About this Recording
8.120831 - WEILL: Mack The Knife - Songs of Kurt Weill (1929-1956)
English 

MACK THE KNIFE - Songs of KURT WEILL
Original 1929–1956 Recordings

 

Two continents, two careers, two totally different styles of music. There's only one 20th century composer who fits that definition: Kurt Weill.

This strange, idiosyncratic man could deliver everything from the tinny, rasping decadence of Weimar Germany to the lush showbiz romanticism of 1940s Broadway.

His songs have been 'covered' by everyone from Bobby Darin to The Doors and some of his greatest hits have come from the least likely of sources.

Call him a true original – a fact that the twenty wildly disparate selections on this recording prove time and time again.

He was born in Dessau, Germany, on 2 March 1900, into a religious Jewish family, the son of a cantor. By the time he was twelve, he was already composing serious musical works and by the age of 26 he had dazzled the musical Establishment with his setting of Georg Kaiser's Der Protagonist.

It looked like Weill was going to be one of the next great serious voices in German music, but then his life took a detour from which it never returned.

In 1927, the Baden-Baden music festival put him together with the socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write a one-act theatrical song-cycle which they called Mahagonny. Its harmonic dissonances and outspoken political sentiments made it a succès de scandale and cemented the partnership of Brecht and Weill.

On 31 August 1928, at Berlin 's Schiffbauerdamm Theatre, they premiered their next work, The Threepenny Opera, based on John Gay's classic, The Beggar's Opera.

Conceived in haste and executed in discord, everyone thought it was going to be a huge disaster. But the audiences adored it, especially Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad Of Mack The Knife), a number they added at the eleventh hour to appease the leading man's desire for a 'big' entrance.

Brecht himself sings it on this recording, along with another number best translated as The Ballad Of The Futility Of All Human Endeavour.

The new hot duo continued to turn out successful works, including 1929's Happy End and, in 1930, a full-scale operatic version of their earlier Mahagonny song-cycle, this one called The Rise And Fall Of The State Of Mahagonny.

Weill was by now married to the unique song-stylist, Lotte Lenya, of whom he once said 'Everything I compose, I hear Lenya singing in my inner ear'.

She is heard on this recording in a selection of songs from those early days, including the classic Surabaya Johnny from Happy End and the Alabama Song from Mahagonny, covered by The Doors on their first album. (And yes, the English lyrics were originally written by Brecht.)

Art as popular and yet as politically as unsettling as that which Brecht and Weill created was not likely to find favour with the Third Reich when it came to power in 1933.

In fact, when the newly-elected government decided to put together an exhibit of the kind of 'decadent art' they wanted stopped, a gramophone playing Die Moritat von Mackie Messer was the central exhibit.

The combination of his Jewish heritage and his left-wing politics made Weill an easy target for the Nazis and so he fled the country, first to Paris, and then to America.

His initial work in his adopted country, a 1936 anti-war musical called Johnny Johnson, didn't receive a positive greeting from the press or public and indeed, sounded a lot like the material he had written with Brecht in Germany.

But two years later, by 1938, things had changed. He collaborated with popular playwright Maxwell Anderson on a story about the early days of Manhattan called Knickerbocker Holiday. While still bearing the distinctive Weill flavour, it was unquestionably an American score.

It also gave birth to one of the great classic musical theatre numbers, a bittersweet ode called September Song they wrote for the great actor Walter Huston (playing tyrannical Peter Stuyvesant) to sing after hearing him on a radio broadcast.

A few years later, in 1941, Weill found himself involved with the glitziest of Broadway vehicles. Playwright Moss Hart, at the peak of his success, wanted to explore the phenomenon of psychoanalysis. He picked Gertrude Lawrence as his star, asked Ira Gershwin to provide the lyrics and turned to Weill for the music.

The resulting product, Lady In The Dark, was one of the biggest hits of the 1940s. It gave Lawrence two solid-gold showstoppers in My Ship and The Saga Of Jenny, as well as allowing a young man named Danny Kaye the opportunity to perform theatrical larceny with his tongue-twisting litany of Russian composers called Tchaikovsky.

By 1943, Weill's transformation was complete. The score he provided for One Touch Of Venus (to lyrics by comic poet Ogden Nash) was as smoothly sophisticated and redolent of Manhattan as anything a native-born composer could have provided.

Speak Low, performed here both by the composer himself as well as by Mary Martin and Kenny Baker of the original cast, is a supreme illustration of Weill at his most cosmopolitan.

But having proven that he could conquer the Broadway musical as well as the German stage (as the 1945 Jascha Heifetz recording of the Moderato Assai from The Threepenny Opera reminds us again of his earlier origins) a talent as restless as Weill's had to move on. His final three American works each had a unique stamp and a particular vitality.

Street Scene (1947) was virtually a tragic opera about the lower classes in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, although its pop hit, Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed is pure American bee-bop optimism, especially as swung here by Benny Goodman with Johnny Mercer selling the vocal.

Love Life (1948) was a ground-breaking attempt to study the institution of American marriage over several hundred years, but it too yielded such great standards as Here I'll Stay and Green-Up Time, performed by pop favourite Buddy Clark and cabaret song stylist Greta Keller.

Weill's final completed work was a stirring version of the South African tragic novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, rendered here as Lost In The Stars. In writing it, Weill used some themes he had previously developed for an abandoned musical called Ulysses Africanus. One of them is Lover Man (aka Trouble Man ) sung here by his wife, Lenya.

Weill died of a sudden heart attack on 3 April 1950 and for a while, his reputation seemed in danger of fading away.

But a quirky off-Broadway mounting of The Threepenny Opera in 1954 proved one of the smash hits of the decade and started a whole new Kurt Weill revival. From that production, you can hear Lenya sing the chilling Pirate Jenny.

Ironically, Weill had one of the biggest pop hits of the 1950s with a song he had written thirty years before. (The Ballad Of) Mack The Knife was picked up and swung by Louis Armstrong in 1955, complete with a shout-out to Lotte Lenya, who – legend has it – was in the studio when Satchmo was recording it. This made the tune popular all over again and paved the way for Bobby Darin's later chart-topping 1959 version.

From Weimar Germany to Eisenhower America. Who could score a hit everywhere down the line? No one, except for Kurt Weill.

Richard Ouzounian

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Producer's Note

As might be expected, the earlier recordings in this collection are exceedingly rare. Some were eight-inch discs, known to exist only in a few pressings. The recordings made by Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill for the small Bost label were poorly recorded and pressed on low-grade wartime shellac.

Walter Huston made two commercial recordings of September Song, six years apart. The lyrics differed sufficiently that it was felt desirable to include both recordings, editing slightly to eliminate repetition. The earlier Brunswick recording is heard in its entirety.

David Lennick, 2007

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Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad Of Mack The Knife)
From Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Orchestrola 2131, mx 1239/A8473. Recorded May 1929, Berlin

Bilbao Song
From Happy End (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Orchestrola 2311, mx A8718. Recorded c. October 1929, Berlin

Die Ballade von der Unzulänglichkeit (The Ballad Of The Futility Of All Human Endeavour)
From Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Orchestrola 2131, mx 1240/A8474. Recorded May 1929, Berlin

Alabama Song
From Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ) (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Ultraphon A 371, mx 10710. Recorded 24 February 1930, Berlin

Surabaya Johnn y
From Happy End (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Bost 5019, mx 1229. Recorded c. 1942, New York

Wie man sich bettet (As You Make Your Bed)
From Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ) (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht)
Bost 5019, mx 1232-C. Recorded c. 1942, New York

September Song
From Knickerbocker Holiday (Kurt Weill–Maxwell Anderson)
Decca 40001, mx L 3666B and Brunswick 8272, mx B 23732-1. Recorded 31 October 1944, Los Angeles and 24 November 1938, New York

My Ship
From Lady In The Dark (Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin)
Victor 27330, mx BS 060682-2. Recorded 23 February 1941, New York

Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians)
From Lady in the Dark (Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin)
Columbia 36025, mx CO 29836-1. Recorded 28 January 1941, New York

The Saga Of Jenny
From Lady In The Dark (Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin)
Victor 27330, mx BS 060683-1. Recorded 23 February 1941, New York

Lost In The Stars
From Ulysses Africanus & Lost In The Stars (Kurt Weill–Maxwell Anderson)
Bost 5017, mx 1240. Recorded c. 1942, New York

Lover Man (Trouble Man)
From Ulysses Africanus & Lost In The Stars (Kurt Weill–Maxwell Anderson)
Bost 5017, mx 1235-B. Recorded c. 1942, New York

Speak Low (I)
From One Touch Of Venus (Kurt Weill–Ogden Nash)
Heritage H-0051. From demo recording c. 1942, New York

Speak Low (II)
From One Touch Of Venus (Kurt Weill–Ogden Nash)
Decca 23296, mx 71493-A. Recorded 7 November 1943, New York

Moderato Assai From The Threepenny Opera (Kurt Weill, arr. Stefan Frenkel)
Decca DL 8521, mx W 73199. Recorded 30 November 1945, New York

Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed
From Street Scene (Kurt Weill–Langston Hughes)
Capitol 376, mx 1619-4. Recorded 30 January, 1947, Hollywood

Here I'll Stay
From Love Life (Kurt Weill–Alan Jay Lerner)
Columbia 38294, mx CO 38583-1. Recorded 20 December 1947, New York

Green-Up Time
From Love Life (Kurt Weill–Alan Jay Lerner)
Atlantic ALS 405, mx ALP11289. Recording January 1956, New York

Pirate Jenny
From The Threepenny Opera (Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht–Marc Blitzstein)
MGM E 3121, mx 54-MG-560. Recorded March 1954, New York

Mack The Knife (A Theme From The Threepenny Opera)
(Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht–Marc Blitzstein)
Columbia 40587, mx CO 53818-1. Recorded 28 September 1955, New York

 


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