CULTURE & THE ARTS
The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya: Revelations, Discoveries and Mysteries
Lenya/Weill ltrs review (rev. final draft) by Leonard Lehrman (1395 wds) Copyright by Leonard Lehrman
[The Opera Journal 30:2 June 1997 pp36-39
AUFBAU 63:16 Aug. 1, 1997 p13]
Speak low (when you speak love): the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya edited and translated by Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 554 pages, $39.95 [Paperback edition forthcoming].
This is a remarkable book from several angles: romantic, scholarly, revelatory, provocative, and mysterious, often all at the same time. The comparison to Giuseppe Verdi's letters is not inapt: as Kurt Weill (whom some called "the poor man's Verdi") himself noted July 26, 1935: "The analogies are startling."
The directors and staff of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music have done a magnificent job of compiling and annotating 410 extant letters, postcards, and telegrams exchanged from 1924 to 1948 in the loving and strange relationship between the most fascinating couple in German-American musical and theatrical history. And most of the material did not become available until after a number of bizarre misunderstandings, a burglary in which a filing cabinet was pried open, and a series of probate suits, all detailed only on page 501!
Light is shed by the documents, and the extensive notes, on subtexts and germinations of (as well as the ups and downs of collaboration in) many of Weill's own works which skirt the borders between musical, opera, and operetta - especially THE FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and particularly LADY IN THE DARK: A footnote on the latter (based on research by bruce mcclung) reveals that Moss Hart's psychoanalyst, who inspired the book for that work, was not the well-known Gregory Zilboorg, as has been publicly assumed since 1947, but rather the lesser-known Lawrence S. Kubie. Why Zilboorg's name was connected with the piece for so long remains at least a partial mystery.
So are many of the references to people not yet identified except by first or last name, though the editors have done a tremendous amount of extremely valuable research, producing a 15-page index of names, embellishing 109 of them in a biographical glossary, along with an international currency table, a catalog of the enormous number of pet names they affectionately used for and with each other, a 4-page index of works by Weill and a 6-page index of works by others. One amusing error no one seems to have caught before, though, notes Moss Hart's wife Kitty Carlisle Hart as having starred in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, when of course the movie in question was A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Maurice Levine's last name has lost an e in one entry in the index. And the Yiddish word "naches" (p.291 note 3) means "joy," not "fun or amusement."
The translations of the early German letters into English seem pretty accurate, but could stand comparison with the originals when a German edition comes out. Relevant excerpts from letters to others are helpfully quoted by the editors, including Weill's very literate correspondence with his brother Hans, which may deserve complete, separate publication. (The letter of June 27, 1919, quoted on p.30 in English translation beginning "Why aren't I..."? is not ungrammatical in the original German.)
Fascinating is the number of major musical stage works with which Weill was at least briefly associated in their early stages, either as colleague, potential composer, or competition: PORGY AND BESS; LILIOM (CAROUSEL); PYGMALION (MY FAIR LADY); THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (THE MOST HAPPY FELLA); OKLAHOMA!; SING OUT, SWEET LAND! (the Theater Guild piece by Walter Kerr & Elie Siegmeister in which Alfred Drake starred, being therefore unavailable for a Weill piece); CANDIDE; PETER PAN; various projects including an Oedipus opera with and for Paul Robeson; and Brecht's RUNDKOEPFE UND SPITZKOEPFE (ROUNDHEADS AND POINTEDHEADS), THE GOOD SOLDIER SCHWEYK, THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN, and MUTTER COURAGE.
One work not listed in the index, but brought to light here for the first time in print anywhere, is a song which Marc Blitzstein wrote for Lenya entitled "Few Little English." A musical draft with partial revisions is among Lenya's papers at Yale. An undated draft with a variant of the lyrics entitled "Jimmy's Moll" is at the Weill Foundation. Together they offer an editor and a performer the opportunity to perform the most Weillian song Blitzstein ever wrote - with quotations from "Barbara Song" and the Tango from DREIGROSCHENOPER, not to mention SHOWBOAT and PORGY & BESS! - for the first time since Lenya apparently premiered it at Le Ruban Bleu in New York in April, 1938. (See Jack Gould, "News and Gossip of Night Clubs," N.Y.Times, April 17, 1938, Sec. 10, p.2; and letter #196 in SPEAK LOW, apparently misdated by the editors as April 19, 1938 - it should be April 20.) Perhaps a revival or new edition of the 1991 BLITZSTEIN CABARET, including this song, would be appropriate for Lenya's 1998 centennial!(?) [Details may be found in the forthcoming Greenwood Press Bio-Bibliography of Marc Blitzstein by this writer.]
The date of composition, July 15, 1936, is particularly significant: Blitzstein's wife Eva Goldbeck had just died, and he was about to plunge into the "five weeks at white heat" which produced the work that would make his name in theatrical circles: THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. It may also be significant that Weill remarried Lenya the following January, reclaiming her as it were, for they had been divorced in 1933.
At any rate, the relationship between Lenya and Blitzstein was always very close, as opposed to that between Weill and Blitzstein, or between Weill and practically any other composer (except Darius Milhaud), especially homosexual composers. In April 1942 Weill referred to Virgil Thomson and others as "those pansies" and "those dam [sic] pansies" noting with approval that "the FBI has investigated him [Thomson] because of his connections with sailors!" Weill also referred to Blitzstein as "das Blitzsteinchen" (May 15, 1938, translated [by the editors?] as "little Blitzstein"). Lenya, on the other hand, noted with pleasure on May 12, 1938 that "Marc seems to make a lot of publicity for me in these [gay] circles." (Lenya would survive Weill by 31 years, and marry three other men, at least two of whom were gay.)
No wonder, then that Blitzstein waited until Weill was dead, in 1950 to complete his adaptation of THREEPENNY OPERA - for Lenya. (The editors say Lenya's husband George Davis "convinced her to allow" that completion (p.487) but no source is cited for that information.) Blitzstein seems to have had Lenya in mind for the Moll in his CRADLE back in 1936; in 1970 she told me he had offered her the part again in the 1960 New York City Opera revival. She turned him down, but recommended Tammy Grimes (who never knew the source of her having been recommended!). She also denied that Weill had ever gone around town saying "Have you seen my new opera," referring to Blitzstein's CRADLE after it opened. "Kurt would never do a thing like that," she assured me. Lys Symonette, silent then, now assures me that he would - and did. The various love relationships that both Lenya and Weill had with others are revealed relatively comprehensively. Particularly touching is the affair that Lenya had with a tenor named Otto Pasetti who would be 94 if he is still alive today; the editors have been unable to find out anything about him beyond his postwar campaigning for the denazification of Herbert von Karajan. She evidently considered having a child with him. "Kurt looked at me and said, 'But that would hurt me very much.' That was that. I said, OK, I won't have it. That was the relationship we had." (1978 interview originally in German with Lenya by Gottfried Wagner, quoted in translation on p. 80.) That was in France, shortly before the composition of the last Brecht-Weill collaboration, DIE SIEBEN TODSUENDEN (THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS) after both had left Germany, separately, in 1933. (Lenya returned a few times, briefly; Weill never did.)
The candor and openness of the letters is reflected in the editorial decisions, with one exception: near the end of his life Weill had a Hollywood liaison that Lenya apparently felt was serious enough to make her demand that he come back to New York. When Weill died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 50, she contacted the woman and allowed this "unfamiliar, black-veiled" figure (p.483) to visit the grave, alone. Who was she? Not the dancer/choreographer Catherine Littlefield (1908-51), as p. 450 note 4 seems to hint. The woman in question is still alive, and the editors have chosen to let her identity remain confidential - and a mystery!
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