Dark (1941), however, that Weill achieved his first Broadway hit. After its premiere on January 23, 1941, the show ran for two seasons. In 1944, Paramount bought the rights to make its film version, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. One Touch of Venus, Weill’s greatest Broadway success, followed, opening on October 7, 1943. Another popular hit was the folk opera Street Scene, composed in 1946.

In his adjustment to Broadway, Weill abandoned the bold and disillusioned bitterness of his musical style from the Mahagonny Songspiel and The Threepenny Opera in favor of sophisticated love songs, barbershop ballads, and mock patriotic songs. Contemporary critics point out that Weill’s contributions to American music are as significant as those of his European period, because in this transition he consciously attempted to create an indigenous American operatic tradition based on the classic American themes. The impact of Weill’s popularization of serious composition is apparent in the many versions of “Mack the Knife” recorded by popular singers and the recording of the “Alabama Song” by the Doors. At the same time, serious interpretations of Weill’s music continue. Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny belongs to the repertoire of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and opera singer Teresa Stratas has recorded Weill’s collected songs. Mahagonny Songspiel (Brecht and Weill) Musical theater Theater;musical

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Edited and translated by John Willett. 1964. Reprint. New York: Methuen, 2003. Comprehensive collection of Brecht’s writings on theater. Significant essays for an understanding of the collaboration between Brecht and Weill include “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,” “The Literarization of the Theatre” (notes to The Threepenny Opera), “On the Use of Music in Epic Theatre,” and “On Gestic Music.” Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsch, Foster. Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Biography draws on Weill’s journals and personal correspondence as well as on interviews with individuals who knew him. Includes discussion of his collaboration with Brecht and his work with other writers. Features notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jarman, Douglas. Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. Well-researched, balanced, and informative text provides a two-part discussion focusing on Weill’s life and analysis of his musical style. Assesses Weill’s early instrumental and vocal music, the music that characterizes his collaboration with Brecht, and the American period of his popular Broadway productions. Includes numerous photographs, chronological list of works, discography, bibliography, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kowalke, Kim. Kurt Weill in Europe. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1979. Scholarly analysis of Weill’s career provides a context for the development of Weill’s musical style, acknowledging the influence of Ferruccio Busoni and the relevance of his period of experimentation. Illustrated by examples from Weill’s scores. Intended for readers with strong background in musicology. Includes appendix with catalog of Weill’s compositions (1900-1935) and annotated translations of Weill’s essays, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Collection of a wide range of essays by Weill scholars covering the full spectrum of his musical career. Several contributions focus on Weill’s collaboration with Brecht in creating “epic opera”; others focus on Weill in the United States and his influence on the Broadway musical. Includes illustrations, chronology of Weill’s life and works, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leach, Robert. Makers of Modern Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2004. Examines the lives and work of four individuals who had significant influence on theater in the twentieth century. Chapter 4 is devoted to Brecht. Includes illustrations, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanders, Ronald. The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of Kurt Weill. 1980. Reprint. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1991. Comprehensive biography and analysis of Weill’s musical career, accessible to the general reader. Skillfully relates the effects of Weill’s personality on his individual musical style. Includes source notes, list of Weill’s principal compositions, discography, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willett, John. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. 1959. Reprint. New York: Methuen, 2003. Invaluable, concise introduction to Brecht’s work. Brief chronology and analysis of Brecht’s plays are followed by a discussion of individual aspects of Brecht’s theatrical style, including subject matter, use of language, theatrical influences, music, theatrical practice, theory, and politics. Of particular interest concerning the collaboration between Brecht and Weill is the discussion on music. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.

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Categories: History