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Kurt Weill: Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?

Weill had brainstormed for years on ways to use his talents towards the American war effort. In 1941, he wrote, “Like everybody else, I have the ardent desire to serve the country in some capacity. I would take any job. But it seems to me I could really be of some help if I would be allowed to use my connections and reputation among Americans of German descent and refugees from Nazi Germany to organize an effective ‘cultural attack’ on Germany by short-wave radio…In word and music we would tell them the truth about their leaders, the hopelessness of their fight, the power of democracy, and the beauty of life in a free country.”

The ballad “Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?,” (“And what did the Soldier’s Wife get?”) with text by long-time collaborator and fellow exile Bertolt Brecht, was written in March 1942. Unpromted, Weill handed over the song to the War Department unit responsible for the shortwave broadcasts to Germany, and shortly thereafter, the song received its debut performance in an anti-Nazi pageant at Hunter College. The next year, the US government helped broadcast the song to Germany, featuring Lotte Lenya’s straighforward delivery, heard here.

The song’s text asks a question and answers it, repeatedly throughout the song with a litany of pillaged cities named. And what did the soldier’s wife receive from Prague?…shoes. from Oslo?…fur. from Amsterdam?…a Dutch hat. from Brussels?…rare laces. from Paris? …a silk dress. from Bucharest? …a shirt. But from Russia, she receives a widow’s veil for the funeral. 
How does this pertain to our current era? After over 25 years of American boots on the ground in the Middle East, there seem to be few, if any winners, and the complex issues of the region only grow increasingly more muddled with each passing day. So what have we gained from our desire for oil, for political power, for exacting revenge? …

Kurt Weill: Speak Low

On Nov. 19,  NYFOS will be presenting a concert version of Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee (Silverlake) at Merkin Hall in NYC. Weill is an adopted New Yorker, having emigrated in 1935. His music had been banned by the Nazis. His early theater works, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of Mahagony were considered entartete (degenerate) music. His scores were full of jazz rhythms and harmonies. And Weill was a Jew, so the designation was convenient to the Nazi government. His last work written in Europe (France) was Silverlake. It had a very short stage life and has been mostly on the shelf ever since.

New York was friendly to Weill, and he made the transition from the German language to English provided by his librettists Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash and others. His Threepenny Opera was translated by Marc Blitzstein in 1954 and finally got a successful Broadway run. Weill died at age 50, in 1950 so many of us never had any personal connection to him. Blitzstein and Weill protege Maurice Abravanel was as close as we ever got. Here is the composer himself playing and singing one of his hits “Speak Low” from One Touch of Venus. The words are by Ogden Nash. Nash is the smart ass who quipped about my home town: “The Bronx? No Thonx.” 

Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash: That’s Him

Today is the first day of rehearsals for the revival of the upcoming Manning the Canon concerts. Several years have passed since our last performances and I am excited to come back to it; it’s always an enlightening experience revisiting a program after some time. It will be a joy to reunite with Steve Blier and Matt Boehler and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with our two new cast members: Efraín Solís and Daniel McGrew.

In the spirit of World Pride and 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I chose today’s Song of the Day for my husband and love of my life for over 27 years. “That’s Him” is from One Touch of Venus (1943) and Kurt Weill’s unencumbered melody and Ogden Nash’s unpretentious words are sheer magic. Written in the form of a “list song,” Ogden Nash rattles off a long list of situations to describe just how truly special someone is. In this case, a list of simple analogies gives a more accurate description of a loved one when a formal definition would be elusive or inadequate. I am the first to admit that I am not especially quick-witted or good with words, and so I leave the cleverness of defining what my husband means to me up to Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash. I love you, Matthew, more than I could ever express.

You know the way you feel
When there is autumn in the air,
That’s him, that’s him.

The way you feel when Antoine
Has finished with your hair,
That’s him, that’s him.

You know the way you feel
When you smell bread baking,
The way you feel,
When suddenly a tooth stops aching;
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him, that’s him.

He is as simple as a swim in summer,
Not arty, not actory.
He’s like a plumber when you need a plumber:
He’s satisfactory.

You know the way you feel
When you want to knock on wood,
The way you feel 
When your heart is gone for good:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him.

You could shuffle him with millions,
Soldiers and civilians,
I’d pick him out.
In the darkest caves and hallways
I would know him always,
Beyond a doubt.

Comes easily to me
Because that’s he.

You know the way you feel
About the Rhapsody in Blue:
That’s him, that’s him;

The way you feel about a hat
Created just for you:
That’s him, that’s him.

You know the way you feel
When the fireflies glimmer,
The way you feel
When overnight your hips grow slimmer:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him, that’s him.

He’s like a book directly from the printer,
You look at him, he so commenceable.
He’s comforting as woolens in the winter:
He’s indispensable.

You know the way the way you feel
That you know you should conceal
The way you feel
That you really shouldn’t feel:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him.

Kurt Weill: Je ne t’aime pas

Having escaped the Nazi takeover of the German government, Kurt Weill found himself in Paris in 1933, trying to get a foothold in a new artistic landscape.  His reputation there was solid, though based mostly on the 1930 French film and stage versions of The Threepenny Opera (L’Opéra de quat’sou), which had been popular.  Still, at thirty-four, Kurt Weill was essentially starting over.  “[Weill] arrived in Paris with very little beyond his good name” says Brecht and Weill scholar Pamela Katz, author of The Partnership.   Luckily, he met cabaret and film star Lys Gauty, who commissioned two songs from him: Complainte de la Seine, and this one.  With so many Weill performances influenced by the whiskey baritone of the latter-day Lenya, this performance by Gauty (1934) reminds us that this song was written for a young and glamorous cabaret singer.

Even though Je ne t’aime pas wasn’t written for Lenya, in my opinion, her Surabaya Johnny fingerprints are all over it. The repeated trope, “I don’t love you” sung by Gauty might well have been Weill’s sentiments regarding his ex, then living in Switzerland with her current lover. When Weill and Lenya reunited before their move to the USA, friends asked how in the world he could take her back.  His reply was, “What can I say?  She’s Lenya.”

Retire ta main, je ne t’aime pas
Car tu l’as voulu, tu n’es qu’un ami.
Pour d’autres sont faits le creux de tes bras
Et ton cher baiser, ta tête endormie.
Pull back your hand, I don’t love you
For you wanted it, you’re just a friend.
The crook of your arm was made for others
And your dear kiss, your sleeping head.
Ne me parle pas, lorsque c’est le soir
Trop intimement, à voix basse même
Ne me donne pas surtout ton mouchoir :
Il renferme trop le parfum que j’aime.
When it’s evening, don’t talk to me
Too intimately, nor even in a whisper
Do not give me your handkerchief
It holds too much of the fragrance I love.
Dis-moi tes amours, je ne t’aime pas
Quelle heure te fut la plus enivrante ?
Et si elle t’aimait bien, et si elle fut ingrate
En me le disant, ne sois pas charmant.
Tell me your loves, I don’t love you
What hour was the headiest to you?
And if she didn’t love you, or she was ungrateful
While telling me, don’t be charming.
Je n’ai pas pleuré, je n’ai pas souffert
Ce n’était qu’un rêve et qu’une folie.
Il me suffira que tes yeux soient clairs
Sans regret du soir, ni mélancolie.
I didn’t cry, I didn’t suffer
It was only a dream and foolishness.
It’s enough for me that your eyes be bright
Without evening regret nor melancholy
Il me suffira de voir ton bonheur
Il me suffira de voir ton sourire.
Conte-moi comment elle a pris ton cœur
Et même dis-moi ce qu’on ne peut dire.
It’s enough for me to see your happiness
It’s enough for me to see your smile.
Tell me how she captured your heart
And even tell me what can’t be said
Non, tais-toi plutôt… Je suis à genoux
Le feu s’est éteint, la porte est fermée
Ne demande rien, je pleure… C’est tout.
Je ne t’aime pas, ô mon bien-aimé.
No, be silent instead. I’m on my knees
The fire is out, the door is shut
Don’t ask me anything, I’m crying. That’s all…
I don’t love you, Oh, my beloved
Retire ta main, je ne t’aime pas
je ne t’aime pas
Pull back your hand, I don’t love you
I don’t love you

Kurt Weill: Muschel von Margate

I met Cyndia Sieden outside her voice lesson at Marlena Malas’s studio in 1982. She was a breath of fresh air—guileless and smart, an unbeatable combo. We seemed to fall into one another’s confidence instantly. I was fascinated by her name, which happens to be the same as that of a character in Massenet’s opera “Le roi de Lahore.” Only…it’s the baritone role. I pulled the LPs off Marlena’s shelf to show Cyndia, and the sight of her name attached to a picture of a glowering, mustachioed Sherrill Milnes made us laugh like kids. (Yes, it has a slightly different spelling in the opera. But still.)

30 minutes later I went in to play the lesson after Cyndia was finished vocalizing. The first thing I heard her sing was “O quante volte” from “I Capuleti ed i Montecchi,” Bellini’s version of “Romeo and Juliet.” I was smitten from the first note. Her sound was pure and instrumental but also sexy, like an angel who knows a thing or two. I looked at Marlena and blubbered something like, “Where is this girl from? Heaven?” Up till that day, Marlena had not allowed her to sing for anyone—she thought Cyndia wasn’t quite ready. But after that lesson, Marlena gave her the go-ahead.

Cyndia and I became quite close, seeing each other through the breakup of love affairs, the deaths of our parents, the stresses of our musical careers. And of course we have been together for the joys of life too.  I was there when she sang her first performance of Lulu—at the Met. (Nothing like starting at the top. She was covering Christine Schäfer, who canceled.) I also heard her sail through fiendishly difficult Mozart concert arias with Christoph Eschenbach, filling Avery Fisher Hall with that uniquely unimpeded, free sound. Very high coloratura sopranos don’t usually radiate deep emotion, but Cyndia has always had a kind of melancholy in her timbre, fused completely into the soaring innocence. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf tried to breed it out of her—“You always sound sad”—but for me it is intrinsic to the allure of Cyndia’s music, a true chiaroscuro.

We did a lot of great concerts together, from Sequoia-country in California to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But one of the oddities of our friendship is that we kept running into each other in all kinds of other places—Chicago, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo—when we weren’t performing together. I’d be on tour with someone else and she’d be singing some opera in the same city. So we got to hang out together all over the world eating strange food (unbelievably salty tapas in Barcelona, writhing crustaceans skewered and thrown onto a Japanese grill in Tokyo), and being tourists together. We pulled up to our ryokan in Japan to see an awning that said: Dry Creaning. We reached for our cameras in unison. We shared a bed together—chastely—in Paris. And we gave our away-from-home trips a moniker: “Dull Tours.”

Cyndia and I only made one CD together, an album of German and Austrian songs called “Unquiet Peace: the Lied between the Wars.” Bill Sharp was her partner on the recording. Here’s one of the tracks: “Muschel von Margate,” a feisty protest song by Kurt Weill about the way conflicts over oil escalate into war. We performed this song in a recital at Pacific Lutheran University just before the first Gulf War broke out, and the presenter wanted to submit it for broadcast on NPR. “It’s so timely! With the war and everything!” “But the war hasn’t actually happened yet,” I protested. “Oh, not yet!” she exclaimed. “But it will! It will!” she said with maniacal glee. “And this way we can get PLU on national radio!” she exulted. Like every artist, I crave publicity. But in this case the media attention didn’t seem worth the bombs.

Even though Cyndia is singing about an octave under her money notes, her voice is on fire. She gives “Muschel von Margate” a very hot performance at my very brisk tempo (how could you sing this song any slower?). It still makes my blood race.

Here are the lyrics:

Die Muschel von Margate (“The Shell of Margate” or “The Petroleum Song”) [1928]

Music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950); libretto by Felix Gasbarra

Muschel von Margate translation 


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