Weill, Blitzstein, and Bernstein: A Study of Influence – A Review by Leonard Lehrman

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June 8, 2023 by Admin

Weill, Blitzstein, and Bernstein: A Study of Influence

by Rebecca Schmid, University of Rochester Press, 2023, 216 pp. + index

Eastman Studies in Music, Ralph P. Locke, Senior Editor

Book Review by Leonard J. Lehrman

Rebecca Schmid

Rebecca Schmid, a U.S. expatriate musicologist living in Berlin, has taken on a triangular subject dear to my heart: the interactions of three great socially-conscious, Jewish, American (one of them by naturalization) composers: Kurt Weill (1900-1950), Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

She begins by citing Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya (1898-1981), in an undated statement, calling Bernstein the natural successor to Lenya’s late husband. But Bernstein never met Weill. In a 1976 article, “A Gift from Heaven,” he described how it was through intense discussions with his friend and mentor Blitzstein that he came to feel he “knew” Weill.

Which is almost exactly how I came to feel that I “knew” Blitzstein, though I’d never met him: through intense discussions with Bernstein – and Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Marc’s sister Jo Davis, and her sons Stephen & Christopher along with immersion in his works, and sketches. Bernstein and Siegmeister died within months of each other; the former called me “Marc’s dybbuk,” the latter “my continuator.”

Blitzstein and Bernstein

So of course I eagerly hoped this new book might cover the full picture of the Bernstein- Blitzstein relationship, including the three operas Blitzstein left unfinished, portions of which Bernstein premiered at Philharmonic Hall April 11, 1964, two of which I later completed (Idiots First with Bernstein’s blessing; Sacco and Vanzetti with the family’s) and one of which I’m considering completing now (Magic Barrel).

Unfortunately, that side of the triangle remains mostly uncovered, as the book concentrates primarily on the one-way influence of Weill on Blitzstein and indirectly (as well as directly) Bernstein.  Since Schmid writes so well, I hope she’ll extend her horizons to those operas, some day.

Weill’s relationship to Blitzstein and to U.S.-born composers in general was never especially friendly. Many of them took a somewhat patronizing attitude toward the émigré would-be American. I remember Siegmeister ridiculing the prosody in Weill’s Johnny Johnson song, “Mon Ami, My Friend,” where the last syllable is mis-stressed in the word “homecomING.” And both Siegmeister and Weill (along with Bernard Hermann, Jerome Moross, Hugo Weisgall, and others) endured ostracization from what they perceived as “the Homintern” (mentioned on p.37).

In fact, Blitzstein, who was rejected by Weill in his offer to translate The Eternal Road (pp. 25-26), related to Weill’s work mostly through Lenya, for whom he wrote a number of songs, including “Few Little English” (see https://youtu.be/FOgU7VwWe8s) and The Suicide Song in I’ve Got the Tune (see <http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/adaptations/I’veGotTheTune.html). It was for her that he translated and adapted Threepenny Opera (in which she played Jenny, a third lower than its original key) after Weill’s death. She could sometimes express ire (p. 25n77) at his allegedly receiving too much credit – sometimes as much as Brecht or Weill; but her warm feelings toward him came to the fore immediately with a gleam in her eye when I mentioned him and Threepenny during my December 1970 interview with her.

Blitzstein also asked Lenya to consider playing the Moll in the 1960 NY City Opera production of his Cradle Will Rock, but she declined, she told me, recommending Tammy Grimes (who was delighted to learn that when I told her, but) who unfortunately proved to be one of several performers miscast in that show.

After Blitzstein translated “Pirate Jenny” and performed it for Weill and Lenya over the phone, he didn’t touch Threepenny again until he found himself haunted by, and translating, the “Solomon Song” on the way back from Weill’s funeral, having been one of only two composers to attend (the other being Arthur Schwartz). Then Lenya prevailed upon him to do the whole thing. Whether Weill actually wanted that, or would have wanted that, has never been definitively proved. But the work’s success, and the Off-Broadway records it set, made both Lenya and Blitzstein more prosperous than either they or Weill had ever been, not to mention bringing Bertolt Brecht’s work to a large audience for the first time in America.

Schmid’s book is filled with musicological comparisons, most of which are dramaturgically sound (such as the ethnic urban conflicts of both Street Scene and West Side Story and the psychiatrist scenes in both Lady in the Dark and Trouble in Tahiti), along with philosophical speculation, much of it in untranslated German (I asked her about this and was told via email, quite correctly, that a lot of it would actually be more than a little difficult to translate, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as she did: “Some things cannot be translated”!).

Kurt Weill

Weill’s Threepenny and Johnny Johnson were of course strong influences on Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, so much so that Kurt Weill would refer to it as “my new opera.” (See p.41n10 and p.45n31, where unfortunately the names of Minna Lederman and Leonard Lehrman are mistakenly switched – I hope that can be corrected in the book’s paperback edition!) But equally important was the work of Brecht with composer Hanns Eisler – without Weill. As I’ve remarked elsewhere in this magazine (see http://www.soundwordsight.com/2018/07/new-marc-blitzstein-cd-and-2-new-books-on-leonard-bernstein/ ), the piano score of Cradle, with which the work has usually been performed, is close to Eisler; the orchestra score, written later, is closer to Weill.  Eisler is an important link missing here in the discussion (on p. 61) of Blitzstein’s Moll’s Song and its impression on Brecht in January, 1936. Brecht had just come from Denmark and the first and only production during his lifetime of his play Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe with, arguably, the best score Eisler ever wrote. Prominent among the 14 songs was “Nannas Lied,” the song of a prostitute observing society. No wonder Moll’s lament, “The Nickel Under the Foot,” struck a chord with the playwright. And years later, Weill decided he liked that Brecht lyric so much, he, too, set it to music – as an anniversary present to Lenya, who never performed or recorded it, but finally allowed Teresa Stratas to do so in 1979. Helene Williams and I regularly perform both versions, in my translation:

Eisler: https://youtu.be/kOLBNkNUWm0

Weill: https://youtu.be/Q5cf-ovy70s

Blitzstein’s translation of the Brecht-Weill opera Mahagonny is casually mentioned as “uncompleted,” in Bernstein’s words (pp. 27-8).  This characterization is accurate only insofar as the drafts contain so many alternatives, and choices had to be made, which they could be, by someone who knows his work.  But the Kurt Weill Foundation won’t allow it, at least at present (p. 71n4), except for an excerpt or two, such as this one, recorded March 25 in a concert honoring the centennial of the great Weill-Blitzstein- Bernstein performer Martha Schlamme (1923-1985): https://youtu.be/n4qtm_IZIoY.

Schlamme, like Weill a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, would probably have been very interested in an “Alliance of Loyal Alien Americans” that Weill proposed to Erika Mann (pp. 33-34); she (Martha) had in fact been interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man before coming to New York. Much of her repertoire will be heard, and live video of her performances (including Weill) will be seen, on her 100th birthday, Sept. 23, 2023 at the Judson Memorial Theater, hosted by the People’s Voice Café.

(See https://tinyurl.com/20230325PuffinSchlamme for a preview.)

A motif in Blitzstein’s Regina is very much “alluded to” in Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story, though the explanation (pp. 96 & 132) could be a bit clearer. The words in question that Bernstein set are “and suddenly that name will never be the same.” He takes Blitzstein’s melody, raises the Ab to A, then repeats it with the original Ab, clearly as an in-joke, implying that now Blitzstein’s original “will never be the same.” I pointed this out in an exchange with the quintessential Regina, Brenda Lewis, on Aug. 18, 2001, posted here: http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/articles/operajournal8.html.

The video is here: https://youtu.be/9Kd-Ps9Xdtg at 3:30-4:05.

In other musical comparisons, Schmid uses the term “alluded to” when I don’t think the musical similarities were necessarily deliberate or even conscious. And she seems (on p. 103) not to have realized that the barcarolle, “Eldorado,” in Candide, was part of the original version, not just in the Scottish Opera version. It has lyrics by Lillian Hellman, which she yanked in protest at the 1973 treatment of her book. After Hellman died, and was no longer around to protest, John Mauceri re-inserted the number.

But all in all, this slim volume sheds considerable light on a fascinating subject and is well worth reading. I just hope the musical examples on pp. 157 and 161 can be made darker and more legible in the paperback version!


Leonard Lehrman’s website is at http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com. His upcoming performances include Court Street Music’s annual Students & Teachers Recital on Zoom June 27 at 5pm, a live Pagan House Concert sponsored by the Valley Stream Historical Society on July 30 at 5pm, and four performances with full orchestra of Princess Ida which he will be conducting with the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island June 17, 24, 25, and July 1 in Smithtown, Port Washington, Commack, and Oakdale, respectively.

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