Bertolt Brecht and his musicians

This post is my translation of Bernard Banoun’s “Bertolt Brecht: Inspirateur de talents.”
Cité musiques nº64 sept-déc 2010: Les utopies.

Bertolt Brecht: the Spark of Talents

A politically active playwright who revolutionized theatre while fighting for the Marxist cause, Bertolt Brecht was surrounded by musicians such as Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler.

Author of The Spirit of Utopia and of The Principle of Hope, philosopher Ernst Bloch believed he heard one of the key moments in the history of opera in The Pirate Song, from The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill. For him, Polly’s song carried a vision that was capable of suspending the fatal turn of dramatic and historical events. In his Bequest of This Time (1935), Bloch had underlined the fact that under the song’s pop hit allure was an “oblique gaze.” The philosopher praised the self-contradictory voice of Lotte Lenya, “suave, shrill, feathery, dangerous, cold,” as ideal for a pirate’s fiancée who sang about revolution while washing bar glasses.

The song and this particular interpretation attained such world renown that when Bloch fled Europe and emigrated to the United States, Adorno wrote to Walter Benjamin on August 28, 1938, “Bloch has disembarked. Possibly from a ship with eight sails,” an allusion to the refrain of the song, “the ship with eight sails and fifty canons” that enters the harbor, fires on the city, before stealing the young woman away from her seedy hotel.

Certain writings of Brecht that were put to music thus became famous worldwide thanks to the artists who interpreted them, in German or in other languages. Among them were Lys Gauty, Florelle, Marianne Oswald in French in the early 30s, as well as Teresa Stratas, Marianne Faithfull and Milva (in Io, Bertolt Brecht, with Giorgio Strehler, showing at the time in Paris), not to mention the versions taken up by jazz musicians. Beyond a few acclaimed pieces however, our memory dims and has only just begun to recall. The composers Brecht worked with were not well-known or practically unknown— this was in part explained by Brecht’s musical conceptions, as well as by the history of the 20th century: the exiles in America and the return to the GDR weighed doubly on the reception of composer’s pieces inspired by Brecht.

The relationship between Brecht and music was complex. The author of Mahagonny considered music an essential element of theatre; although not a musician himself, lacking knowledge of technique and theory, he nevertheless formulated “musical remarks” for each of his pieces, sustaining lasting collaborations with composers. Like the character of Settembrini, however, from The Magic Mountain (a character for which Brecht could have served as model, according to Hanns Eisler), music for Brecht was “dubious, irresponsible, indifferent,” provoking uncontrollable and irrational feelings, which is why it was essential to join music with a productive element whose meaning was less evasive.

The reservations he had with regard to music should not only be understood in terms of general aesthetic considerations (which were quite unoriginal), but also in terms of the historical period in which they were formulated: Brecht was reacting to the institution of the concert as a “culinary” experience, a harmless delight or an exercise of the senses, as opposed to the post-Romantic aesthetic of a Wagnerian total work of art. His founding principles on the use of music were thus: reduction of sound volume, of instrumental means and their length, primacy of melody and rhythm, alliance with words or context that situated music in the realm of meaning, recourse to, sometimes parodying, popular music, mistrust towards music of the avant-garde. He effectively restrained music, without rendering it dull; on the contrary, music would contribute to the pleasure and pedagogic virtues of theatre, an art of voice and body.

The heightening of conscience and reason

Weill, Dessau and Eisler, the three principal composers who had worked alongside and for Brecht— one leaves aside Hindemith, composer of the single 1929 Didactic Piece, an opera adaptation of the radio piece Lindbergh’s Flight by Hindemith and Weill, and sensational success at Baden-Baden—, had all composed operas, theatre music and melodies, but they embody different aesthetic and historical positions.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950), the most famous of the three, accompanied Brecht during the Weimar Republic period, but parted ways before their exile in America. A student of Busoni and equally inspired by the popular music revues of the interwar period, he experimented with all forms, from the “minor” to the “major” Mahagonny, to songs and cantatas of political content such as the Berlin Requiem.

Paul Dessau (1894-1979), a few years older than Brecht, survived him by almost a quarter of a century. A student of René Leibowitz, who trained him in the twelve-tone technique and admired his cantata The Voices, based on a work by Verlaine, Dessau became “more Brechtian than Brecht” in his drive towards minimalism. Author of theatre music (notably Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle), he and Brecht incurred the wrath of the socialist regime in the beginnings of the GDR, who criticized the “formalism” of their opera The Condamnation of Lucullus. After Brecht’s death, he composed an opera based on Brecht’s Puntila, and was open to music from the West, befriending Hans Werner Henze. A great pedagogue, he constantly sought to conciliate his convictions with a refusal to submit to what he called “the bad taste of the masses” that the regime encouraged.

Finally, Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) was the closest to Brecht, personally, politically and intellectually. In his regard, one can paraphrase the characterization Benjamin once gave of Brecht: “a phenomenon that is hard to grasp and that refuses to ‘liberally’ use his great talents.” A brilliant student of Schönberg whom he taxed as a “musical reactionary” without forgetting his teaching, Eisler was an uncompromising and subtle thinker who fought against “nonsense in music.” He wanted musical pleasure to heighten conscience and reason instead of putting them to sleep. From political chants intoned by the thousands of workers in the opera The Decision, to chamber music and film scores, as well as countless poems set to song, he accompanied Brecht for over thirty years.

At the very end of the 20th century, Heiner Goebbels created “Eisler Material,” in which he prolonged, in a semi-postmodern way, this constant search conducted by Brecht and his musicians of the productive form and of the combinations of music and texts.

Translation of Bernard Banoun’s “Bertolt Brecht: Inspirateur de talents.” Cité musiques nº64 sept-déc 2010: Les utopies.
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