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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin
Music for Political ActionMusic for Political Action

ex. 9-16 Paul Hindemith, Neues vom Tage, Bathtub Aria

The result is a kind of panorama of contemporary mores, mocking to be sure but not indignant: the opera colludes with the butts of its own satire, affording its own public the kind of titillation the libretto ostensibly condemns, and ensuring a good (yes, and lucrative) reception. Was that hypocrisy or just good fun? Here the consternation came not just from the right, as with Jonny spielt auf, but from the left as well. For in Weimar Germany there were many who felt that the newly detached and ironic brand of art that went by the name of neue Sachlichkeit, well suited as it was to social comment, had to justify its existence by virtue of a worthy social purpose, and that meant more than fun.

“I have just played you some music by Wagner and his followers,” wrote Kurt Weill (1900–50), another composer of Zeitopern, in a newspaper article published on Christmas Day, 1928, and cast as an imaginary conversation with schoolchildren:

Music for Political Action

fig. 9-4 Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at Brook House, 1942.

You saw that it had so many notes in it that I couldn’t play them all. You tried to sing along with the melody but that didn’t work. You felt that the music was making you sleepy, or even a bit drunk, affecting you like alcohol or some other drug. But you didn’t want to go to sleep. You wanted to hear music that you could understand without explanation, that you could really absorb, and with tunes that you could quickly learn. Apparently you do not know that your parents still go to concerts sometimes. This is a custom that comes from the last century, arising out of social conditions that are no longer relevant to your generation. There are again today great issues that are of concern to everyone, and if music cannot be placed in the service of the general public then it has lost its reason for being.

Write this down! Music is no longer something for the few.20

Claiming to have “started from scratch” in an effort to adapt opera to these contemporary demands, Weill names the collaborator with whom he has joined forces, a man already famous for theatrical reform: Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), who is often named together with Meyerhold and Pirandello as one of the great destroyers of theatrical illusion. Unlike the others, Brecht had an overtly political purpose, to which Weill also subscribed. The “service to the general public” of which Weill spoke was, in his and Brecht’s view, public political education or indoctrination as a stimulus to revolutionary political action. To achieve this purpose, music had not only to change its style, renouncing the paralyzing emotional “hypnosis” that Wagner had practiced so well, but also its function within the drama.

Brecht called his theatrical style “epic theater.” In place of an illusion of real action, epic theater incorporated narrative, montage (scenes played in counterpoint from various separately lighted areas of the stage), and direct exhortation of the audience in defiance of the fourth wall. Sets and lighting were deliberately nonrealistic, and Brecht even allowed the staging process—the work of stagehands, the moving of props, the backstage assembly areas—to be visible to the audience. The purpose of all of this was frankly didactic: Brecht and his collaborators wanted to engage the audience’s fully conscious critical faculties and rationally argue a persuasive political case. That way the audience would not be rendered passive, like a hypnotized subject, attentive only to its own feelings, but rather active, engaged with social problems, and motivated to alleviate them. The urgent purpose of the contemporary theater, these artists felt, was to break the “music trance” associated with romanticism.

The effect of witnessing the stage machinery in action made the artificiality of the drama evident to the spectators, and enabled them to retain their critical faculties. Indeed, seeing how artificial the theater was produced an effect Brecht called Verfremdung. It is usually translated as “alienation” or “defamiliarization,” but all it really means is that the epic theater makes its action and workings as “strange” (fremd) as possible, allowing the audience a distanced perspective that enables them to keep the play and its message distinct, so that they will leave the theater pondering not the former but the latter. Making things look in the theater the way they look in life—that is, familiar—encourages us to take them for granted, to pay them no real attention. (We all know what familiarity breeds.) Making them strange, putting them at an unaccustomed distance, makes us (as Ortega also taught) newly observant and newly impressionable.

It would be no distortion of Brecht’s purpose, and no insult to his integrity, to say that his epic theater was an instrument of political propaganda, and that therein lay its justification. “Once the content becomes, technically speaking, an independent component, to which text, music and setting ‘adopt attitudes,’” Brecht wrote,

once illusion is sacrificed to free discussion, and once the spectator, instead of being enabled to have an experience, is forced as it were to cast his vote; then a change has been launched which goes far beyond formal matters and begins for the first time to affect the theater’s social function.21

The role of music in the epic theater, according to Weill, was similar to that of the newly noticeable stagecraft. Refuting a hundred years of operatic theorizing, or at least turning his back on it, Weill declared that “music cannot further the action of a play or create its background.” So much for Verdi, so much for Wagner, so much for all who have sought to make the music of an opera a continuous and flexible ambience for dramatic action or a subliminal intensifier of feeling. Instead, Weill contended, music “achieves its proper value when it interrupts the action at the right moments,” in order (as Brecht would say) to adopt an attitude toward the action and influence the spectator’s response to it.

The musical interruption thus serves as a jolt, to puncture whatever illusion of reality remains and reengage the full, wide-awake attention of the audience, all the better to monger the message of the play. The musical numbers that accomplish this—Weill liked to call them “songs,” borrowing from English (but pronounced “zonks” in German)—serve the same purpose that the casting of rules or teachings in rhythm and rhyme had served since time immemorial. The music makes the message memorable. But to be memorable, music must be simple and direct. In practice, this meant imitating the form, and to some extent the style, of popular music.

Weill called this jolt or interruption-effect, borrowing from the Latin, a musical Gestus, a word combining the idea of “gesture” with that of “deed.” The proper function of music in the theater he called its “gestic character”22 (der gestische Charakter der Musik). He illustrated it in his newspaper talk by suddenly interrupting it and ordering the imaginary class of schoolchildren to “sing No. 16” (Ex. 9-17):

Music for Political Action

ex. 9-17 Kurt Weill, “No. 16”

And what is this singsong “No. 16?” Weill playfully refrains from identifying it, so that in the context of the article it seems as if he were calling on a congregation to sing out of a hymnal. But most of his readers would have recognized it as one of the numbers from his big hit of the previous summer, Die Dreigroschenoper (“The threepenny opera”), even if they didn’t know that it happened to be “No. 16” in the printed score. The tune gives a fair idea of the level of simplicity at which Weill aimed, and the words (“Man lives by his wits, but off a head like yours a louse at best could live”) give the flavor of the “gestic” interruptions—cynical, even insulting sermonettes about social injustice and the audience’s complacent complicity in it. (For the “schoolchildren” he was addressing in the newspaper piece, Weill softened “louse” to “mouse.”)

A play in dialogue with musical numbers, Die Dreigroschenoper was the second show Weill had produced in collaboration with Brecht. Like Jonny spielt auf, it was one of the legendary box-office sensations of the Weimar Republic, with over three hundred performances in a single Berlin theater during the first year of its run. By 1933, the publisher had licensed a total of 133 productions worldwide. Such a play would have been called a Singspiel in the eighteenth century. To that extent, it was an ironized return to an outmoded or preromantic genre like so much of the art of the 1920s. It even had a specific eighteenth-century model, The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by the English playwright John Gay, a satirical “ballad opera” about London low-life in which the music had consisted of harmonized popular tunes. (Weill quoted one of them for effect, but otherwise wrote a new and original score.) The clever subtitle Weill and Brecht came up with, Songspiel, captured both its “classical” resonances and its contemporary relevance. In the original production, the “antioperatic” thrust was maintained by casting cabaret singers and dramatic actors who could more or less carry a tune in the singing roles, rather than operatically trained voices. (One of the actresses was Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, who supervised a famous New York revival in translation, which ran for 2,611 performances in the mid-1950s.) The original “pit orchestra” consisted of seven cabaret musicians “doubling” on a total of twenty-three instruments. The “gestus” or interruption-effect of the music was enhanced by radically changing the lighting for each song, displaying its title on a screen, and keeping the instrumentalists visible to the audience at all times.

Music for Political Action

fig. 9-5 Brecht and Weill, Die Dreigroschenoper (Oldenburg, 1929): Maria Martinsen as Jenny.

Die Dreigroschenoper makes a fascinating comparison with Wozzeck, since both operas had as their stated aim the exposure of a social problem—namely, society’s hypocritically “criminalizing” mistreatment of the poor. But where Wozzeck adopted a conventional attitude of pity toward its subject, allowed its audience a satisfying (or self-satisfying) catharsis that left it feeling virtuously compassionate, and clothed the drama in a prodigally—even ostentatiously—inventive musical fabric, Die Dreigroschenoper maintains a tone of unmitigated anger and sarcasm, challenging its audience’s presumption of moral superiority and indicting its complacency, while using music that (as Weill proudly demonstrated in his newspaper article) rejected the advanced musical techniques and idioms of the day as ostentatiously as Berg had embraced them.

The act II finale, which carries the title ‘Ballade über die Frage: ‘Wovon lebt der Mensch?” (“Ballad about the question, What keeps a man alive?”) makes the comparison with Wozzeck particularly pointed, since it deals explicitly with the plight of “arme Leute” (poor folk), the quintessential Wozzeckian theme. Where the title character of Berg’s opera, though he ends a criminal, is presented as a good man more sinned against than sinning, the main character of Die Dreigroschenoper, Macheath (alias Mac the Knife), is the head of a gang of street robbers—a confirmed and dedicated (indeed a professional) felon.

In Gay’s opera Macheath’s frank villainy is used as a witty foil to expose the hypocritical villainy of polite society. No better way is proposed, and the satire (like most eighteenth-century satire) is of the mildest, friendliest sort. In Brecht’s adaptation, Macheath’s villainy is decried as the inevitable result of social injustice. It is not humorously endorsed after Gay’s fashion, but neither is it sanctimoniously condemned. The message of the play, which Weill’s music intervenes to underscore, is that villainy must be eradicated humanely, not by zealous self-righteous punishment, but by attacking its root cause, poverty.

The final ballad in act II takes place just after Macheath has escaped from prison. He had been fingered by a group of whores whom he has continued to patronize although married (to two women at once, it later turns out), and who have been bribed to betray him by one of his fathers-in-law not for any reason of justice but merely so that his daughter can come back home and go on working for her father without pay. The ballad (Ex. 9-18), sung by Macheath together with one of the whores who has turned him in (and who will turn around in the next act and betray him again, for money), describes the dog-eat-dog reality the “arme Leute” must confront, a world in which the idle moralizing of the well-fed has no place.

It is sung in front of the curtain, directly to the audience. Not only does this breach the fourth wall, it amounts to a stepping out of character, as Brecht often prescribed: “the actor must not only sing,” he wrote, “but show a man singing.”23 The audience no longer feels it is watching the antics of fictional characters, but rather that it is seeing and hearing two singing actors for whom Brecht and Weill have written a harangue with no other purpose than to defy the audience’s right to pass a moral judgment on the action it has observed: “For even honest folk [yes, you!] will act like sinners/Unless they’ve had their customary dinners!” (as translated for the New York production by the American composer Marc Blitzstein).


(20) “Der Musiker Weill,” Berliner Tageblatt, 25 December 1928, as translated in The Musical Times 70 (1 March 1929): 224.

(21) Brecht on Theatre, trans. and ed. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 39.

(22) Cf. Weill, “Über den gestischen Charakter der Musik,” Die Musik 21 (March 1929), 419–23; translated in Kim H. Kowalke, Kurt Weill in Europe (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979), pp. 491–96.

(23) Brecht on Theatre, pp. 44–45; quoted in W. Anthony Sheppard, Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), p. 88.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009008.xml