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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin
Righteous Renunciation, or What?Righteous Renunciation, or What?

ex. 9-18 Kurt Weill, Die Dreigroschenoper, “Zweites Dreigroschenfinale,” mm. 18-31

It is obvious, of course, that the music to which this sardonic number is set, despite Weill’s avowals in the newspaper, is not music for twelve-year-olds. It is the work of a sophisticated and highly trained professional, one who had all the technique it would have taken to compose another Wozzeck, and in fact one who at first seemed headed in exactly that direction. The son of a well-known synagogue cantor, Weill was a composing prodigy and was given a training of the most elite caliber. At eighteen he enrolled in Engelbert Humperdinck’s composition class at the Berlin Conservatory. Two years later, he was accepted into a master class for young composers that was created for Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), then the most sought-after composition teacher in Europe, at the Prussian Academy of Arts. He worked with Busoni for three years, absorbing his teacher’s ideas about what he called junge Klassizität (“young classicism” as antidote to “decadence”), but he was also attracted to the music and teaching of Schoenberg, who reciprocated his esteem to the extent of nominating him for a government stipend.

Weill’s early works included a symphony (1921), two string quartets (1919, 1923), a violin concerto (1924, scored like Stravinsky’s piano concerto for a wind orchestra), and most characteristically, a Sinfonia Sacra (1922) whose three neobaroque movements (Fantasia, Passacaglia, Hymnus) reflected Busoni’s neoclassical teachings most directly. The musical style that Weill employed, however, was very far from that of the early “neoclassicists,” resembling instead the “pantonal” style of Schoenberg’s expressionist phase. His first opera, Der Protagonist (1924) had a libretto by Georg Kaiser, then Germany’s leading expressionist playwright, and cemented his early alliance with the Viennese atonalists. The composer with whom the young Weill was most frequently compared, in fact, was Berg.

So the style of Die Dreigroschenoper was the result of a deliberate, radical, and very controversial renunciation. Was it a sacrifice to social conscience, or just a commercial sell-out? The work professes the former in no uncertain terms, but its great commercial success suggested the latter to many, especially artists who maintained a traditional commitment to “disinterested” romantic values. Schoenberg, the most adamant of them all, refused even to recognize a distinction between social commitment and commercial compromise, accusing Hindemith, Krenek, and Weill equally of “a lack of conscience” and “a disturbing lack of responsibility.”24 The artist’s primary obligation, under romanticism, was not to other people but to art. A social conscience was therefore no conscience at all. Indeed, lack of a proper contempt for the world and its inhabitants was contemptible. The greatest sin of neue Sachlichkeit, in Schoenberg’s eyes, was its esthetic “nonchalance.” Yet even if we decide not to hold his success against the composer, concluding that results do not necessarily reflect on motives and granting Weill and Brecht the benefit of every doubt, a dilemma remains. Can an art dedicated to shocking the middle-class public out of its complacency be said to have succeeded when that very public consumes it with delight? Brecht himself, sensitive both to this point and to the possibility that Weill’s contribution was upstaging his own, eventually belittled the music in Die Dreigroschenoper and claimed to prefer a revised version in which the actors would improvise minimal melodies of their own: he called this better style of didactic theater music “Misuk” (pronounced mee-ZOOK) as opposed to “Musik” (moo-ZEEK), the normal German word for music, which for him denoted something merely “culinary”25 —that is, sensuously appealing rather than instructive.

There was no chance of revising Die Dreigroschenoper in this way; not only were audiences unlikely to accept it, but Weill’s contribution was legally protected, even from Brecht. And yet Weill, too, faced a problem posed by the popularity of his art and the political compromise that implied. Was there a politically effective alternative? If his art were to maintain a “difficult” stylistic exterior, as critics faithful to Schoenberg (like Adorno) insisted that art must do if it was to communicate a difficult social message, but that difficulty dissuaded its potential audience to the point where no one was listening, then has it succeeded any better? Can “serious” art ever be an effective medium for political propaganda or a spur to social action? Or is it doomed by its very nature to be either an esthetic plaything or, worse, an instrument for the maintenance of social hierarchies?

No one could possibly claim now that Die Dreigroschenoper, a proven audience favorite thanks to its catchy music, has been an instrument for social change. But Weill and Brecht also experimented with more modest works in a less flamboyantly entertaining style, with a sterner sense of utility (Gebrauch), and with unsentimental messages that were at times truly unpalatable by ordinary theatrical standards. Among these more ascetic products of their collaboration were what Brecht called Lehrstücke (didactic pieces or “lessons”) and Schulopern (“school operas”).

A Lehrstück was a work meant for amateur performance that would discipline the political attitudes of the participants along with their performance skills, and also furnish the eventual spectators with moral and political instruction. The first of them, Der Lindberghflug (“Lindbergh’s flight”, 1929), was produced by Brecht in collaboration with both Weill and Hindemith. (Later Weill reset it alone as a cantata for professional performance.) It was meant, and was probably the first musical work to be meant, primarily for radio performance, making extensive use of sound effects (propellers, wind, murmuring waves, cheering crowds) that depended for their effect on the invisibility of their source.

The work was a determined attempt to divest Lindbergh’s famous solo transatlantic flight of its heroic aura—or rather its aura of heroic individualism. Lindbergh (tenor) introduces himself in an aria that could serve as a textbook illustration of neue Sachlichkeit matter-of-factness: he gives his name, his age, his nationality, and a list of the equipment he is carrying. The baritone soloist, a “listener” to broadcast flight news, was directed to render his part mechanically, “without identifying his own feelings with those contained in the text, pausing at the end of each line; in other words, in the spirit of an exercise.” The emphasis was taken away from the man and placed on the event as a scientific or technological breakthrough that depended on many besides the flyer himself. (Indeed, Lindbergh—who had compromised himself on the eve of World War II by expressing admiration for the Nazi regime—actually disappeared from a revised version of the Lehrstück that Brecht prepared in 1950 under the title Der Ozeanflug, “The ocean flight.”)


(24) Arnold Schoenberg, “Linear Counterpoint” (1931); Style and Idea, p. 294.

(25) Brecht, “Über die Verwendung von Musik für ein episches Theater”; Brecht on Theatre, p. 89.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009009.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009009.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009009.xml