Tuesday, February 16, 2010

September Songs

 In childhood, my world was saturated with the music of Beethoven and Brahms, which probably went a long way toward pushing me (as well as my two older brothers) toward a life in music.  One day, however, my mother's record player broke.  This happened at a time of chaos in our family life, and it remained broken for three or four Beethoven- and Brahms-less years. And then one day it was fixed, and my mother came home with an armful of LPs.  The music she brought home was entirely new to us children, and altered my idea of our mother as both a listener and a person:  Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and, inexplicably, the original-cast recording of the Joseph Papp production of Threepenny Opera. 

This record in particular seized my imagination in a way that can only be described as neurotic.  I absconded with it to my room and played it over and over on my own garage-sale-gleaned record player.  The dark landscape of Weill's music, and the tawdry underworld of Victorian England it evoked, worked their way into my imagination, until I dreamt of singing one of the wholly corrupt female roles (in college, I considered it both vindication and high praise when my vocal coach suggested this would be good repertoire for me).

In the decade or so following the Papp Threepenny, there was a minor vogue for Kurt Weill among hipsters.  The marvelous, emotionally-fragile soprano Teresa Stratas released two wonderful albums of lesser-known Kurt Weill songs (the first one is pictured above), and artists like Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and David Johansen took stabs at recreating the decadent Weimar/Weill ethos. One of my favorite bits of Weilliana is Tryout, a collection of studio recordings of Weill playing and singing his own show tunes for Broadway backers in a whispery, frail, intimate voice.

My father mentioned to me the other day that his favorite version of "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday, a 1938 Broadway show about the Dutch in early Gotham) was Jimmy Durante's.  I hadn't known Durante had even sung the iconic Weill classic, of which there are so many beautiful recordings, Sinatra's being the most famous.  I found the Durante version on Youtube, naturally, and it is certainly worthy in its own way.


dreshny said...

We're singing the entire score of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars (based on the novel Cry the Beloved Country) in chorus this semester. It's awesome.

Pentimento said...

That's awesome, Dreshny. Lost in the Stars is beautiful. Are there soloists too?

Maclin said...

My goodness, that is rather good (the Durante version).

I recently watched the 1931 Pabst film of Threepenny Opera. Not especially recommended--I didn't realize that Brecht und Weill were unhappy with it to the point of legal action.

Pentimento said...

Isn't it good, Maclin? I thought so too.

Oh, I saw the Pabst film years ago - I must have been in my teens - at Theater 80, this old revival movie theater in the East Village. I recall that it was sort of plotless, but I was especially interested in seeing the young Lotte Lenya on film. I had no idea that Brecht and Weill were so unhappy with it.

You may know that Brecht also later broke with Weill for being insufficiently revolutionary, and chose Hanns Eisler as his collaborator. Eisler came to the US when the Nazis came to power and wrote the first book on film scoring. He later went back to Germany under a dark cloud; he and his brother, Gerhardt, were summoned before HUAC and there was talk of deporting them, but I think they shipped out before it could happen (Gerhardt, it so happens, was a friend of my grandmother's, and later became the propaganda minister for the GDR . . . ).

Rodak said...

Do you have this album? Your reference to PJ Harvey suggests that you might; but, if not, check it out.

Pentimento said...

I don't own the album, Rodak, but I do know it. I think some of it works.