Kurt Weill marked his times by his irrepressible desire to renew music and make it more socially relevant. His contemporary, composer Jean Wiener, said of him: "What is unique and remarkable about Weill's music is that he was able to write music for everyone... but not like everyone." He is one of the few composers to have spent his whole life writing for musical theatre.
Kurt Weill began learning the piano at the age of five. In 1918, he began studying music at the Hochschule in Berlin. In December 1920, Kurt Weill was accepted into the Academy of Arts in Berlin to study with the composer and pianist Busoni. He soon became one of Busoni's most brilliant and radical pupils.
In 1925, when Kurt Weill began writing operas, he set out to restore and enhance music's role in theatre by focusing on the notion of "spiel" (game, play). The first opera he wrote with Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, in 1927, had a decisive influence on his subsequent writing. He was committed to a Communist ideal and this meeting with Brecht changed the way he wrote: he found himself midway between theatre and opera. Declaring that he wanted to be "the poor man's Verdi", he focused his avant-garde expressionist style on realism. He wanted to create a new form of opera that was the mirror of its times (which is also why his music borrows from jazz and cabaret music). This period was a crucial turning point for the composer: he worked with the Austrian soprano Lotte Lenya, who soon became his muse and preferred performer. Kurt and Lotte became inseparable, got married and formed a legendary couple.
In 1933, Kurt Weill's Jewish origins obliged him to flee to France. During this period, he composed commissions for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and wrote the music for Marie Galante, which was performed at the Théâtre de Paris in 1934.
In 1935, he left for the United States. One of his major works, The Eternal Road, was composed there. Kurt Weill then became very successful on Broadway. In 1943, he obtained American citizenship.
The most notable works composed in Weill's final creative period are Street Scene (a synthesis of European opera and American musical comedy) and the "musical tragedy" Lost in the Stars. With these two works, he fulfilled his dream of inventing the American opera. He died of a heart attack on 3 April 1950 in New York, at the age of 50, while working on a musical.
Six landmark dates in the life of Kurt Weill:
1918: studied music at the Hochschule in Berlin
1925: Kurt Weill was recognised as a "rising star" of German music
1927: first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera)
1933: all of Kurt Weill's compositions are destroyed in Germany. The Nazis saw him as "a cultural Bolshevik" and a "degenerate musician".
1935: left for the United States
Five key works by Kurt Weill:
Symphony No. 1 in one movement for orchestra, and Symphony No. 2 in three movements for orchestra; first performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter
1930: opera: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht
1933: sung ballet: The Seven Deadly Sins, to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht
1941: musical comedy Lady in the Dark, to a libretto by Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin (filmed in 1943)
1943: musical comedy One Touch of Venus, to a libretto by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash (filmed in 1948)