Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin

Weimar Musical and Cultural Life

Weimar Germany was situated at the center of a whirlwind of influences. Artists, musicians and intellectual both thrived and struggled in the chaos of the political, economic and social climate of the time. It was a time of great artistic creativity in both the high culture of the concert hall and the low culture of the nightclub. Ultimately this openness in the art was tragically stifled by the Nazi regime post-Weimar era.

In the midst of violence, hyperinflation and political uncertainty which became commonplace, art continued to thrive and be prioritized. Within this uncertainty, Berlin became a hub for the experiment of modern life. David Clay Large states that “Weimar-era Berlin as crisis-central, a kind of laboratory of the apocalypse where modern Europeans tested the limits of their social and cultural traditions. People from all over the industrialized world flocked to Berlin to be part of this experiment, if only for a short while” (Large 157).

Harry Graf Kessler wrote of his visit to one of Berlin’s famous nightclubs: “I went to a cabaret in the Bellevuestrasse. The sound of a shot cracked through the performance of a fiery Spanish dancer. Nobody took any notice” (Large 162). As this quote suggests, women were often centerstage of these cabaret, exemplifying the development New Woman with her sexual freedom and independence in the workforce. (Jelavich 1).

One of the most prominent influences on music in the Weimar era was the United States of America. Berlin was, according to Ilya Ehrenburg, “an apostle of Americanism” (Large, 210).  Jazz also took flight in Berlin and was there to stay. Jazz clubs were a new, popular location. According to Jonathan Wipplinger, “new technologies of mechanical reproduction like the phonograph, in addition to an unprecedented influx of mass-produced sheet music...exponentially increased the number and modalities of German contacts with American music and culture” (Wipplinger, 9). There was also a new jazz-opera, with Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek. Many composers, especially Weill were concerned with creating a sort of opera and music useful and relevant to the moment. Much of this new jazz was played in the clubs and cabarets that defined Berlin for many adventurous Germans and foreigners.

Meanwhile classical music was finding a new home in Berlin, with over twenty classical orchestras and three major opera companies and two top music schools. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and Paul Hindemith were some of the composers, and they were experimenting and those experiments did not always receive positive public praise. Experimentation was reaching mainstages, and not everyone was happy with that—some critics did not believe it was right place for those ideas. “[N]ew directions in symphonic and choral music inspired a mixture of approbation and revulsion.” (Large 214)

Berlin’s theater directors and writers were no less experimental than its musicians. However, rather than looking to America for influence and inspiration, they were often left-wing and socially progressive, finding their inspiration in Marxism.  (Large 217). Bertholt Brecht, perhaps Weimar’s most well-known playwright, wrote many explicitly Marxist plays such as Threepenny Opera (1929) and Measure for Measure (1930), which used  a Marxist lens to both dramatize the plight of the working class and suggest how it might overcome its suffering.

--Chloe Falkenheim
*Note this is still a draft.

Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Large, David Clay. Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Wipplinger, Jonathon. The Jazz Republic: Music, Race, and American Culture in Weimar Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.

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