By James Keller
Born July 6, 1898, in Leipzig; died September 6, 1962 in Berlin.
Born March 2, 1900, in Dessau; died April 3, 1950, in New York.
The Great War of 1914–18—the “War to End All Wars” or, as it is most widely known today, World War I—was horrifying even by the standards of previous wars. By the time it was over, military deaths totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of nine million and “incidental” civilian fatalities climbed to a similar number. The defeat of the Central Powers of Germany and its principal allies of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires was assured in November 1918, but for another nine months an unofficial state of war persisted between Germany and the “Allied and Associated Powers” (led by Great Britain, France, and the United States, Russia having by then withdrawn to fight its own Revolution). By the time peace was officially restored through the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, Germany was struggling toward a new beginning under a fledgling democratic government that had been formed that February by a national assembly convened in the city of Weimar. It called itself the Deutsches Reich (German Realm), but later historians took to calling it the “Weimar Republic.”
The Weimar Republic held sway for 14 years until the newly elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler officially extinguished it in March 1933, having invoked an article of the Weimar Constitution that allowed him to suspend various civil liberties. It is something of a wonder that the Weimar Republic held on as long as it did. Adherents to both the far right (dreaming of the old German monarchy) and the far left (devoted to improving the conditions of the working class) felt abandoned by the moderate course the Weimar Republic tried to steer, and even centrists found little to extol. Violent workers’ strikes played havoc with an economy that was already crippled in the aftermath of the War and hobbled by reparation payments. Hyperinflation set in, but by 1923 Germany found its footing; and from then until 1930, when the National Socialists began their ascent to power, the Weimar Republic flourished as a relatively workable Germany.
The Weimar Republic proved a hotbed for creative types, with Berlin serving as the hub of artistic Germany, emerging as one of the world’s dominant musical capitals. Just as extreme variety of opinion informed German politics at the time, distinct strands of musical style developed concurrently in Berlin, ranging from nostalgic late Romanticism (often with nationalistic overtones that seem ominous in retrospect) to the most radical experiments of Modernism (with Arnold Schoenberg preaching dodecaphony from his chair at the Prussian Arts Academy, where he taught from 1926 until the Nazi takeover in 1933).
Although orchestral music, chamber music, and opera all did well in Berlin during the ’20s, that time and place especially evokes the specter of the cabaret. Cabaret culture in Berlin had emerged around the turn of the century, and by the ’20s it reached its heights at popular establishments where patrons imbibed a musical-theatrical repertoire in which nostalgic themes mixed with the political, in which ironic juxtapositions lent piquant satire and cynicism. The “cabaret style” spilled into non-cabaret arenas as well, most notably into theaters of an edgy persuasion but also into “the theater of daily life.”
Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler were the preeminent exponents of this style, and their lives often unrolled along parallel courses. Though both are principally remembered for their works in “popular” style, they both had undergone strict “classical” training. Weill, the son of a cantor, included among his teachers (in Berlin) Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni. Particularly under the latter’s guidance he made his first marks through compositions in the then-prevalent Expressionistic style before alighting on the more acerbic sound that would become his hallmark.
Eisler had a more desultory musical upbringing, and it was not until after a three-year stint serving in World War I that he was able to acquire systematic training as a composer. He began as a student of Karl Weigl at the New Vienna Conservatory, but in 1919 he became a private pupil (also in Vienna) of Arnold Schoenberg. He would remain with Schoenberg until 1923—sometimes Schoenberg’s acolyte Anton Webern would provide the lesson instead—and he proved so adept working according to his teacher’s precepts that Schoenberg was known to cite him as one of his three most accomplished followers, along with Webern and Berg. In 1925 Eisler moved to Berlin and applied for membership in the German Communist Party (though it is debated whether he joined in the end). Schoenberg hated Communists, and their rupture became complete. By then Eisler had moved on to a new esthetic aspiration: providing music that would be relevant and useful to the social struggle of the working class.
The principal intersection of Weill and Eisler—though at arm’s length—came through their respective theatrical collaborations with the radical playwright Bertolt Brecht. Weill met Brecht in Berlin in 1927, and they immediately embarked on a series of works that would make the names of Brecht and Weill as inseparable in history as Gilbert and Sullivan or Lerner and Loewe: Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927), Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1928), Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1927–29), Der Jasager (The Yea-sayer, 1930), and Happy End (left incomplete in 1929). Brecht provided bitter cynicism, wealth-scorning social commentary, and the ability to elevate the lowest of the downtrodden to the level of universal human myth. Weill responded with masterful scores of scaled-down proportions, rhythmically nervous, jazz-tinged, rich in cabaret-inflected melodies. For all their unity of purpose, Brecht and Weill worked together scarcely three years, and a fair amount of that time they spent squabbling. They effectively split up in 1930, though three years later they reconciled long enough to work their accustomed magic one more time, the result being Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). But by that time friendship was irretrievable. In 1930, Eisler became Brecht’s “new Weill,” and Weill accordingly disdained them both. In a 1934 letter, he bristles at news about a new Brecht-Eisler collaboration (“They’ll probably use everything I’ve told him about musical theater in it”) and warms up to a sneering summation: “What kind of an operetta could that dried-up herring possibly write, and especially with that nutcracker?” I think he meant Brecht was the herring and Eisler the nutcracker, but it hardly matters.
With the rise of the Nazis, both Weill and Eisler fled Berlin. Weill wended his way to Paris and moved definitively to the United Stated in September 1935, where he acquired American citizenship in 1943 and achieved stardom as a Broadway composer. Eisler also spent years in the United States, teaching at the New School in New York and at the University of Southern California, before being hounded out by the Committee on Un-American Activities and finishing his years in (East) Berlin.
For this concert, HK Gruber—a devotee of both composers and a particular force in the revival of interest in Eisler—has selected characteristic works that evoke the waning years of the Weimar Republic. From Weill we hear “Berlin im Licht,” composed for a civic celebration strong on showing off illumination effects; “Ölmusik” (from an odd collaboration with the theater director Erwin Piscator), a trenchant comment about the incursion of advertising; “Klops Lied,” a mini-scena written in tribute to his Viennese publisher; and several items emanating from the Brecht-Weill ultra-hit The Threepenny Opera, a cynical but irrepressible re-telling of the “Beggar’s Opera” story—so successful that Weill quickly crafted some of its numbers into the famous suite he called Little Threepenny Music. The Eisler ballads presented here are easily as sardonic, perhaps with an extra measure of bitters mixed into their recipe. Here we encounter the Krüppelgarde, a macabre regiment of stout-hearted soldiers disfigured in battle (a memory of the composer’s own days in uniform, perhaps); a sneering assessment of Wohltätigkeit (charity); the pacifist outcry of the SA-Mann; and the Säckeschmeißern, the migrant sack carriers who labor beneath the vagaries of economic inefficiencies. We also hear two of the six orchestral suites Eisler drew from film scores written not long before he bid farewell to Berlin—counterparts, one might say, to Weill’s Little Threepenny Music. The second suite is derived from the 1931 pacifist film Niemandsland (No Man’s Land) and the third, from the same year, is assembled out of songs and interludes from Kuhle Wampe (a collaboration with Brecht), a series of tableaux illuminating hurdles faced by the working class, the title referring to a tent city that figures in one of the tales.
In these works from the sunset years of the Weimar Republic, Weill and Eisler manage to entertain us and perturb us at the same time. They seduce us into listening, and they reward us with searing honesty, scarcely concealed outrage, and perhaps even incitement to action. They stand as exemplars of a time and place when composers were appalled by the political developments that enveloped them and responded as best they could—through their music.
—James M. Keller
Notes copyright © 2007 by James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.
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