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GWEN IFILL: German-born composer Kurt Weill is probably best known for his 1928 work, “Three Penny Opera,” and his signature song, “Mack the Knife.” (“Mack the Knife” playing) (singing in German) It’s a tune that’s been covered by everyone from jazz man Louis Armstrong…
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (singing) Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear.
GWEN IFILL: ..To 1950′s teen crooner, Bobby Darin.
BOBBY DARIN: (singing) You know when that shark bites with it’s teeth, babe…
GWEN IFILL: This year marks the 100th anniversary of Weill’s birth, and a major retrospective is under way across Europe and America. The composer’s work is broad, spanning opera, Hollywood film scores, and Broadway musicals. (Piano playing) Among his best-known compositions, “September Song” from the musical, “Knickerbocker Holiday.” He played it here in a 1949 appearance on NBC.
SINGER: For the days will go down to our prayers…
GWEN IFILL: Broadway standards rich in melody defined Weill, but his music more often reflected the political, the controversial. In the Broadway musical, “Lady in the Dark,” the central character, a 1940′s career woman, coped with mental illness. His 1938 opera, “The Eternal Road,” was about the struggle for Jewish identity amid the turmoil of Nazi Germany. Recently performed in Germany and New York, the drama recalls the history of the Jews. In this scene, the defiant Israelites await Moses’ return from Mount Sinai. (Singing) Weill was born in 1900, in Dessau, Germany. The son of a canter, he established himself by the 1920′s as a major talent in pre- war Germany. His music was complex, gritty, and avant-garde. Among Weill’s most noted work, his 1930 collaboration with Bertrold Brek, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagoni;” a tale of prostitutes, debtors, and drunkards, in a surrealistic American mining town.
SINGERS: If we don’t find from that pretty bar, I tell you we must die. I tell you we must die. I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die.
GWEN IFILL: Weill’s music eventually angered the Nazis, and in 1933 he fled Germany for Paris and later moved on to New York and a career in the musical theater. He went on to collaborate with a series of noted lyricists, including Ira Gershwin and the poet, Langston Hughes. Weill died in 1950 at only 50 years old of a heart attack. His music is still interpreted and reinterpreted by an eclectic group of performers. Modern artists who have embraced his work include rocker Elvis Costello and opera diva Teresa Strata.
TERESA STRATA: (Singing )
GWEN IFILL: Joining me to discuss the drama and the legacy of Kurt Weill and his music is conductor John Mauceri. He’s brought many of Weill’s compositions to life, including performances of “the eternal road,” in both New York and Germany. He is currently principle conductor of the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, and also becomes music director of the Pittsburgh opera later this year. Welcome, Mr. Macheri.
JOHN MAUCERI, Conductor: Nice to be here.
GWEN IFILL: On the 100th anniversary of Kurt Weill’s death… Birth and roughly the 50th anniversary of his death, why is it that his music still haunts us? Why is it still important?
JOHN MAUCERI: You know, I think almost more than any so-called serious composer of the 20th century, he captured the century. You know, he captured his time. Like Gershwin did for America, but Weill’s different because he started out in Germany and captured that part, and I mean, the central tragedy of Europe would be the second world war, and here’s a guy who was in the middle of it. He had to escape because he was Jewish and would have been killed. He was right at the top of the list there for Hitler — came to America, assimilated, became one of the great Broadway composers. So in a way, he epitomizes this tragedy.
GWEN IFILL: Americans know him mostly as this creator of these pop standards we just saw, but Germans saw him in an entirely different way. There was a real paradox in the kind of music he created.
JOHN MAUCERI: Well, I think Germans still do, and part of what we’re trying to do is to try and teach the Germans about the American Kurt Weill, because we Americans heard the German Kurt Weill, but really in the 1950′s. You know, it’s a funny thing. It was in the 1950′s that “Three Penny Opera,” after he died became really successful. So we heard “Mack the Knife” in an English translation around the time that his Broadway songs were really becoming popular. So we Americans have both, more or less, in our minds, but the Germans don’t.
GWEN IFILL: But he did everything from epic opera, as we just saw, to something like “Mack the Knife” or “September Song,” yet there seemed to be in listening to it, this sort of core of sadness that ran through all of his music — these atonal, kind of minor key melodies.
JOHN MAUCERI: You know, more minor keys than any composer, popular composer. You see, he decided somewhere early in his life, when he was in his 20′s, not to let his style get between him and the audience. So he was writing really complex, atonal music as a young man, like a lot of composers were at that time, and then he completely broke with that– decided he wanted to speak the language of the people. At the same time, always in there is this kind of sadness, this chromaticism. Some people think it’s because his father was a canter and he heard a lot of Jewish cantelation at home. I think it’s just the nature of this man, who was a tremendous humanist. You know, a lot of genius composers were not nice people. Kurt Weill was one of the few who was both a genius and was a wonderful man. And it’s especially, I think, apparent in that music, this sadness and this hope that the world would be a better place.
GWEN IFILL: You say “Kort Weill,” I say “Kurt Weill…”
JOHN MAUCERI: Yeah, threw the whole thing off, right?
GWEN IFILL: Half the time I’m… I know. Half the time I want to say “Kurt Wheill” which is the way a lot of people pronounce it.
JOHN MAUCERI: Now, I’ll tell you something and this is a very funny thing. When I met Lodelanya, his widow, she spoke with a thick German accent when she spoke English and she said things like, “Ven Weill came to America, it was very funny because Weill…” And so he was… They both pronounced his name “Weill.” And she, by the way, called him Weill as opposed to Kurt. In Germany you would say “Kort Veill,” in America you’d say “Kurt Weill.” And he wanted to be American, he loved America so much. He was one of those émigré composers who never longs to go back. He was so angry at Germany. And part of the reason why I think a lot of Europe doesn’t love the American music is that they were told after his death that the music wasn’t any good. So we’re trying to find a way, 50 years after his death and the 100th anniversary of his birth, to let people see a whole picture of this great composer.
GWEN IFILL: But was he a sell-out in the eyes of many West Germans?
JOHN MAUCERI: He was… He was a sell-out to the German critics after the war who wanted to find another way to denigrate him. Instead of saying, “we’re really sorry we would have killed him, which is impossible to say after the war, this impossible way to admit it, so instead, there was this crazy idea that he had sold out to Broadway. Whereas, of course, “Three Penny Opera,” which of course, has got maybe his most famous song, was written in Germany, for commercial theater. So if you’re going to say he sold out, you’d have to say he sold out when he was in his 20′s.
GWEN IFILL: What is it about his music that appeals to such divergent performers, from Ricky Lee Jones and the doors…
JOHN MAUCERI: The Doors, exactly.
GWEN IFILL: …To conductors like yourself and philharmonic orchestras? What is it about him that crosses all those different thresholds?
JOHN MAUCERI: Well, you’d ask the same question, I think, about Gershwin, you’d ask the same question maybe about Leonard Bernstein. There are just a few composers in the 20th century who captured the feeling of the era and yet have music that was accessible. In other words, we lived in the 20th century in an idea that classical music couldn’t be accessible. It had to be really difficult to understand. And that music that was easy to understand wasn’t really valuable. So there’s this crazy pop versus classical thing that has been the tragedy, I think, of the second half of the 20th century. Kurt Weill was one of those people who said, “I don’t care, I want to be popular, and I want to be serious.” So his shows on Broadway are all about very political things, as we learned just earlier. I mean, mental illness, apartheid; he’s dealing with family violence in one of his shows — all of these really important issues. So the shows are political, which of course appeals to a lot of people, but also the melodies are so wonderful that they just kind of break your heart.
GWEN IFILL: How does it transfer to current day composers or current day popular music? Is there anything that we see either on the American stage or anything we see in American classical music which draws its inspiration from his work?
JOHN MAUCERI: This is a really good question. One of the tragedies is that his influence isn’t greater, because of this hiatus, this parentheses around his music for so many years, especially in Europe. You know, I found myself conducting the first performances in Italy of any work he ever wrote in America, and this was just three years ago. In Portugal, the same thing, “Street Scene,” first time. In Great Britain, it was ten years ago that “Street Scene,” an opera he wrote in 1947 was done for the first time. We find some influence in works like “cabaret” and “Chicago.” Cander and Ebb obviously were very influenced by him.
GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about the edge, the kind of the edginess?
JOHN MAUCERI: I am, but also even a reference to the music. You know, it seems a little bit Kurt Weill-ish. I think American composers at the same time had a little difficulty in accepting him on Broadway. After all, here was this émigré composer, this German composer suddenly came to Broadway and was learning how to write songs like Cole Porter or Richard Rogers or Leonard Bernstein. So this man was kind of… there was suspicion around him all the time, and I know that it was said that at his funeral in 1950, only one, as it were, classical composer even attended it, and that was Mark Blitstein, the man who wrote the English translation of “Mack the Knife,” in fact. He was kind of an outsider in many ways, but got to work with the best writers in America.
GWEN IFILL: He died so relatively young.
JOHN MAUCERI: Yeah.
GWEN IFILL: If he had lived– and this is entirely asking you to speculate– if he had lived, what kind of work would he be doing?
JOHN MAUCERI: Oh, he would have written a musical about the rain forest in Brazil, about AIDS, about the population, about political corruption. He would be writing everything that you report on in the NewsHour, he’d be writing a musical about to try and make people better, because fundamentally Kurt Weill believed that music could make people better. This is what Beethoven believed, this is what Verdi believed in music theater, and Oscar Hammerstein certainly believed that if you could show a situation– a dramatic situation– and give it great music, you could actually teach the audience to behave better. And this is at the fundamental issue with Kurt Weill — also Leonard Bernstein’s world. That’s what “West Side Story” is about. If you show people something and give them beautiful music, they leave the theater saying, “I don’t want to ever be like that. I don’t want to be a racist. I don’t want to be this way.” And I do believe that composers like this are so important to us because they actually can change the world for better.
GWEN IFILL: And they can make musicals about something.
JOHN MAUCERI: Exactly. Which is one of the problems today of musicals, because they’re rarely about anything except telling a story. The story isn’t more than the story, and that is a sadness. I do believe this past month when we did “The Eternal Road” in New York for the first time in 63 years, there were young composers who came, who had never heard… You know, I had two conversations, one with Steve Flaherty, who composed “Ragtime,” and one with Alan Menken, who wrote “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Both of them were hearing this work, this huge, biblical epic written in 1935 for the first time. And so they wanted to talk to me about how amazing it was that Weill could write great, moving, huge pieces of music based on songs. Because the problem with the song is the song is three minutes long. So how do you write something that lasts two hours based on something that’s three minutes long? That’s hard. Ask Paul McCartney, ask Elton John. That’s hard to do.
GWEN IFILL: And how do you make it relevant to now?
JOHN MAUCERI: Well, because by performing it now, the new composers who haven’t heard this music hear it, and they start writing with the influence of something that maybe is fifty or sixty years old. And that’s a beautiful thing. You build a bridge over this parenthesis. And that’s what I hope will happen.
GWEN IFILL: John Mauceri, thank you very much.
JOHN MAUCERI: Thank you for having me.