About this Recording
8.557481 - WEILL: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Lady in the Dark - Symphonic Nocturne
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Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 • Symphonic Nocturne

While he left as extensive and as significant an output of stage-works as any composer active during the first half of the twentieth century, the contribution of Kurt Weill to orchestral and instrumental genres was largely restricted to his formative years as a composer from 1918 to 1924. Although he had attempted opera in several unfinished and now lost projects during and after the first World War, Weill’s earliest major works are a String Quartet (1918), a Suite for Orchestra (1919) and a Cello Sonata (1920). Yet an urge towards more concrete expression was inevitable in the social climate of post-war Germany, with political left and right fighting for supremacy as the country moved shakily towards a republic. Something of this turmoil can be gauged from the Symphony Weill completed in 1921, but which remained unperformed – and was for many years thought lost or destroyed before being located, surprisingly, in an Italian convent – until 1956.

Until the summer of 1920 Weill held employment as conductor of the opera company at Lüdenscheid, at which time he applied to join the masterclass in composition that Ferruccio Busoni was to direct at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. The youngest of the applicants, Weill was accepted for a three-year period, starting officially in July 1921, and it is tempting to see this ‘First’ Symphony as the budding composer’s statement of intent. Around this time Weill was approached for incidental music to a drama by the socialist playwright Johannes Becher; though this came to nothing, the play’s title, Workers, Peasants and Soldiers: A People’s Awakening to God, might almost have been intended for that of the symphony (a quotation from the play was seemingly inscribed on the title-page that Weill later discarded).

Although it plays continuously, the Symphony’s single movement is divided into three main sections that together outline, but do not emulate a classical symphonic format. Similarly its tonal orientation avoids a secure key-centre almost as a point of principle. The first section, Allegro vivace, begins with a sequence of grinding, dissonant chords whose tonal ambiguity is to pervade the whole work. The introduction comes to an almost prayerful pause, then a more agitated mood sets in. This allegro-type music has more expressive music as contrast, before the opening chords re-emerge. Anxious elaboration of the ideas ensues, followed by a pensive interlude. This leads into the work’s central section, Andante religioso, the spiritual ambience of which is of a distinctly ironic cast. Twice the opening chordal sequence is touched upon, lending an ominous feeling to this otherwise inward-looking music. An earnest chorale-like idea presages the ‘Chorale Fantasy’ which forms the final section. This builds gradually, by way of a beatific passage for solo strings and wind, to a climax where the opening chords inform a would-be apotheosis. Underlying doubt has not been dispelled, however, and the work ends with a stark, fatalistic cadence.

It seems quite probable that Busoni, having seen the autograph of the Symphony, referred Weill to his former pupil and sometime assistant Philipp Jarnach for intensive studies in counterpoint. Certainly the works following in its wake, notably the Divertimento and the Sinfonia Sacra, both composed in 1922 and first performed by no less than the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with musical imagery both sardonic and apocalyptic, offer a clarification of the earlier work’s aesthetic. Then, in the Concerto for Violin and Wind Instruments of 1924, Weill made the breakthrough to a more objective manner of writing, akin to the direction then being pursued, albeit to very different ends, by Hindemith and Stravinsky. His commitment to the theatre meant that concert music as such then disappears from Weill’s output. Excepting the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik suite, compiled from Die Dreigroschenoper in 1929, his only other orchestral work is that known today as the Second Symphony.

The coming to power of the Third Reich in January 1933 made it all but impossible for Weill’s works to be staged in Germany, leading to his departure for Paris with the sketches of a symphony commissioned by the noted patron of new music, Princess Edmond de Polignac. Completed early the following year, this ‘Second’ Symphony (not designated as such by Weill, who never numbered his previous symphonic effort) was duly given by Bruno Walter in Amsterdam on 11th October 1934, and repeated in New York that December, on each occasion to unenthusiastic critical and public response. It then languished for over three decades, and only since the 1980s has begun to find a place in the orchestral repertoire.

Whereas its predecessor was in three interlinked sections, the Second Symphony consists of three separate movements which form a straightforward fastslow- fast sequence. The first of these has a Sostenuto introduction the rapid-fire motif of which takes hold of the orchestra with insistence. A bitter-sweet trumpet melody leads into the Allegro molto, with its incisive first theme and an anxiously expressive rejoinder. After a brusque codetta, the music passes through a tense development which culminates in a forceful climax, then a reprise which varies the two main ideas. This is interrupted by a nostalgic recall of the introduction, before rounding off the movement as before. The central Largo opens with a theme for whole orchestra, its distinctive rhythmic profile seldom out of earshot. A mock-solemn trombone melody is elaborated in more lyrical though hardly untroubled terms, leading to the climactic return of the main theme. The lyrical music proceeds in an appreciably varied guise, including an elegant flute solo over pizzicato strings, before its strenuous culmination is cut short, leaving the initial theme to end the movement in wistful regret. The Allegro vivace finale sets off with a hectic woodwind idea which recurs on two occasions. Between them comes a vamping theme for strings and a march episode, by turns angular and mocking. The coda harks back to that far-off trumpet melody from near the work’s beginning, before hurtling on to a breathless close.

The evolution of Weill’s music after he settled in the United States in 1935 is that of his reconciling his own dramatic instincts with the indigenous American music-theatre, above all, the Broadway musical. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Lady in the Dark, his 1940 collaboration with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin that set new standards for a Broadway show in dramatic and musical integration. As he was the only such composer to undertake his own orchestration, it is hardly surprising that the score exhibits all of Weill’s theatrical hallmarks, largely retained in the Symphonic Nocturne arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. Most of the show’s principal numbers are featured, not least My Ship, the ‘idée fixe’ which comes into focus for the main protagonist as the psychoanalysis she undergoes gradually unlocks her inhibitions about the past. The piece, moreover, makes a worthwhile addition to an orchestral output not otherwise represented in the music of Weill’s American years.

Richard Whitehouse


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