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The partnership between Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was as significant as any musical pairing in the 20th century, and their masterwork, The Threepenny Opera, was a collaboration which few have equaled since. It is a compelling and surprising mixture of old and new, lowbrow and highbrow, sophistication and pure street grit.
Brecht was inspired to create a new opera after attending a wildly popular London revival of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera – a work unique for its use of popular music of the day, and singular because it was an everyday story of two then-famous criminals (hardly the elevated stuff of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas or Handel’s Julius Caesar from the same era).
The two collaborators, but especially the leftist Brecht, held to a belief that “high” and “low” culture were artificial and based on class distinctions. As he wrote in a 1927 essay, Weill wanted composers of opera to address a wider, less “high brow” audience. A singspiel (in which much of the text is sung, but not all) by the Brecht/Weill team resulted, celebrating lowlifes and hoodlums, centering on the characters such as Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), an unglamorous crook with dreams of glory.
Weill drew on the popular music and dance bands of Berlin cabarets in the 1920s, a decidedly American-jazz-inspired music, but mixed with touches of eastern-European Jewish and German Expressionism. Brecht created captions to be shown on screens in the theater during the different scenes. For example, the opening caption reads: “A fair in Soho. The beggars are begging, the thieves thieving, the whores whoring. A ballad singer sings the ballad of Mack the Knife.”
The first three of tonight’s excerpts will be heard in arrangements for violin and piano by Stefan Frenkel, the violinist whose performances brought Weill’s Violin Concerto and song-cycle Frauentanz their first popular successes. A sanitized rendition of the Ballad of Mack the Knife captured the imagination of the American record-buying public with popular recordings in the 1950s (and a Grammy award in 1959); the best-known recording may have been by Bobby Darin, though it has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya, and more recently by Sting. Tonight’s version is closer to the original, though with piano instead of small orchestra including barrel-organ. The tune is a celebration of the exploits of the opera’s main character, Macheath, aka Mackie Messer.
Polly’s Song is a short and poignant lament for her brand new husband, Macheath. He has just fled on her recommendation because she’s just heard that the heat is on, and told Macheath he should lay low: she’ll run the business while he’s out of commission.
The Kanonen Song is a raucous and dark little number in which Macheath and his friend the Chief of Police sing in celebration of the former’s recent wedding. In it they recall their “exploits” together in the army.
The character of Polly is featured again in Barbara Song, in which she is trying to explain her attraction to, and marriage with, the hoodlum Macheath.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He is also a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.