Kurt Weill

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The Threepenny Opera
Music Kurt Weill
Lyrics Bertolt Brecht
Book Bertolt Brecht
Based upon The Beggar's Opera by John Gay
Productions Berlin, Schiffbauerdamm Theatre (1928)
Off-Broadway, Theater de Lys (1954)
London, Donmar Warehouse (1994)
Broadway, Roundabout Theatre Company (2006)
And many more...

Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900 – April 3, 1950), born in Dessau, Germany and died in New York City, was a German-born American composer active from the 1920s until his death. He was a leading composer for the stage, as well as writing a number of concert works.

Over fifty years after his death, his music continues to be performed both in popular and classical contexts. In Weill's lifetime, his work was most associated with the voice of his wife, Lotte Lenya, but shortly after his death "Mack the Knife" was established by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin as a jazz standard; his music since been recorded by other performers ranging from The Doors, Lou Reed, and PJ Harvey to New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; singers as varied as Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, and Marianne Faithfull have recorded entire albums of his music.


After growing up in a religious Jewish family, and composing a series of works before he was 20 (a song cycle Ofrahs Lieder with a text by Yehuda Halevi translated into German, a string quartet, and a suite for orchestra), he studied music composition with Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin and wrote his first symphony. Although he had some success with his first mature non-stage works (such as the String Quartet op.8 or the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, op.12), which were influenced by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Weill tended more and more to vocal music and musical theatre. His musical theatre work and his songs were extremely popular with the wider public in Germany at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. Weill's music was admired by composers such as Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky, but it was also criticised by others: by Schoenberg, who later revised his opinion, and by Anton Webern.

He met the actress Lotte Lenya for the first time in 1924 and married her twice: In 1926 and again in 1937, after their divorce in 1933. Lenya took great care to support Weill's work, and after his death she took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation.


His best-known work is The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. The Threepenny Opera contains Weill's most famous song, "Mack the Knife" ("Die Moritat von Mackie Messer"). Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to an end over differing politics in 1930. According to Lenya, Weill commented that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."

Weill fled Nazi Germany in March 1933. As a prominent and popular Jewish composer, he was a target of the Nazi authorities, who criticized and even interfered with performances of his later stage works, such as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), Die Bürgschaft (1932), and Der Silbersee (1933). With no option but to leave Germany, he went first to Paris, where he worked once more with Brecht (after a project with Jean Cocteau failed)—the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins. In 1934 he completed his Symphony No.2, his last purely orchestral work, conducted in Amsterdam and New York by Bruno Walter, and also the music for Jacques Deval's play, Marie galante. A production of his operetta A Kingdom for a Cow took him to London in 1935, and later that year he came to the United States in connection with The Eternal Road, a "Biblical Drama" by Franz Werfel that had been commissioned by members of New York's Jewish community and was premiered in 1937 at the Manhattan Opera House, running for 153 performances. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943. Weill believed that most of his work had been destroyed, and he seldom and reluctantly spoke and wrote German again, with the exception of, for example, letters to his parents who had escaped to Israel.

Change in style

Rather than continue to write in the same style that had characterized his European compositions, Weill made a study of American popular and stage music, and his American output, though held by some to be inferior, nonetheless contains individual songs and entire shows that not only became highly respected and admired, but have been seen as seminal works in the development of the American musical. He worked with writers such as Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin, and even wrote a film score for Fritz Lang (You and Me, 1938).[1]

Later life

In the 1940s Weill lived in a home in New City in Downstate New York near the New Jersey border and made frequent trips both to New York City and to Hollywood for his work for theatre and film. Weill was active in political movements encouraging American entry into World War II, and after America joined the war in 1941, Weill enthusiastically collaborated in numerous artistic projects supporting the war effort both abroad and on the home front. He and Maxwell Anderson also joined the volunteer civil service by working as air raid wardens on High Tor Mountain between their home in New City and Haverstraw, New York in Rockland County. Weill died in New York City in 1950 and is buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw.


Weill strove to find a new way of creating an American opera that would be both commercially and artistically successful. The most interesting attempt in this direction is Street Scene, based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. For his work on Street Scene Weill was awarded the very first Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Apart from "Mack the Knife," his most famous songs include "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), "Speak Low" (from One Touch of Venus), "Lost in the Stars" (From the musical of that name), and "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday).

List of selected works


  • 1920 – Sonata for Cello and Piano
  • 1921 – Symphony No. 1 for orchestra
  • 1923 – String Quartet op. 8
  • 1923 – Quodlibet. Suite for orchestra from the pantomime Zaubernacht, op. 9
  • 1923 – Frauentanz: sieben Gedichte des Mittelalters for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon, op. 10
  • 1924 – Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, op. 12
  • 1926 – Der Protagonist, op.15 (Opera in one act, text by Georg Kaiser)
  • 1927 – Der Neue Orpheus. Cantata for soprano, solo violin and orchestra op.16 (text by Yvan Goll)
  • 1927 – Royal Palace op.17 (Opera in one act, text by Yvan Goll)
  • 1927 – Der Zar lässt sich photographieren op.21 (Opera in one act, text by Georg Kaiser)
  • 1927 – Mahagonny (Songspiel) (Bertolt Brecht)

Works 1928-1935

  • 1928 – Berlin im Licht Song. March for military band (wind ensemble) or voice and piano
  • 1928 – Die Dreigroschenoper, or the Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1928 – Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music), Suite for wind orchestra based on the Threepenny Opera
  • 1928 – Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen for chorus a cappella or voice and piano (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1928 – Das Berliner Requiem (Berlin Requiem). Cantata for three male voices and wind orchestra (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1929 – Der Lindberghflug (first version). Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Music by Weill and Paul Hindemith and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
  • 1929 – Happy End (Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht) - Tony Nomination for Best Original Score
  • 1929 – Der Lindberghflug (second version). Cantata for tenor, baritone, and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra. Music entirely by Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
  • 1930 – Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1930 – Der Jasager (Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1932 – Die Bürgschaft, or The Pledge (Caspar Neher)
  • 1933 – Der Silbersee, or Silver Lake
  • 1933 – Die sieben Todsünden, or The Seven Deadly Sins. Ballet chanté for voices and orchestra (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1934 – Marie galante for voices and small orchestra (book and lyrics by Jacques Deval)
  • 1934 – Symphony No. 2 for orchestra
  • 1935 – Der Kuhhandel, or My Kingdom for a Cow (Robert Vambery) (unfinished)

Works 1936-1950

  • 1936 – Johnny Johnson (Paul Green)
  • 1937 – The Eternal Road (Desmond Carter, first, unfinished version in German with a text by Franz Werfel, directed by Max Reinhardt (theatre director))
  • 1938 – Knickerbocker Holiday (Maxwell Anderson)
  • 1938 – Railroads on Parade (Edward Hungerford)
  • 1940 – Ballad of Magna Carta. Cantata for narrator and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra (Maxwell Anderson)
  • 1940 – Lady in the Dark (Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin)
  • 1941 – Fun to be Free Pageant
  • 1942 – And what was sent to the Soldier's Wife? (Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?). Song for voice and piano (Bertolt Brecht)
  • 1942 – Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Patriotic song arrangements by Weill for narrator, chorus, and orchestra
  • 1943 – One Touch of Venus (Ogden Nash)
  • 1945 – The Firebrand of Florence (Ira Gershwin)
  • 1945 – Down in the Valley
  • 1947 – Hatikvah Arrangement of the Israeli National Anthem for orchestra
  • 1947 – Four Walt Whitman Songs for voice and orchestra (or piano)
  • 1947 – Street Scene (Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes) - Tony Award for Best Original Score
  • 1948 – Love Life (Alan Jay Lerner)
  • 1949 – Lost in the Stars (Maxwell Anderson)
  • 1950 – Huckleberry Finn (Maxwell Anderson) Unfinished.


  • Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins & Berlin Theatre Songs (Sony 1997)
  • The Threepenny Opera. Lotte Lenya and Others, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Ruggeberg (Columbia 1987)
  • Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Lotte Lenya/ Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg (Sony 1990)
  • Berliner Requiem / Violin Concerto op.12 / Vom Tod im Walde. Ensemble Musique Oblique/ Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 1997)
  • Kleine Dreigroschenmusik / Mahagonny Songspiel / Happy End / Berliner Requiem / Violin Concerto op.12. London Sinfonietta, David Atherton (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999)
  • Kurt Weill á Paris, Marie Galante and other works. Loes Luca, Ensemble Dreigroschen, directed by Giorgio Bernasconi, assai, 2000
  • The Eternal Road (Highlights). Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/ Gerard Schwarz (Naxos, 2003)
  • The Doors, The Doors, (Elektra, 1967). Including Alabama Song
  • Bryan Ferry. As Time Goes By (Virgin, 1999). Including "September Song"
  • Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (performed by Tom Waits, Lou Reed and others) (A&M Records, 1987)
  • September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (performed by Elvis Costello, PJ Harvey and others) (Sony Music, 1997)
  • Kazik Staszewski: Melodie Kurta Weill'a i coś ponadto (SP Records, 2001) Tribute to Kurt Weill by one of the greatest song writers from Poland (also includes his version of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat")
  • Youkali: Art Songs by Satie, Poulenc and Weill. Patricia O'Callaghan (Marquis, 2003)
  • Gianluigi Trovesi/ Gianni Coscia: Round About Weill (ECM, 2005)
  • Tom Robinson, Last Tango: Midnight At The Fringe, (Castaway Northwest: CNWVP 002, 1988). Including "Surabaya Johnny"
  • Complete String Quartets. Leipziger Streichquartett (MDG 307 1071-2)
  • Die sieben Todsünden; Chansons B.Fassbaender, Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, C.Garben (HMA 1951420)
  • The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill (Pias, April 1991), Studio recording of the songs performed live in 1989.


  1. Broadwayworld.com Retrieved January 15, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Drew, David. Kurt Weill: A Handbook. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987. ISBN 0-520-05839-9.
  • Hirsch, Foster. Kurt Weill on stage: from Berlin to Broadway. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. ISBN 0-375-40375-2
  • Kowalke, Kim H. Kurt Weill in Europe. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1979. ISBN 0-835-71076-9
  • Kowalke, Kim H.. A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-300-03514-4.
  • Sanders, Ronald. The days grow short: the life and music of Kurt Weill. NY: Holt, Reinhard and Winston, 1980. ISBN 0-030-19411-3
  • Spoto, Donald. Lenya A Life. Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
  • Symonette, Lys and Kim H. Kowalke, ed. & trans. Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. University of California Press, 1996.

External links

All links retrieved June 16, 2018.


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