Ballads of the Pleasant Life. Kurt Weill, Weimar and Exile


Artist/s: Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone). Nexas Quartet: Michael Duke (soprano saxophone), Andrew Smith (alto saxophone), Nathan Henshaw (tenor saxophone), Jay Byrnes (baritone saxophone), Benjamin Burton (piano)
Category: Art Songs, Classical, Music, Musical Theatre
Label: ABC Classics 576 2204
Reviewed by

World-renowned baritone, Peter Coleman-Wright AO, treats us to well-known songs by Kurt Weill and also undeservedly neglected pieces by contemporaneous Jewish composers, working in Berlin and Vienna at the time of the fall of the Weimar Republic. The members of Nexas (a Sydney-based saxophone quartet) made the arrangements and the results are brilliant. It’s a fascinating glimpse into this period, when music was the language of defiance and protest, as well as of love and beauty in a world on the brink of catastrophe…

With the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, performances of music by Jewish composers were banned in Germany and much of their music was subsequently forgotten. Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Alexander von Zemlimsky, Robert Stolz, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker and Erich Korngold fled Berlin around 1933. Most eventually settled in the USA where they made a huge contribution to American musical culture, particularly in the fields of film music and music theatre.

The versatility of baritone Peter Coleman-Wright is well known to us in Australia – he has sung many title roles with OA over the years, and who could forget his menacing Sweeney Todd? He relishes these texts, his German is absolutely clear (there are no full translations given due to copyright restrictions) and he is able to draw on his vast experience in the great opera houses and concert halls of the world to really make every song his own.

Geelong-born baritone Peter Coleman-Wright AO

The first half of the CD is music by Kurt Weill(1900-1950), and these particular arrangements of eight of his songs and three instrumental pieces, namely the Little Suite from The Threepenny Opera (arr. Gaetano Di Bacco) work splendidly. In Weimar Berlin they would have been performed with similar small combinations of instruments in the bars and clubs. Weill was determined not to compose in the style of “aristocratic opera”(his words), so he turned to German dance hall music and the popular American jazz styles in order to appeal to the working class. The saxophone timbres are ideal in this context, immediately evoking both jazz and the “oom-pah-pah” of the folk dance.

The evils being perpetrated by the Nazis were described under a veil of humour and light-heartedness, in his most famous collaboration with playwright Bertold Brecht, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), which was a play with music based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, (1728) about London’s low life. It premiered in 1928, and was an immediate hit. By using simple repetitive melodies, syncopated rhythms and rhyming, the ballads in the opera had immediate appeal with their dark humour. “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife”), has since become a standard. Coleman-Wright is clearly totally at home in these songs – his performances are stunning. The title song on the disc – “The Ballad of the Pleasant Life” is also from Threepenny Opera. It is Mackie’s philosophy: that the single indispensable ingredient for a happy life is money. Performances were often interrupted by Nazi protests and as a Jew working with a leftist, Weill was on the Nazi blacklist despite his optimism that things would improve. When he discovered that he and Lotte Lenya (his wife) were about to be arrested, they fled Berlin for Paris in 1933, then to the USA in 1935.

A contrasting aspect of Weill’s output is also revealed in three wonderful pieces, beautifully sung, which he composed after moving to USA, where he worked with lyricist Ira Gershwin – “There’ll be Life, Love and Laughter” and the very funny “Tchaikowsky”,  and with Maxwell Anderson – the gentle “September Song”. Also included is an example of a later protest song: “Song of the Free”, in English, from the 1942–44 Propaganda Songs – a defiant piece in praise of liberty, for voice and piano, performed for the workers of a shipbuilding workshop in New York, and then broadcast. (The pianist is Benjamin Burton who accompanies with great authority).

Coleman-Wright and the members of the Nexas Quartet in the costumes of the Weimar period performing “Composers in Exile” at the Independent Theatre in May 2017.

“Stempelleid”(“Benefit Stamp Song”) and “Lied der Bergarbeiter” (Song of the Miners) by the Marxist, Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), from his unique body of Kampflieder (fighting songs), were composed in late 1920s to the early 1930s, and again Coleman-Wright and Nexas bring all the necessary energy and rhythmic vitality to these rousing pieces. Eisler hoped his music would “make use of beauty to teach the communal identity among Berlin’s working classes, criticize the disenfranchisement of the proletariat, and provide both an alternative view of and path away from capitalism” (quoted from Margaret R. Jackson’s dissertation). He wrote for the so-called agitpropaganda theatre troupes, made up of working class youths, as he too wanted to work outside the concert tradition, and like Weill, he borrowed from sentimental TinPan Alley style ballads and the rhythms of ragtime to give his militant songs popular appeal. He also wrote music for 40 films after emigrating to California where he met up with Brecht again in 1942. But he was deported in early 1948 at the height of the McCarthy era, having wrongly been declared an active member of the  communist party by Hoover. He returned to Germany never to return to the USA. The other song of his on the CD, “Gruss an die Mark Brandenburg”(Greeting to Brandenburg March) was written during his exile and expresses his longing for his homeland, now ”brown-shirt-wearing”.

The only song included from Alexander von Zemlinsky (1841-1942) is his “Lied der Baumwollpacker”(Song of the Cotton Packers), from a major cycle of songs about Afro-Americans, called Symphonische Gesänge, composed in 1929. It made me very keen to hear the complete work, which is rarely performed. Zemlinsky was a highly respected conductor and composing had to take second place in his busy life. This sombre piece, with its A minor tonality and slow repetitive rhythm is heroically sung by Coleman-Wright, and expresses the anger and despair of the overworked slave who can never escape his lot hauling heavy cotton bales. African-American culture was wholeheartedly embraced by Berlin post WW1, but by the time this work was performed in 1935, these influences were declared “degenerate” by the Nazis.  Naturally, Zemlinsky’s cycle was not warmly received. He fled to Vienna in 1933 and then to the States in 1938, where he remained virtually unknown, unlike his close friend Schoenberg, who was widely lauded.

Another neglected composer is the Viennese, Franz Schreker (1878-1934), who is represented by one beautiful song, the melancholy ”Die Rosen und der Flieder”(“The Rose and the Lilac”). Schreker was a very successful opera composer during the early years of the Weimar Republic, but by the late 1920s, his operas were  boycotted by the Nazis and performances were interrupted with anti-Semitic threats of violence. He was forced to resign as Director of the prestigious Academy of Music in Berlin in 1932, and a year later, also lost his post as professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste. The Nazis were successful in wiping his music from public consciousness and only recently has interest been revived.

A highlight on the CD is “Dank” (“Gratitude”) by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). It is a long early song composed in 1898 for voice and piano but here arranged by Michael Duke for the quartet as well, which gives it richer colours and makes it even more Wagnerian in flavour. Coleman-Wright is in full operatic flight – marvellous! The influence of Brahms and Wagner are very evident, but the wide leaps in the vocal line are more typical of Schoenberg. After the Nazis banned Jews from holding university positions in April 1933, Schoenberg, the professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste (Berlin), fled to America, where he later joined the staff at the University of California, Los Angeles.

More light-hearted in character are three attractive love songs of Robert Stolz (1880-75), an Austrian conductor and composer of operettas and film music, who was known as the “last of the waltz kings”. He too went to New York in 1940, and became famous in USA presenting concerts of his beloved Viennese music.  And the final track is Erich Korngold’s “Gluckwünsch”(“I Wish You Bliss”), a passionately sensual love song, with a glorious soaring melody reminiscent of Richard Strauss with its extended rising phrases and dissonances that finally resolve so beautifully. Korngold became a master film composer and was fulfilling a commission from Warner Bros. in the USA in 1938 to compose the score for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. Meanwhile in Austria the Germans had invaded and his home was confiscated. He remained in USA until after WWII writing scores for 16 films.

This CD where well known works of Weill are given new life and neglected repertoire is so wonderfully performed,  is a really important contribution, and it has certainly inspired me to explore further the music of Weill’s contemporaries.


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