The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2

About the Work

Kurt Weill Composer: Kurt Weill
© Peter Laki

?Will the real Weill please stand up?"  Thus begins Ronald Taylor's excellent biography of one of the 20th century's most multi-faceted composers.  Kurt Weill made his name as Bertolt Brecht's musical partner in such landmark works of musical theater as The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, and later went on to write such brilliant Broadway musicals as Lady in the Dark and Street Scene.  But he had started out as a student of Ferruccio Busoni, the great pianist, post-Romantic composer and avant-garde theorist, and his original ambitions lay in the area of concert music.  He produced a symphony, a string quartet, a violin concerto, among others, while still in his twenties.  Then came the lure of the theater with a number of successful collaborations, first with the remarkable German dramatist Georg Kaiser, and later with Brecht; the rest was history.  After his theatrical career had taken off, he had a single chance to return to instrumental music in the course of his all-too-short and all-too-eventful career; that was when the Princess de Polignac commissioned him to write a symphony in 1933.

The American-born Princess, née Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943), was heiress to the Singer sewing-machine fortune and one of the most important patrons of music in Paris during a fifty-year period that had started before the turn of the century.   She counted Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, to name but a few, among her close friends, and even helped a young Benjamin Britten late in her life.  It was probably Milhaud who brought his German colleague's name to the Princess's attention.

The project came to fruition during what was a truly critical time in Weill's life.  The composer finished the first movement of the symphony shortly before he was forced to flee Germany in March 1933.  He completed the second and third movements in Paris.

At first, the Second Symphony was at first known simply as ?Symphony" or ?Symphony No. 1," since its predecessor from 1921 had never been performed.  Bruno Walter, who conducted the  premiere, felt that ?Symphonic Fantasy" would be a better title (at the first New York performance, the work was called Three Night Scenes.)  The work certainly has a light feel to it and Weill couldn't hide the fact that he had been working in a more popular vein for the better part of the previous decade (not that he wanted to hide it).  Yet the work follows the symphonic tradition in several important respects:  elements of classical patterns like sonata and rondo form are present, and there is a fair amount of motivic development and transformation both within and between movements.  Thus, the late Weill scholar David Drew noted that the slow introduction to the first movement ?contains the seeds of the whole work," and ?the tarantella coda of the finale is based on a joyful transformation of the main motive of the [second-movement] funeral march."

But Weill skillfully concealed most of these learned compositional devices.  He emphasized melodic invention and orchestral color:  throughout the work, one hears many attractive melodies in instrumentations featuring various instruments (most notably, the trumpet and the trombone) in soloistic roles.  All themes have strong rhythmic profiles, and just enough harmonic ?spice" to surprise the listener without ever calling into question the direction the music is going.