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Kurt Weill and His American Identity

by Kim H. Kowalke

When Life Magazine ran a feature story in 1947 about the Broadway-opera Street Scene and its "German composer," Kurt Weill fired off a Letter to the Editor: "I have a gentle beef about one of your phrases. Although I was born in Germany, I do not consider myself a `German composer.' The Nazis obviously did not consider me as such either, and I left their country (an arrangement which suited both me and my rulers admirably) in 1933. I am an American citizen, and during my dozen years in this country I have composed exclusively for the American stage and written the music for Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, The Firebrand of Florence (ouch!) and Street Scene." Later that year, Weill returned to Europe (for the first--and last--time), but he avoided Germany. When he got back to his home in Rockland County, he confided to his neighbor and collaborator, Maxwell Anderson: "Coming home to this country had some of the same emotion as arriving here 12 years ago. With all its faults (and partly because of them), this is still the most decent place to live in, and strangely enough, wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America."

Kurt Weill's naturalization certificateAmerica was indeed "home" for Weill -- and had been for a long time. A passionate commitment to the ideals of democracy, justice, and freedom shaped his career in the United States, as he wholeheartedly embraced American audiences, idioms, institutions, and issues. "In a deeply democratic country like ours," he wrote in 1946, "art should belong to the people. It should be `popular' in the highest sense of the word. Only by making this our aim can we create an American art, as opposed to the art of the old countries." Preferring to work in the commercial theater where he could reach out to a broad audience, Weill focused almost exclusively on American themes, and after Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, he tried to rally the nation against his former homeland.

"Everybody tries to help the enormous war effort in his own way," Weill wrote to his parents in Palestine. He composed for films, broadcasts, and recordings made by the Office of War Information and the War Department. He served as a Civil Defense plane-spotter and as production chairman of the "Lunchtime Follies," which presented shows intended to boost morale and productivity in military-related industries. He composed the United Nations anthem "Song of the Free" and four songs on texts by Walt Whitman, Ameica's poet. He wrote the music for Ben Hecht's pageant We Will Never Die, performed at Madison Square Garden and "dedicated to the Two Million Jewish Dead of Europe"). He even registered for the draft, allowing him to conclude a nationwide broadcast interview in 1941: "I have never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States....Those who come here seeking the freedom, justice, opportunity and human dignity they miss in their own countries are already Americans before they come. I know for myself that I would be ready to fight if ever this American freedom would be threatened. And since I have never felt this way before in my life, I think I may have the right to say, `I'm an American.'"

Kurt Weill in his backyardBut as we celebrate the centenary of his birth and the semicentennial of his death, most people still tend to think of Weill as a "Brecht-composer," whereas he would probably have preferred to be remembered as a "Whitman-composer." However, America figured almost as prominently in Weill's works with Bertolt Brecht. "How this Germany bores me!" the playwright groaned in 1920. "It's a good, medium-sized country, its pale colors and plains are beautiful, but what inhabitants!... There remains: America!" Indeed, America appears as the setting of Brecht's plays more often than any other -- six of his collaborations with Weill take place in that brave new world. 	"For every age and part of the world, there is a place about which fantasies are written," Weill explained. "In Mozart's time, it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America." And a fantasy it was, for neither Weill nor Brecht had yet set foot in America. Their invented promised land of geographical impossibility was therefore pieced together from snippets of newspaper headlines, popular song lyrics, Chaplin films, and cheap novels. Brecht and Weill's mythological city of Mahagonny, for example, is built in a desolate desert far from the cares of the world, but within hailing distance of the harbor; down the coast from the gold fields of Alaska, but too far north for the big hurricanes; in miraculous proximity to both Pensacola and California -- not to mention Mandalay and Benares. And in this pseudo-America, there are no inhabitants, only immigrants.

As images from abroad bombarded the post-war rubble of Europe in the 20s and US capital flowed into Germany under the Dawes Plan, America was perceived as a potent political and economic force, a potential agent for change in Weimar culture, and a paradigm of a technologically advanced civilization. This American "Other" was a looking glass reflecting mirages of an Amerika that Germany created in an attempt to bring into focus the future of its own shattered cultural identity. Profoundly ambivalent, this metaphorical Doppelgänger was at once a rallying point for cultural change within a decaying society and a nightmare populated by machine-men threatening to subvert the European sense of self. Seemingly irreconcilable notions of things American comprised a constellation of contradictions: a vast unspoiled wilderness vs. squalid urbanization; the romanticism of the legendary Wild West vs. the cold modernity of an urban jungle; cowboys and outlaws vs. engineers and gangsters; rugged individualism vs. mass dehumanization; technological progress vs. certain self-destruction. Fascination alternated with attack.

The resulting image was almost always double-sided, alternately titillating and terrifying. On the one hand, the final frontier for freedom and opportunity, a sunkissed polar-bear paradise populated by lumberjacks living with nature in the close harmony of a barbershop quartet. On the other, a capitalist prize fight of unimaginable corruption and technological cruelty, where ruthless gangsters run slaughterhouses and sweatshops in league with the Salvation Army -- "hell on an unprecedented scale," as Hans Eisler described Chicago, Berlin's metaphorical double. Brecht was especially fascinated by this "Porkopolis," with its stockyards, slaughterhouses, and commodity exchange, because it offered more symbols of brutal capitalism than did New York or Los Angeles.

Nothing, however, was more exotic, more thrilling, or deliciously threatening, than the figure of the jazz musician and his female counterpart, the shimmy shaker. Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, remembered that "one or two Negro jazzbands played in Berlin and exerted a strong influence on composers and the instrumentalists of dance orchestras. Josephine Baker came to Berlin and Kurt and I went to see her. I remember that we had one Sophie Tucker record, another by a vocal group called the Revelers." The jazzband became a hyperbolic representation of American otherness, collapsing not only music and dance, but "primitive" and "modern," "African" and "American," into a single metaphor. The jazz musician was a ready-made composite: a stereotype of a transplanted African primitive who produced a new form of music which could, in turn, absorb and transform the hectic rhythms of modern life. For many Germans, African and American thereby became virtually interchangeable and elicited extreme responses. Some heard in jazz the apocolyptic accompaniment to the end of European civilization, just as Ernst Krenek's jazz-violinist Jonny proclaimed, "the New World comes across the ocean and inherits the old Europe through dance."

Weill embraced jazz as "the rhythm of our time" and "an international folk music of the broadest consequence." The foxtrots, Bostons, Charlestons, and tangos that crept into his modernist musical language provided the perfect counterpoint to the brash colloquialisms of Brecht's new language. And when the "Alabama Song" (written in a pidgin English where Alabama rhymes with mamma) was first heard at the stuffy Baden-Baden Music Festival in 1927, Jessie and Bessie followed close on the heels of a quartet of lumberjacks, who echo the refrain of the "Bridesmaids' Chorus" from Der Freischütz to the raucous rhythm of a foxtrot. If that year can now be identified as a turning point in modern civilization, when national radio networks, underwater tunnels, and international radio-telephone services were established and Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, affirming the wonder and power of progress and technology, there could be no more potent musical representation than Weill and Brecht's songplay Mahagonny. Challenging the icons of German high culture in the year of the centenary of Beethoven's death, its Americanisms reverberated throughout Weimar culture.

But such brash hijinks and high hopes were shortlived. Soon a different sort of New Germany would drive Brecht and Weill out. By 1941 both were living in the unbridled America they had loved and dreaded so much in their imaginations. Their responses to the reality of America were antithetical. Brecht chafed in exile, returning to Germany one step ahead of McCarthy and deportation. Weill embraced American culture wholeheartedly; if his works in Germany had used America strategically to attack an unjust society, his works in America were cautionary tales for a country he considered just. Consequently critics have long talked about "the two Weills," as if Weill's European and American careers could not be contained within a single artistic persona. If today we are finally beginning to comprehend Weill as a unitary figure, there will always remain within his legacy "the two Americas" he experienced -- the one he imagined from afar and the one he embraced from within.

Performance of Kurt Weill's music is funded in part by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, a not-for-profit, private foundation chartered to preserve and perpetuate the legacies of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and Lotte Lenya (1898-1981). In pursuit of these goals, the Foundation maintains the Weill-Lenya Research Center to serve scholars and performers, awards grants to support excellence in research and performance, administers Weill's copyrights, and information on the worldwide centenary celebration of the birth of Kurt Weill (2000).


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