International Journal of

Arts , Humanities & Social Science

ISSN 2693-2547 (Print) , ISSN 2693-2555 (Online)
Treading the Line between Operetta, Dance Music, European Avantgarde and American Jazz: Songs and Lyrics of the Threepenny Opera 1928 (Dreigroschenoper) von Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht.



After moving to the United States, composer Kurt Weill was interviewed by American Radio where he recalled his prior image of the New World: “We liked everything we knew about this country. We read Jack London, Hemingway, Dreiser, Dos Passos, we admired Hollywood pictures (…). America was a very romantic country for us”. In addition to his classical training in Dessau under Ferrucio Bussoni, where he worked primarily on Mozart, Lortzing and Weber, Weill's own music was influenced by contemporary music, American Jazz and Blues, as well as the operetta and the dance- and popmusic of the era. Swing and Charleston had detached the traditional Waltz from the 19th century. He played with these influences and soon developed his own style which linked all these elements. Even before meeting the Poet Brecht, he had said to his opera buffa 'Der Zar läßt sich fotografieren'(op 21):“In the end, I decided that the only way I could take it to the next level (…) was to complete the tone colour. This led me to add the 'grammophon scene', where a mechanical instrument and dance music became key to driving the action forward. I was only able to spare myself the saxophon and jazz sound for this 'Tango Adèle'“, Weill noted in 1927.

Weill, who at this time was keeping up with the latest music in his work as a critic and essayist for a radio station in Berlin, saw jazz imports from America as an enrichement:„The rhythm of our time is jazz, the Americanisation of the entire way we live, which is slowly but surely taking place, finds its strangest expression here.“ Weil raves about the brilliant jazz bands of the 'Negro Revues' and writes polemically of the „miserable, primitive pop music of the pre-war period“ (means the Years before 1914, W.R.), which was completely fading away „against the richess of modulation, the rhythmic and sonorous achivements of jazz.“ (Weill 1927, Berliner Rundfunk)

The theory began to take shape in early 1928 when Brecht and Weill were commissioned to rewrite John Gay's 'Beggar's Opera' for a German audience. The idea was to contrast what was happening on stage (the strange and curious life from gangsters, criminals, sluts and outcasts) with „new“ music, with sloped melodies and sounds never heard before.

Kurt Weill proved a suitable candidate for this project, combining elements of modern e-music (right down to twelve-tone-music) with popular elements of American jazz and ragtime (songs, blue notes, chromatic chord movements). To this end, he tried out various unusual band arrangements: Wind inetruments, trumpets, saxophones, percussion, timpani, banjo, piano, as most evident in the 'Moritat' from Mackie Messer (Ballad of Mack the Knife). This Song was a typical example of how Brecht and Weill juxtaposed the music and action on stage: Macheach comes across on stage as sweet gigolo under the gallows, while admitting his dastardly deeds in a song accompanied by a kind of 'funky faiground music' carried by barrel organ. A tragic circus number!

Weill orchestrated the song as follows: the first two stanzas accompanied by harmonium, then the winds, banjo, and piano joined in, followed by the saxophones and drums at the end, eventually turning the song into an elegant foxtrot.

The popular musical was very sucessful and often sold out in the 'Theater am Schiffbauerdamm' and was played ensuite over one year. Two years later the musical was filmed under the direction of Georg Wilhelm Pabst and even came to be shown in the United States.

After the 'Threepenny Opera', Weill would go on to use instrumentation drawn from jazz and popular music in the following musical „Happy End“, a project that was unsucessful and abandoned after just a few performances. For it's stand-our song „Surabaja Johnny“, compoed for only the singer and piano, the tempo ist marked 'very quiet blues' and moves between E flat major und C minor. Despite the failure of this alternative Christmas fairy tale, there was still a happy ending for Kurt Weill, first with the Play Mahagonny, then later in Hollywoods movie scene.