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In 1928, Weill took a break from the frustrating work on his opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and rather quickly created two significant works, The Threepenny Opera (which has a substantial claim to be the most frequently performed music theater piece of the 20th century) and The Berlin Requiem. He completed the Requiem in November and December, following the astonishing success of The Threepenny Opera, and considered it in part as a study for Mahagonny; indeed, he repurposed parts of the Requiem in the Mahagonny finale.

The Berlin Requiem was written for radio, though with an eye (and ear) to both concert and theater performance. Weimar Era musicians, emphatically including Hindemith and Weill, took their social responsibilities seriously, and the nascent broadcast world presented a golden populist opportunity. In creating a secular Requiem for radio, Weill was very conscious of both the technical and social issues.

“Having to write these pieces of music for radio obviously meant that I had to know about the acoustic restrictions of the broadcasting studio; about which instrumental and orchestral possibilities the microphone favored; about the spread of vocal registers and the harmonic limitations which radio imposes. Several years observation of listeners to radio music, and some experiments of my own, have shown me that it is the clarity and the transparency, rather than the refinement of instrumental sound that is important.

“The radio presents serious musicians today, for the first time, with the problem of writing works which can be assimilated by a large group of listeners. The contents and form of these radio compositions must, therefore, capture the interest of a large number of people of all sorts while the means of musical expression must present no difficulties to the inexperienced listener. Without doubt, the contents of The Berlin Requiem mirror the feelings and fears of a large majority of people. It is an attempt to express what the city-dweller of our time has to say about the idea of death.”

Those contents are five settings of Brecht texts for male voices (solo and choral) and an expanded wind band, formally rounded with an epilog that echoes the opening chorale. (In these performances, Weill’s setting of another Brecht text, “To Potsdam under the Oak Trees,” for unaccompanied male voices, is interpolated before the finale.) Though the ensemble includes saxophones, as well as guitar and banjo sparingly used, the sound is not nearly as jazzy as The Threepenny Opera. Rather, The Berlin Requiem is in the main an austere, clarified work closer to the sound world of the more reflective parts of Mahagonny. The vocal writing includes polyphony, powerful songs, and even Bachian recitative.

The Berlin Requiem had been commissioned by Radio Frankfurt, but the censors there found numerous objectionable points in the Brecht texts, and it was not premiered until May 22, 1929. Weill wrote several other radio scores while still in Germany, another for Radio Paris in 1933, and a couple more in the U.S., including The Ballad of Magna Carta for CBS in 1940, on a text by Maxwell Anderson.

–John Henken