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Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht

© copyright Laura E. Thompson, 2011

Expressionism 335 Professor Rosenberg


Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht


The creators of the School of Music’s production of The Threepenny Opera engagingly wove many elements of expressionism throughout its course. I thought it was very interesting to see the frequent references to expressionist art included in the set design, but also to notice the contrast between this expressionist visual aesthetic and the more populist musical ideal to which Weill adhered. I think that this production worked to reconcile these competing movements and ideologies by emphasizing the common ground between Brecht’s anti-capitalist sympathies for the downtrodden and the sometimes haunting imagery found in expressionist woodblock prints of dying soldiers, starving children, and weary workers. In both the so-called expressionist movement and in the later attempt to simplify music to mobilize a larger audience, artists and musicians often sought to communicate the strangeness and injustice of many aspects of modernizing society.

In the case of The Threepenny Opera, this sense of societal injustice is captured by the convoluted aspirations and lack of empathy of the characters for one another. Mack “The Knife” even goes so far as to tell Paulie near the end of Act II that he intends to go into banking because “it’s safer and the take is bigger” than his current criminal activities. The not-so-subtle implication of this is that capitalism (represented here by banking) is simply an elevated form of criminal behavior. By calling our respect for this profession into question, Brecht hopes to make his audience think and reconsider their perceptions about what constitutes socially admirable behavior. Furthermore, he hopes to jumpstart his audience into not only changing their view, but also their behavior. With such ambitious political goals, Brecht and Weill employ many artistic means to both reach a mass audience but then also to “alienate” them in ways that make them think.

It is interesting that the Northwestern production chose to stick with the small instrumental ensemble when another larger orchestration is available. I think it is possible that the smaller arrangement perhaps makes more sense within the philosophical framework that guided Brecht (and to a much lesser extent, Weill) at the time that they worked on this opera together. None of the instruments chosen are emblematic of high art; in fact, their inclusion could be seen as a parody of a typical symphony orchestra. All of the instruments included are chiefly known for their roles in various forms of popular music. And though the ensemble may be small, each of these instruments has a truly unique tone color which can not be duplicated by anything else. This attention to details of color could be seen as an element of expressionism that Weill here embraced. The harmonium is perfect for satirizing church hymns and pious moments, but simultaneously brings to mind the sound of street musicians trying to scrape by. The inclusion of saxophones and a piano often sounds a little bit jazzy or nightclub-like, and the guitars and banjos bring in a certain folk-like quality. After all, there is no more popular instrument than the guitar and perhaps its status as an everyman instrument could have been a factor in its inclusion. By limiting the ensemble, the music remains very transparent and spare, which also fits quite well with the subject matter of the opera. From a musical standpoint, this ensemble supports the singers but does not overpower them, giving the relatively simple music of the opera a unique sound.

I felt that Weill quite often included elements of eighteenth century music, often during scene introductions and dramatic transitions. The overture itself sounded to me reminiscent of Baroque dances, with its short articulations and trim melody. Of course the harmony in this section strays very far from that of truly Baroque works, but I think the rhythm and character of this section sounds as if they were inspired (and are perhaps a spoof upon) the courtly dances of the eighteenth century. The feeling of confusion as to time is also compounded by the fact that this seemingly Baroque dance is performed by an ensemble whose most prominent instrument is the saxophone. I think that Weill composed the overture in this way so as to alert the audience that something unusual was going to happen in this opera. Placing a very staid and seemingly traditional dance of the elite with instruments that are usually barred from taking part in the classical cannon of music may have been a signal of the upset in social order that Weill and Brecht hoped to foment through this work.

Just as Weill often used elements of Baroque musical styles for satirical effects, it seems that his sometime adoption of more romantic musical sensibilities is also largely a tool for making fun of the subject matter or characters at hand. One notable instance of the employment of seemingly “romantic” music in this way is the love ballad that Paulie and Macky sing together after their rather dubious wedding ceremony. Inspired by her line, “Anywhere you go, I will go with you,” the song rapturously addresses the hope that they see in their future life together. By framing the text in as earnest and conservatively romantic a musical style as possible, Weill cloaks the falseness of what they are saying under a seemingly beautiful veneer. Clearly, neither character actually follows the other when they separate, and so this song in retrospect seems like a harbinger of bad tidings to come. Perhaps it could be regarded as a sarcastic ode to compassion, when really both characters (flawed as they are) only care about themselves.

I was highly amused to see the shifting roles that the narrator took on. He often addressed the audience, as in the opening scene when he introduces The Threepenny Opera for the very first time. But as an audience, we have not yet adjusted to the reality (or unreality) of the play yet, and so we can simply accept that this character is speaking directly to us. In his case, he creates more of a Verfremdungseffekt when he steps into the drama as a character with a back-story in the world of this opera. Instead of blithely observing his entrance as a new character, he arouses a bit of shock in every new guise that he takes on. On the one hand, we are aware that this is the same actor who introduces scenes and converses with the audience. On the other, he keeps appearing in the opera in surprising roles: a wannabe beggar, a drunken priest, and a prison guard. This could perhaps be somewhat symbolic that many of the bit roles in the opera are played by the same person, but it is also important for its shock value – it is his character who most often alerts the audience most joltingly that what they are seeing is just actors pretending.

One such instance is when Mr. and Mrs. Peecham are lamenting the marriage of their daughter to Mack the Knife. After singing a song together on the subject, the narrator (who had previously addressed Mr. Peecham as a peasant boy who wished for a license to beg from Mr. Peecham’s company) yells to both of them, “Get off the stage!” At this point they literally run off of the stage. By recognizing the words of an actor who is out of character, the bubble of the play is burst for a moment as we in the audience absorb the blow that what we are seeing is not real.

Another moment of Verfremdungseffekt comes when the actors are transition to the wedding scene of Paulie and Mack the Knife. They simply throw down bales of hay onto the stage and say repeatedly, “Stable. Stable? Stable.” By assuming that we in the audience would not otherwise understand that this is a stable, they call attention to the difference between actuality and their own approximation of it. By calling into question the audience’s suspension of disbelief, Brecht and Weill hope to keep their audience alert and suitably uncomfortable.

In terms of Brecht’s ideal of the separation of the artistic elements of the opera, I often found the meaning of the text within the songs to be quite incongruous with the often tuneful melodies of the songs. One such example is the opening number of the opera, in which the narrator sings a jazzy and upbeat song that includes phrases like “twenty people blown to death.” In the song, he introduces the notorious criminal Mack the Knife, but in the most offhand manner possible, as if he had simply been serenading a nightclub. This divergence between text and music must be at the hands of Weill, assuming that Brecht showed him the text first. On the other hand, I suppose Weill could have come up with musical ideas first so that Brecht could pick which tune he would like to set his words. In that case, the difference would come at Brecht’s hands. In any case, both Brecht and Weill are responsible for pairing this strange combination of music and words.

Another example of separate artistic elements can be found when Mr. Peecham in waking up the beggars who sleep on the London streets so that they can begin their day of begging for money on behalf of his company. The harmonium creates an almost churchlike, pious mood, and imitates a prelude and fugue that might be played on an organ. But at the same time, Mr. Peecham is ruthlessly beating his beggars awake, shouting “Human pity is my business, and business is terrible.” Though the music might have led a listener to sympathize with him, the action reveals that he is anything but a beacon of morality.

I found the set design for this opera to be quite brilliant. I thought that the expressionist paintings, woodcuts and lithographs that the director or designers decided to include at the beginning of the opera gave a context not only for the artistic movements that preceded Weill and Brecht (from which it might be asserted that they emerged) but also for the tone and subject matter of the drama. The pictures largely emphasize a reality that tends towards harshness and the grotesque. In the woodcuts especially, there are stark contrasts between black and white, or color and lack of it with no gentle middle ground to be found.

Many of the images include a distorted sense of perspective, lending each a feeling of skewed logic and confusion. One picture shows a man who seems to be recoiling in pain. The artist emphasizes details including the dark circles under the person’s eyes and the bones of the person’s hands that in earlier art might have been hidden. Other pictures show hungry children begging for food, weary field workers carrying tools and children, gaunt faces, and naked women in sexually suggestive postures. In any case, these are images that defy the norms of what came before, and together they present a bleakly poetic sense of a modern life that is straying somewhere strange and not altogether good.

I thought that the painted backdrop was great for this production because it framed the action within a townscape in the mold of expressionist woodcuts and prints. It was as if the entire opera took place inside an expressionist painting, with all of its implications of dark and almost caricature-like portrayals of pain. It also established the color palate for the production, since the white sections of the backdrop could be lit in different colors. When the background painting was red and black, it became apparent that the costumes, while emphasizing black and white, by and large included hints of red.

I felt that the set was effective because it created multiple levels from which characters could emerge and jump, places in which they could be concealed, and some sort of three-dimensional visual element to the production. It came to represent a wide variety of locations with only very little alteration, but I do not think it needed to be any bit more complete. Indeed, it is its incompleteness that is most faithful to Brecht’s vision and constantly reminds audiences that they are seeing representation instead of literal reality: actors as characters, set as stable, or house, or jail. And by shattering the illusion momentarily created by the artists, musicians, and actors, Brecht hopes to wake his audience up and cause them to question the facts they take for granted as real in their own lives.