My topic has ever been cultural transplantation – the fate of classical music when exported from Europe to America. Of the composers America has imported, Kurt Weill is a special case. In Berlin, Weill’s defining success was The Threepenny Opera, to a scathing anti-capitalist libretto by Bertolt Brecht. In America, he became a Broadway composer whose big hits were Lady in the Dark (1941, with Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart) and One Touch of Venus (1943, with Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman).
The late David Drew, the first major Weill scholar in the English-speaking world, unforgettably explored the riddle of the “two Weills.” “The difference between Weill up to 1934 and Weill after 1940 is not attributable to any development which could be described as normal,” Drew wrote in 1980. “While some notable artists have simply stopped creating at a certain stage in their careers and a few have put an end to their lives, Weill is perhaps the only one to have done away with his old creative self in order to make way for a new one.”
A revisionist “one-Weill” narrative, however, is now the conventional wisdom. In his new “Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform,” the music historian Stephen Hinton has subtly and magisterially enshrined the view that Weill in America maintained the same plateau of inspiration and originality that made his reputation abroad. For the general reader, Ethan Mordden has produced “Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya” – which I reviewed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.
If Weill had an enduring anchor, it necessarily had something to do with the legendary composer/pianist Ferruccio Busoni, with whom he studied in Berlin, and whose memory he ever revered. Hinton’s book nails the Weill-Busoni connection. Mordden’s does not. As for the one-Weill thesis, I have no doubt that this dialectical response to David Drew will sooner or later produce a response in turn. But Hinton’s book will remain a benchmark.
Weill’s was a creative personality always in flux, and so will be his reputation. Few composers offer as captivating a study in adaptation. He is a veritably Darwinian phenomenon.
(I write about Weill’s American adaptation in my own Artists in Exile.)