The Kennedy Center

Kurt Weill



Born in Dessau, Germany on 2 March 1900, composer Kurt Weill was one of the outstanding composers in the generation that came to maturity after World War I, and a key figure in the development of modern forms of musical theatre.

In April 1918 Weill enrolled at the Berlin Musikhochschule where he studied with Humperdinck (composition), Friedrich Koch (counterpoint) and Rudolf Krasselt (conducting).

In the summer of 1922 Weill provided a score for a ballet-pantomime entitled Zaubernacht, which was successfully staged in Berlin in November 1922. The 1922-3 season also witnessed premières of four concert works by Weill, including the Sinfonia sacra op.6 and the Divertimento op.5.

In 1924 Weill entered an association with the leading Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser that was to remain close until Weill left Germany nearly ten years later. The premier of the Weill-Kaiser opera Der Protagonist in Dresden in 1926 made Weill's name known beyond specialist circles and was hailed as the first genuine operatic success achieved by a German postwar composer. In 1927 Weill began his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on their full-length opera project Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1927-9), and Die Dreigroschenoper. Other Brecht projects followed in short order: Das Berliner Requiem (1928), Der Lindberghflug (1929), Happy End (1929) and Der Jasager (1930), as well as cantatas, workers' choruses and incidental music for Mann ist Mann (1931).

Weill's Jewish ancestry and leftist political associations, ensured that he and his works became exposed targets when the tide turned against the republic in 1929. The riotous première of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in Leipzig in 1930 was the prelude to a concerted campaign to drive his works from the state-subsidized theatres. By the start of the 1932-3 season this campaign had largely achieved its ends: despite the critical and public acclaim for his opera Die Bürgschaft (1930-32), the work was shunned by most theatres.

Weill fled to Paris in March 1933. In 1934 he began to focus his attention on the commercial theatres of Paris, London and Zürich which resulted in Marie galante (1934), a stage play to which Weill contributed songs and incidental music.

In the summer of 1934 he began a collaboration with Max Reinhardt and Franz Werfel. The result, a vast historical spectacle of the Jewish people from Abraham's time until the destruction of Solomon's temple, was originally set to music in German as Der Weg der Verheissung, but planned for production in New York in December 1935 as The Eternal Road. Weill travelled to New York in September of that year as a member of the production team, and chose to remain in the United States, where he had already begun to form new contacts with the theatre scene.  He became an American citizen in 1943.

Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday, a political satire composed in 1938 to a book by Maxwell Anderson, was the first in an impressive list of American collaborators that was to include Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, S.J. Perelmann and Ogden Nash.

During the early 1940s he produced Lady in the Dark (1940) and One Touch of Venus (1943). He also contributed patriotic pieces to the war effort, culminating in his first and only musical film, Where do we go from here? (1943-4).

Weill's first new venture of the postwar years was ‘American opera' for Broadway (1946). It was followed by ‘vaudeville' Love Life (1947-8) and Lost in the Stars (1949), a musical adaptation of Alan Paton's anti-apartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country.

Weill's had a sole venture into the non-Broadway musical stage, the college opera Down in the Valley (1945-8). Plans to develop a series of such works, with Alan J. Lerner as his collaborator, occupied Weill during the last weeks of his life. Eventually the strain of his workload proved too great for his constitution, and shortly after he and Maxwell Anderson had started work on a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn he died of a longstanding heart ailment.


New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition

Oxford Music Online


Kurt Weill