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Bertolt Brecht, a frequent collaborator and librettist with composer Kurt Weill in the late 1920s, was inspired to create a new opera after attending a wildly popular London revival of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera – a work famous for its use of popular music of the day, and 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). Indeed, Weill and 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 music theater work by the Brecht/Weill team resulted, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), celebrating crooks and hoodlums, centering on the characters such as Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), an unglamorous crook who had dreams of glory; Weill drew on the popular music of the Berlin cabarets of the 1920s (a decidedly American-jazz-inspired music). Music from Die Dreigroschenoper (and the topic of celebrating crooks and gangsters, for that matter) has become part of the fabric of American popular culture; in particular, a sanitized version 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 championed by Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya, as well as being recorded by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and more recently, a version truer to the original by Sting). Weill, who immigrated in the late 1930s and wrote music for a number of successful (and unsuccessful) Broadway musicals, became an American citizen in 1943.
This orchestral suite highlights the important themes and points of the opera (though not in the same order as the original work), including the Cannon Song (a show-stopper in the original production), and Polly’s Song, which is actually more exuberant here than in the original. The arrangement, featuring the winds, brass, and percussion, was commissioned by former Philharmonic Musical Director Otto Klemperer and created by Weill in 1929.
-- Composer Dave Kopplin holds a Ph.D. in music from UCLA and is on the faculty at Cal Poly Pomona.