This week I’ve been sharing music of Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein in anticipation of our November 19 performance of No For An Answer (Blitzstein) and Silverlake (Weill). Perhaps the most important playwright for both of these composers was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht and Weill had a tumultuous relationship that yielded several successful shows and much financial and emotional Sturm und Drang. Blitzstein met Brecht in Germany (at the same time he first heard Weill’s Threepenny Opera). He showed Brecht a song he had written called Nickel Under The Foot, sung by a hungry prostitute. It was Brecht who encouraged Blitzstein to expand her character and create an entire show about the conditions that created her plight. It wasn’t long before Blitzstein had created The Cradle Will Rock. Brecht’s influence persisted in America. Bernstein, Comden and Green, Jerry Robbins, Steve Sondheim, and John Guare all made a stab at bringing Brecht to the Broadway stage. None of these works (Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Exception and the Rule) ever saw an Opening Night. But the respect for the power of Brecht’s probing, and sometimes accusatory political theater persisted. Today we have Hamilton and other contemporary perspectives on our political life. But it was really Brecht who rubbed our noses in the big questions. They are the same questions society faces today.
Here is a Brecht lyric with music by Hans Eisler. The brief commentary at the end is with watching. The accompanying saxophone and piano are also something to witness.
For this week, and for a plethora of reasons mostly having to do with coincidence, I’m going to be choosing songs with either political undertones, blatant overtones, or ones that have particular political messages that speak to me.
For my first song I’d love you to listen to “Abortion Is Illegal by Hanns Eisler/Brecht. For me it is shocking that this was written in the 1930s, not because it was necessarily so ahead of its time, but because it could have been written today as well. Aside from the lyrics that point to needing to have children as literal tools of war (and, admittedly, this is a big part of the song), to me this could easily be performed on a cabaret program today and someone might assume it was written in the last decade or two.
The music, though not everyone’s cup of tea, I feel suits the text. It is not beautiful, but neither is the message, and the music plays into the different characters that the singer must portray. I love this singer’s particular interpretation because she understands the narrative quality of the piece as well as the subtle humor woven into the setting. She speaks the text when she pleases which is appropriate to the Weimar Era cabaret style (a particular favorite of mine) and keeps the text at the forefront of our mind, which I believe is the point.
This week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!
I first encountered this song as part of Heiner Goebbels’ theater piece Eislermaterial, and later tracked down this version of Hanns Eisler singing and playing himself. I immediately fell in love with how perfect it feels: simple and straightforward–it is a patriotic song for children, after all–but highly sophisticated and elegant in its construction. The subtle harmonic shifts, slight changes in accompaniment, secondary melody that enters at just the right time make it, for me, a miniature masterpiece.
Hanns Eisler (1898 -1962) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) – Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe (1950)
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