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April 11, 2012

Stanford musicologist Stephen Hinton gets inside the music of Kurt Weill

Stanford musicologist Stephen Hinton presents an in-depth portrait of the artistic and cultural contributions of one of the most influential figures in 20th-century musical theater.

By Corrie Goldman

Stephen Hinton (courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music)

The satire of social hypocrisy in The Threepenny Opera has resonated with audiences around the globe since the work was first performed in Germany in 1928. The unconventional score, including the evergreen "Mack the Knife," left an indelible mark on theatrical history.

 Although German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill became a household name in America after its seven-year run in New York City in the 1950s, Threepenny was just one of his many groundbreaking endeavors.

Weill, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, transformed musical theater during a concentrated career that spanned Europe and America, opera and theater, and radio and film. Spread across continents, genres and mediums, Weill's diverse contributions are hard to grasp in their totality.

Stanford musicologist Stephen Hinton, whose research centers on modern German music history, is a leading Kurt Weill expert. Hinton is a founding editor of the Kurt Weill Edition, a project devoted to publishing all of Weill's works in critical editions. Remarkably, before this project began, only two of Weill's compositions for the stage had been published in full score.

Recent developments in Weill scholarship such as this have made it possible for Hinton to undertake the first critical study of Weill's complete stage works. Hinton, who also co-edited the collected edition of Weill's writings, an essential resource for understanding Weill, said, "All of this [new] research has been both symptom and cause of a shift in assessments of Weill's career."

Charting the career of what he describes as the first successful "crossover" artist, in his latest publication, Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California Press, 2012), Hinton investigates Weill's life through biographical, philosophical and music-analytical lenses.

Citing the juxtaposition of "artificial" comedy and "real" tragedy in Weill's first opera, The Protagonist, to the spoken dialogue of everyday life and the fantasy world of opera in Lady in the Dark, Hinton says his research captures "how Weill drew on a variety of musical styles to symbolize plot elements in his works for the musical theater."

Reconciling "Two Weills"

Hinton's research took him to archives in Germany, Austria, Great Britain and the United States. He was particularly interested in exploring Weill's reception history – what he described as the process whereby artists acquire a reputation among audiences, critics and scholars, as well as how that influence and reputation change over time. 

Given that Weill was canonized differently in his native Germany than in the United States, where he immigrated in the middle of his career, Hinton wanted to present a progressive portrayal that would "establish strands of continuity in his approach, especially in matters of dramaturgy."

Born in Germany in 1900, Weill began his composing career in Berlin during the politically turbulent early years of the Weimar Republic.  His works for the musical theater, which experimented with a variety of forms, increasingly reflected the democratic spirit of the age. With lyricist Bertolt Brecht, he infused messages of social reform into productions like Threepenny and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Targeted by the Nazis for their political sympathies, Brecht and Weill's works were banned from the German stage and they were left with no choice but to leave the country. Both escaped to America, where Weill soon established himself in the New York theater scene.

Following the war, German critics tended to highlight the music written during the Weimar Republic and "largely discredited Weill's American works as historically and aesthetically negligible," Hinton said. In the United States critics were better able to focus on the Broadway works.

During the Cold War period critical studies of Weill's early works predominated, but they were typically written from a Germano-centric perspective: "The earlier music had to be rediscovered and rehabilitated in the wake of its vilification and suppression during the Nazi period." Hinton added,  "Only in the last couple of decades have scholars begun to do justice to the works written after he left Germany."

By weaving those two histories together, Hinton has painted the most complete portrait of Weill's artistic and cultural contributions to date.

Music for the masses

In Weill's view, being a "popular" composer and a "great" composer were not mutually exclusive. Throughout his career he sought to popularize classical music, with the hopes of engaging the broader public to participate in cultural activities.

An early showbiz marketing whiz, Weill created theater shows with a popular audience in mind. He scored tunes that would foster participation and released sheet music versions so that people could perform the songs at home. Weill's goal, Hinton said, was to "simultaneously educate and entertain."

Mozart also sought to bridge the gap between light and serious music. In his early career, Weill's music instructor Ferruccio Busoni declared Mozart's The Magic Flute a "signpost for opera" in that it united "instruction and spectacle, solemnity and entertainment." Written for the popular theater in the vernacular German, the allegory about the human condition was initially considered a "light" work for the musical theater, in spite of elements derived from "serious" opera. Hinton said that Mozart's ideas inspired Weill "to achieve a similar synthesis in a variety of ways."

Weill also revered George Gershwin, another successful crossover artist. "One indispensable factor for both was their enormous gifts as melodists," Hinton said. "They [each] wrote terrific, unforgettable tunes. Both applied rare artistry to broadly accessible ends."

They differed, however, because they transitioned from opposite ends of the spectrum, "Gershwin from Tin Pan Alley to the bourgeois concert hall and opera house; Weill from the world of high modernism to more popular forms of theater," explained Hinton.

Weill's artistic legacy is evident in the works of his Broadway successors like Leonard Bernstein, who mixed the genres of opera and musical theater in shows such as West Side Story and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Experiments in new media

The 1920s saw a crisis in classical music much like the one today. The new media platforms of film and radio combined with trying economic times meant fewer people were attending live theater. Weill saw opportunity in the changing landscape and "became the poster child for classical musicians who wanted to embrace new media," said Hinton.

While in Germany, Weill contributed hundreds of radio music reviews to an influential radio magazine and became a respected music critic. He wrote in a 1929 article, "Radio presents the serious musician of our time with the novel challenges of creating works that can be comprehended by as large a group of listeners as possible."

However, as Hinton describes in Weill's Musical Theater, Weill's radio run came to an end when he became disillusioned with the technological limitations of the medium, which he "saw as censorship of his own compositions."

Later, in America, he became intrigued by the distribution possibilities for opera in Hollywood. He envisioned a new genre of motion picture called "film-opera" that would bring operatic performance to local movie theaters.  Rather than filming existing operas, the aim was to create an original movie "conceived at the outset in terms of musical principles," Hinton said. Although Weill completed several film scores, he decided that by excluding the composer from the production process the motion picture industry was largely incapable of doing justice to his musical ideas.

Weill's experiments with the emerging media dovetailed with his desire to educate and entertain listeners. "Exploring radio and film formed an essential part of his search for new audiences for his art," said Hinton.

Music with a purpose

Ultimately, it was Weill's devotion to social reform that continued to drive his creative process. Later in his life Weill claimed that his music "gave voice to human suffering," said Hinton.

His final work for the stage, Lost in the Stars, was an adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country, a story about apartheid. Weill's interpretation represented "a serious, humanistically committed attempt to examine race relations in a society oppressed by bigotry," said Hinton.

Throughout his career though, Weill paid the price for his dedication to socially provocative music. His works drew criticism from widely differing constituencies. Anti-Semitic German nationalists dismissed him on account of his Jewish background. Critics on the left, in contrast, charged him with ideological apostasy and with selling out to Broadway.

Weill took criticism to heart and often felt impelled to defend himself either in public forums or in private correspondence.  To the American reviewer who questioned the operatic achievements of Lost in the Stars, he wrote: "The real success of the piece is the fact that the audience did accept it without hesitation, that they accepted a lot of very serious, tragic, quite un-Broadway-ish music of operatic dimensions, together with some songs written in a more familiar style."

Hinton pointed to an excerpt of a letter that Weill wrote to a critic in response to accusations of abandoning his earlier aesthetic values. The later work, Weill asserted, "represents to me the furthest advance in a direction which I laid down for myself in the early years of my life as a composer."

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience:



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service, (650) 721-6965,

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