Weill (1900-50) - Symphony No. 2
Kurt Weill, and most folk think, not “symphonies”, but of Die Dreigroschenoper
and “Mackie-Messer”, of the fabled Mahagonny, of that peculiarly
German jazzy style combining heady nostalgia, biting satire, and downright
sleaze. Yet in 1921, years before any such like, he wrote a symphony. “By
Mahler, out of Strauss, trained by Schoenberg”, it is uncompromisingly
pungent and uncomfortably close to serialism, while not quite abandoning
twenties, Weill's new form of popular opera attracted much attention in
Germany, and eventually an unenviable hostility from the Nazis. 1927 saw
his first collaborations with Berthold Brecht, a cantata about Lindbergh's
trans-Atlantic flight and the Mahagonny-Songspiel. Subsequently,
theatre works including Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), The Rise
and Fall of City of Mahagonny (1929), and Der Silbersee (1932)
consolidated his popular idiom.
from Germany in 1933, he came to Paris, where he wrote his Second Symphony
(1933/4). The first performances under Bruno Walter enthused the public,
but the Press (thinking he should stick to theatre) echoed the Nazis with
a condemnation so wholesale that he never again dared venture beyond the
theatre. This is a crying shame, for it is an absolute gem, using
extended form to sublimate his theatrical primitivism. Fans of (say) the
Dreigroschenmusik will immediately feel comfortable.
the First Symphony, ostensibly about war, peace, and the lot of
Twentieth Century Man, there is no explicit programme - Weill claimed it
was “. . . conceived as a purely musical form”. When pressed by Walter,
he conceded only the title Symphonische Fantasie. Whether this was
an allusion to Schumann's Fourth Symphony is anybody's guess, because
its roots lie not in Schumann but in Mozart and Haydn. Their classical
techniques equipped him to develop, in the context of his theatrical style,
the romanticism and expressionism of his earlier symphony into concentrated
but eminently accessible music of tremendous intensity.
scored for a “classical” orchestra with one flute doubling piccolo, plus
two trombones[*], and has three movements:
Sostenuto - Allegro Molto. The key to the symphony is the introductory
trumpet tune, achingly resonant of those melancholy “cabaret ballads”.
Everything, even the motifs flitting around it like midges, is born of
its fertile womb. It donates copious offspring to the belligerent allegro.
These, the welter of vigorous activity (reminding me of Beethoven's Coriolan
Overture), and prominence of solo passage-work, disguise its sonata-form
as a Concerto Grosso. Even the end is tricky to spot!
Largo. This heartfelt music is, in all but name, a funeral march. Was
Weill altogether honest in denying any programme? The tragic weight
and desolation, amplified by the intrusion of nostalgic ballad-tunes, must
surely reflect his reaction to exile. The surreal skipping of the pall-bearers
(“Monty Python” fans please note!) bears witness to both his spirit and
the scathing wit of his theatrical music.
Allegro Vivace - Alla Marcia - Presto. A perfect foil to anger and
sorrow, the allegro joyfully reworks the fruit of that trumpet tune, hopping
eagerly from idea to idea. A central march parodies the Nazi “goose-step”,
before the opening bars return to spark off a riotous romp of a coda. Whether
or not intentional, Weill's point seems clear: hounded from his homeland
and devastated, he wasn't about to let it get him down. But, couldn't you
just curse those critics who withered this wonderful arm of his
Weill reluctantly added modest percussion parts at the request of Bruno
Walter, who soon after dispensed with them.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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