A first-rate survey of the enigmatic but brilliant composer’s life and work.
A star pupil of composer/intellectual Ferruccio Busoni, Kurt Weill (1900–50) promised much and did not disappoint. By his early 20s, he had produced prodigious amounts of high-quality instrumental and vocal music. Directing his attention to the theater, he created with playwright Bertolt Brecht Mahagonny-Songspiel, which got him attention, and Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), which got him fame. The Jewish composer was at the height of his powers when driven from Germany by the Nazis. In New York, he turned to the Broadway musical. While he enjoyed success, this career move away from “serious” music was to earn him opprobrium from critics and intellectuals in Europe and America that lasts to the present day. Theater historian Hirsch (Film/Brooklyn College; Harold Prince and the American Musical Theater, not reviewed, etc.) contends that Weill was as much as an innovator in America as he was in Germany; just as he had challenged the conventions that obtained in opera, the dominant musical culture in his homeland, he strove to enlarge the horizons of the American equivalent, the Broadway musical. Hirsch further argues that future innovators like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim owe much to Weill. Displaying an easy familiarity with musical structures and vast knowledge of theater, the author parses Weill’s major theatrical works thoroughly and for the most part persuasively, despite an occasional stretch like the description of the opening of Lost in the Stars. (“The number’s undulating movement suggests the geographical divisions between the rich upper hills where the white families live and the parched lower hills . . . occupied by blacks.”) Hirsch is also a splendid biographer. Making extensive use of primary sources, he succeeds at stripping away Weill’s cerebral public persona and revealing the passionate man beneath. Most enjoyable are the letters to his wife, Lotte Lenya, whose stunningly frank content would no doubt have shocked adversaries who saw only his public, easygoing face.
For the specialist and generalist alike, a wonderful portrayal of a fascinating and likable genius.