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Weill (1900-50) - Symphony No. 2

Mention 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 tonality. 

In the 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. 

Driven 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 Kleine Dreigroschenmusik will immediately feel comfortable. 

Unlike 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. 

It is scored for a “classical” orchestra with one flute doubling piccolo, plus two trombones[*], and has three movements: 

1. 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! 

2. 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. 

3. 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 music? 

[*] Weill reluctantly added modest percussion parts at the request of Bruno Walter, who soon after dispensed with them. 
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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