Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Author: Feisst, Sabine
Date published: March 1, 2013

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform. By Stephen Hinton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. [xvi, 569 pp. ISBN 9780520271777. $49.95.] Music examples, illustrations, appendix, index.

Building on his 1990 Cambridge opera handbook on Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, his critical edition of that work, and numerous essays on Weill, Stephen Hinton presents in Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform for the first time a musicological study of all of Weill's works for the stage. In this large-scale book comprising nearly six hundred pages, Hinton provides copious information about each composition, including the lesser-known Zaubernacht, Der Silbersee, Marie Galante, and The Firebrand of Florence. Hinton's discussions generally include biographical, political, and aesthetic contexts of the works, information about the compositions' often complex genesis, collaborative nature, influences, and intertextuality. They also incorporate music analysis and interpretation, as well as information on the works' performance and publication history, and critical reception. Hinton's aim was to "explore both the variety of Weill's solutions to the problems he continuously set himself and the common aesthetic underlying his approach" (p. 2).

Hinton does not organize his discussions of the works in chronological order, but rather according to genre as determined by institutional and structural criteria. Most of these genres receive their own chapters: one-act opera, Songspiel, play with music, epic opera, didactic theater (Lehrstück), exile works, musical play, film music, American opera, vaudeville, and musical tragedy. Despite the difficulty of grouping some of Weill's hybrid works, this presentation allows Hinton, author of several entries in the Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie (Wiesbaden: Fritz Steiner, 1972- ), to address terminological issues and the complexities of Weill's genre experiments, and to compare related works with each other. Chapter 7, "Didactic Theater ('Lehrstück')," which features the didactic Der Lindberghflug and Der Jasager, includes a lengthy exploration of the Lehrstück's religious and secular roots and background information on Gebrauchsmusik (music for use). Chapter 8, "Stages of Exile," weighs the categories of spectacle, ballet chanté (sung ballet) and ballet opera with reference to Die sieben Todsünden; operetta with reference to Der Kuhhandel and A Kingdom for a Cow, and oratorio and pageant with reference to The Eternal Road. Chapter 9, "Musical Plays," which covers Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus, starts with an explanation of the terms "musical," "musical play," "Stück mit Musik," and Broadway operetta. Hinton's treatments of Weill's music theater works are also shot through with discussions of the work of art concept, musical style, orchestration versus instrumentation, realism versus naturalism, and include excursions into philosophy.

Occasionally Hinton points to intriguing and heretofore little-explored dimensions in Weill scholarship, such as the role of urbanity and the pastoral in Weill's music. Weill, who once noted that his "music smacks of the city" (p. 149), evokes imaginary and real cities (Mahagonny, Paris, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, etc.) in works from Der neue Orpheus, Der Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and Happy End to Die sieben Todsünden and Street Scene, often through the use of dance music (derided as "asphalt music" by the Nazis). Johnny Johnson, on the other hand, suggests the idea of the pastoral. Drawing on the work of Ralph Locke, bruce mcclung, and Michael Baumgartner, Hinton also briefly and cautiously touches on gender issues in his discussions of Die sieben Todsünden, Lady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus (pp. 212-13; 293-94; 307- 10). Given the great potential that Weill's works hold for feminist readings, the question arises of why, to date, few scholars have explored these trajectories, and whether the very small number of women in Weill scholarship provides an explanation for this circumstance.

Perhaps avoiding the formal monotony of a guide to music theater pieces, Hinton takes great pains to present each work and each of the ten core chapters in a different way, although with varying degrees of success. After learning much about the Hindemith-Weill squabble surrounding Der Lindberghflug, readers may be disappointed about the lack of information on Weill's music for this work. Similarly, readers may wonder why after an extensive musical discussion of the epic opera Die Bürgschaft, the post-premiere performance history is not addressed (as is done elsewhere). Readers without sufficient knowledge of the plot and music of a given work may have a hard time following the narrative. Hinton "does not pretend to cover everything" and his book "is not a comprehensive account of all the works." (p. xii) The various run-ups to and excursions away from an actual work's discussion may be perceived as a distraction or leave some readers overwhelmed by the abundance and wide range of information.

The ten chapters dedicated to Weill's works are introduced by a chapter on biographical aspects and by a chapter on Weill's connections to Ferruccio Busoni. In the biographical chapter, Hinton addresses the controversial posthumous reception of Weill's career. Weill spent part of his career in Europe where, together with Bertolt Brecht, he wrote the famous Drei groschen - oper and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. After his flight from the Nazis and brief sojourns in Paris and London, he spent the rest of his career in the United States, where he was fully immersed in producing works for Broadway including Lady in the Dark and Street Scene. Although Weill once suggested that he didn't care about posterity, he most certainly would have objected to the postmortem division of his career into a praiseworthy European and a negligible American half (the "Two Weills" theory) established by Theodor W. Adorno, Carl Dahlhaus, David Drew, and Ronald Taylor among others. Hinton does not endorse this view, which was responsible for the unjustified lack of attention paid to most of Weill's American music and which has recently been convincingly debunked by Kim Kowalke, mcclung, Elmar Juchem, Baumgartner and others. Throughout his study, Hinton seeks to show the consistency and unity within the variety of Weill's manifold European and American music theater works.

One way Hinton achieves this is by emphasizing the long-lasting and overriding influence of Weill's teacher Busoni on Weill's compositional philosophy and entire music theatre oeuvre, from the early Zaubernacht to the late Lost in the Stars. Hinton evokes Busoni's teachings and aesthetic ideas (indebted to eighteen-century Italian opera and Mozart) throughout his narrative. He even goes so far as to suggest that Busoni's impact on Weill was greater than Brecht's, and that, contrary to popular belief, Weill often inspired Brecht: "As far as the artistically fruitful Brecht-Weill partnership is concerned, the obverse of Brecht's account applies: in a number of critical areas the Busoni pupil transformed Brecht" (p. 38; see also p. 146). Such a position is certainly not in line with the inferences Joy Calico draws from her Brecht- Weill studies as expounded in her pioneering book Brecht at the Opera (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), and perhaps for this reason, though regrettably, Hinton refrains from acknowledging Calico's scholarly contribution in his book.

In his last chapter, "Coda," Hinton goes one step further in making the case for Busoni's significance for Weill's career, by singling out the genre of the Singspiel and one of Busoni's favorite works, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, as the ultimate model for all of Weill's theater music. Although "not the sole source of inspiration," Die Zauberflöte was "demonstrably the principal source, however . . . . For the émigré musician who remained committed to the reform of musical theater in his adopted homeland, it represented neither an impasse nor an aporia, but a viable set of possibilities" (p. 456). This claim, however, and Hinton's attempt to unearth all possible interconnections between Weill's American works and operas by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and others, detract from the fact that the thoroughly Americanized Weill was more deeply immersed in American musical life than most other émigré musicians at the time. Although Hinton points to some of Weill's references to works by Rodgers and Hammerstein (pp. 313, 382, 403, 405), George Gershwin (pp. 338, 368, 370) and Jerome Kern (p. 385), one would have liked to learn more about Weill's relationship to the works of his American colleagues.

The book concludes with a brief survey of the reception of Weill's music with respect to performance, Weill scholarship in Europe and America, composition, and literature. Illustrated with several halftones and a considerable number of music examples that help clarify Hinton's analytical observations, the account is meticulously documented. The volume also includes an appendix chronologically listing all of Weill's works for the stage, although Marie Galante is omitted. The book does not feature a bibliography, which would have been helpful for the less specialized readers, students, and fledgling Weill scholars. Nonetheless Weill's Musical Theater is a rich and useful source of information on Weill's stage works and an eminently valuable contribution to Weill scholarship.

Author affiliation:


Arizona State University

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