Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900 – April 3, 1950), was a German, and in his later years American, composer active from the 1920s until his death. He was a leading composer for the stage. He also wrote a number of works for the concert hall.
Weill was born the third of four children to Albert Weill (1867- 1950) and Emma Weill née Ackermann (1872 - 1955). He grew up in a religious Jewish family in the "Sandvorstadt", the Jewish quarter in Dessau, where his father was a cantor.. At the age of twelve, Kurt Weill started taking piano lessons and made first attempts at writing music; his earliest preserved composition was written in 1913 and is titled Mi Addir. Jewish Wedding Song.
In 1915, his parents sent Weill to private lessons with Albert Bing, Kapellmeister at the "Herzogliche Hoftheater zu Dessau", who taught him piano, composition, music theory, and conducting. Weill performed publicly on piano for the first time in 1915, both as an accompanist and soloist. The following years he composed numerous Lieder to the lyrics of poets such as Eichendorff, Arno Holz, and Anna Ritter, as well as a cycle of five songs titled Ofrahs Lieder to a German translation of a text by Yehuda Halevi.
Weill graduated with an Abitur from the Oberrealschule of Dessau in 1918, and enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik at the age of 18, where he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt, and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch, and also attended philosophy lectures by Max Dessoir and Ernst Cassirer. The same year, he wrote his first string quartet (in B minor).
In July 1919, Weill abandoned his studies and returned to Dessau, where he worked as a répétiteur at the Friedrich-Theater under the direction of the new Kapellmeister, Hans Knappertsbusch. He composed an orchestral suite in E-flat major, a symphonic poem of Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as Schilflieder, a cycle of five songs to poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December 1919, through the help of Humperdinck, Weill was appointed as Kapellmeister at the newly founded Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid, where he directed opera, operetta, and singspiel for five months, and also composed a cello sonata and Ninon of Lenclos, a now lost one-act operatic adaptation of a play by Ernst Hardt. From May to September 1920, Weill spent a couple of months in Leipzig, where his father had become the new director of a Jewish orphanage. Before he returned to Berlin, in September 1920, he composed Sulamith, a choral fantasy for soprano, female choir, and orchestra. Back in Berlin, Weill had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December 1920. After examining some of Weill's compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of five master students in composition at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin.
From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with Ferruccio Busoni and also counterpoint with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin. During his first year he composed his first symphony, Sinfonie in einem Satz, as well as the lieder Die Bekehrte (Goethe} and two Rilkelieder for voice and piano. During that period, he also worked as a pianist in a Bierkeller tavern. In spring of 1922, Weill joined the November Group's music faction. That year he composed a psalm, a divertimento for orchestra, and Sinfonia Sacra: Fantasia, Passacaglia, and Hymnus for Orchestra. On November 18, 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm; it was the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of musical theatre.
From 1923 to 1925, Weill taught private students music theory and composition, out of financial need. Among his students were Claudio Arrau, Maurice Abravanel, and Nikos Skalkottas. Compositions during his last year of studies included Quodlibet, an orchestral suite version of Die Zaubernacht, Frauentanz, seven medieval poems for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, french horn, and bassoon, and Recordare for choir and children's choir to words from the Book of Lamentations. Further premieres that year included a performance of his Divertimento for Orchestra by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Heinz Unger on April 10, 1923, and the Hindemith-Amar Quartet's rendering of Weill's String Quartet op. 8, on June 24, 1923. In December 1923, Weill finished his studies with Busoni.
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 (following 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. Engel directed the original production of The Threepenny Opera in 1928. 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 or wrote German again, with the exception of, for example, letters to his parents who had escaped to Israel.
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). Weill himself 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 inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.
In the 1940s Weill lived 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, New York and Haverstraw, New York in Rockland County. In 1943, he became a United States citizen.
Apart from "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from the Threepenny Opera, 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), "My Ship" (from Lady in the Dark), and "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday).
Weill suffered a heart attack shortly after his fiftieth birthday and died on 3 April 1950 in New York City . He was buried in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw, New York. The text and music on his gravestone come from the song 'A Bird of Passage' from Lost in the Stars:
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.
(lyric: Maxwell Anderson)
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