Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin

Kurt Weill Biography

Kurt Weill was born on March 2nd, 1900, in Sandvorstadt, the Jewish quarter of Dessau, Germany. His father was the cantor at a local synagogue, and had his son studying piano by the age of twelve. Weill began writing his own music at thirteen, and by fifteen was privately studying composition and conducting with Albert Bing, the Kapellmeister at Herzogliches Hoftheater zu Dessau, where he worked as a substitute pianist. After he graduated in 1918, he enrolled in the Berliner Hochschule für Musik; he wanted to study conducting, philosophy, and most importantly composition with Engelbert Humperdinck, but he left the stiflingly conservative training (and infrequent lessons with Humperdinck) after a year, to work as a rehearsal pianist at the Friedrich-Theater in Dessau and later as Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid to support himself and his family, who were in financial trouble after the Great War. After working for some time, Weill moved to Berlin in 1920 to study under Ferruccio Busoni, an Italian composer and pianist of considerable renown.

Weill’s studies under Busoni had a profound effect on his philosophy of musical composition: he believed in writing music that had a practical purpose, and in making use of formal structures— which had been developed and perfected by past masters—in his compositions, especially those for musical theater. Unlike his contemporaries in the German Expressionist movement, who sought to sought to maximize expressiveness by abandoning formal constraints entirely, Weill found that the enduring power of classic forms spoke to their efficacy at conveying meaning. This pursuit of practical uses for traditional music lead him in 1922 to join the musical division of the November Group, a collection of socialist-leaning artists united more by their desire to to enact social change through their works than by the style of the works themselves.

By the beginning of the year 1924, Weill had just finished his studies with Busoni. At this point he had written works for concert orchestra, including several song cycles, orchestral suites, and a symphony, as well as two operas and the ballet with song Zaubernacht. Weill was introduced the popular playwright Georges Kaiser, who would go on to write librettos for several of Weill’s operas. While at Kaiser’s summer house that year, working on Der Protagonist Weill met up-and-coming singer and actress Lotte Lenya Blaumauer, already known onstage as simply Lotte Lenya. The two married in 1926, and she would continue on to sing many of the lead female roles in Weill’s pieces for stage.

At the Baden-Baden Music Festival in 1927, Weill collaborated with activist playwright Bertolt Brecht to put the latter’s play The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) to music in the Mahagonny Songspiel. The two would have a fruitful collaboration; in 1928 they produced together The Threepenny Opera, one of Weill’s best-known works. After his flight to Paris to escape the Nazi regime in 1933, Weill would collaborate more with Brecht to write The Seven Deadly Sins (1933). In 1935 Weill went to America on a commission to write The Eternal Road (1934-36), where he settled in New York and shortly thereafter wrote Johnny Johnson in 1936.

Once in America, Weill committed himself to mastering the idiom of the American musical. He worked in Hollywood as well, writing the score for the film You and Me in 1938, but preferred the operatic style of musical theatre more. Weill worked with leading dramatists and lyricists like Max Anderson and Ira Gershwin, adding to his oeuvre Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), One Touch of Venus (1943), Street Scene (1946), Love Life (1948), and Lost in the Stars (1949), among others, that ran on Broadway to great success. Songs from these shows, such as “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday and “Speak Low” from One Touch of Venus became classics in the American standard repertoire, and the storytelling concepts used in Love Life and Lost in the Stars served as inspiration for later hits like Joe Masteroff’s Cabaret or later Soundheim works. True to his beliefs about accessibility and the social functions of music, however, his was most proud of his 1948 folk-opera Down in the Valley, which was produced by hundreds of amateur companies across the country.

In 1950, Weill was working on a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn when he had a heart attack and died in New York City, an American citizen (since his naturalization in 1943). He was survived by Lotte Lenya (with whom he had remarried in 1937 after their divorce in 1933), who advocated for the preservation of his legacy, leading The Kurt Weill Foundation until her death in 1981.

--Andy Zicari


"Kurt Weill Dead; Composer, Was 50." The New York Times, April 4, 1950.
Kurt Weill Foundation. “Kurt Weill Biography.” KWF.org. https://www.kwf.org/pages/kw-biography.html
“Kurt Weill.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Weill
Kurt Weill Zentrum. “Catalogue.” kurt-weill-fest.de www.kurt-weill-fest.de/pages_en/kwz_4_2_0_0.html
Weill, Kurt. "The Alchemy of Music." Stage, November 1936, 63-64.
Wünsche, Isabel. "Die Novembergruppe." Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. August 5, 2016.


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