The Three Penny Opera and the Musical Gestus of Kurt Weill

In a 1929 review of The Threepenny Opera, Felix Salten wrote:…the young Weill’s music is as characteristic as Brecht’s language, as electrifying in its rhythm as the lines of the poems, as deliberately and triumphantly trivial and full of allusions as the popularizing rhymes, as witty in the jazz treatment of the instruments, as contemporary, high-spirited and full of mood and aggression, as the text.(qtd. in Hinton, 188)These characteristics which Salten describes seem to relate to the concept of gestus, which is a difficult word to interpret but nevertheless has become the crucial link connecting Brecht’s theories of acting, playwriting and theatrical production. In epic theatre, actors become demonstrators of a character, rather than the characters themselves (rather than using Stanislavsky’s method of acting, which relies on an actor “stepping into a character’s shoes”). Brecht intended his actors to always remember that they were playing another person’s story and emotions. Most importantly, epic performers are always concerned with wider social relations, rather than the egoism of becoming wrapped up in one’s character. Gestus expresses these wider social relations with “the idea of contradiction and opposition and the need to find a visible and theatrically effective way of expressing both opposites and the unity of these opposites” (Morley 186)1. Simply put, the gestus is the portrayal of the theatrical moment that expresses the social relationships and attitudes with which the play is concerned. The intended effect upon the audience is verfremdungseffekt, literally, “the effect of making strange.”2 This would force the audience to examine their environments by removing from the performance that which they took for granted.As a composer, Weill contributed to the gestic concept of The Threepenny Opera by creating ways to musically assist the performer in showing the appropriate attitude at any given moment. The music, Brecht said, “became an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middleclass corpus of ideas” (Brecht on Theatre, 85-6). Music deliberately set at odds with its lyrics works to emphasize the satirical nature of The Threepenny Opera and the folly of its bourgeois characters. Musically, Ronald Taylor suggests that gestic music is initially expressed “in ‘the rhythmic disposition of the text’, then driven home by the insistent rhythms and spiky harmonies of the accompaniment and given its final penetrative edge in the brash, intrusive jazz-band instrumentation, the sharpest weapon in Weill’s satirical armoury” (137). While Peter W. Ferran and others are concerned mostly with the lyrical gestus of The Threepenny Opera, the lyrical gestus goes hand-in-hand with the musical gestus (as described by Weill and Taylor) in each song,3 and it is the combination of the two that makes the songs effective. These different gesti serve to create one large gestus, through which the piece’s intentions and satirical social attitudes are conveyed to an audience. In order to show these attitudes musically, Weill deliberately rejected traditional Handelian opera and wrote a jazzy, syncopated, dissonant score, working in melodies from popular North and South American music, which were a fad in Berlin at the time (Fuegi 199). This music encapsulated the ironic tone of Brecht’s lyrics4 and libretto5, satirizing the workings of both traditional opera and the German bourgeoisie.This satirical gest is thrust upon the audience at the very moment the orchestra strikes its first note of the performance. The instrumentation shuns the traditionally operatic string ensemble in favor of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, timpani, banjo and harmonium (Sanders 115). The prologue’s description of an opera “so cheap even a beggar can afford it”6 is followed by a mockingly pompous Baroque-like overture, which is harmonically minor and rhythmically plodding. The listener can almost imagine Weill’s mocking grin as he first wrote the scale-based, repetitive melody and the Haydn-like sforzandos7 of every single beat. As Foster Hirsch notes, the overture is in 3/4 (as are a good number of Threepenny songs), “but asymmetrically and with unpredictable, seemingly inept voice-leading within its repeated chords” (44). This style unseats the audience from the very beginning; it becomes clear that “here is a music which will speak with a forked tongue” (Taylor 137).”The Ballad of Mac the Knife” (“Moritat vom Mackie Messer”), in the historically recognizable Bänkelgesang format, is a perfect example of a work that “matches the gestical.” According to Peter W. Ferran, “a Bänkelsänger was a medieval and early Renaissance balladeer who traveled the central European countryside performing a type of admonitory song about legendary figures…One species of Bänkelgesang was the Moritat, which celebrated – in moralizing form, with the aid of illustrated placards – the heinous deeds perpetrated by notorious criminals” (7-8).The music for “Mac the Knife” is based on the “motto tune,”8 which, according to Hans Keller, “proves not only the melodic, but also the harmonic cell of much of the work” (147). The added sixth, which David Drew calls the “Moritat-motif” (151), is a common device in jazz composition, providing a somewhat jarring feel to the entire structure. This discordance is due to the sixth’s quality as “the inhibitory degree par excellence, because its opposition to the tonic is based on the strongest possible measure of agreement…hence the arch-inhibition, the interrupted cadence V-VI…the added sixth is the rightest ‘wrong’ note” (Keller 147).The ballad is played at an easy, blues-like tempo and with a deceptive near-repetition of its sixteen-measure melody (Fuegi 202). As Kim Kowalke notices, “each stanza after the first two is clothed in new musical attire pieced together from altered instrumentation, rhythmic patterns, countermelodies, and dynamics” (qtd. in Fuegi 202). The lull of the 4/4 blues stands in marked contrast to the lyrics, which read like a rap sheet of Macheath’s crimes:By the Thames’s turbid watersMen abruptly tumble down.Is it plague or is it cholera?Or a sign Macheath’s in town? (3PO 3)9The list is rather long, encompassing nine stanzas. One gets the feeling that this is only the beginning of the extensiveness of Macheath’s transgressions, as if the Street Singer could go on listing Macheath’s crimes for an entire evening.Here, Weill’s sentimental melody and Brecht’s biting lyrics work together to jab at the bourgeois audiences who constantly occupied the Berlin opera scene. The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie is exposed, drawing a parallel between the criminals of Macheath’s world, who drown men and rape women, and the criminals of Berlin’s financial world, who add to their personal wealth by robbing the poor. Macheath echoes this sentiment in Act Three: “What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank? What’s murdering a man compared with employing a man?” (3PO 76).Geoffrey Abbott tells us that in the original production of Threepenny Opera, Weill used “Mac the Knife” as an instrumental accompaniment to Macheath’s entrances, with the style corresponding to the mood of the particular scene. For example, when Macheath is being led to the gallows, the song was to be played “as a funeral march” (168). Apparently, this device is no longer commonly used in productions of Threepenny Opera, but it may be useful to remember Brecht and Weill’s satiric intent in the production, while also remembering that parody and satire are created partly by repetition. It is possible that in repeating “Mac the Knife” throughout the production, Brecht and Weill were taking a subtle swipe at the world of opera music (which constantly repeats melodic themes, but in all seriousness), as well as the world of the German upper class, whose circumstances may vary, but core “melody” (or way of life) remains the same.The Moritat-motif of the added sixth crops up again in “Peachum’s Morning Hymn” (“Morgenchorale des Peachum”), in which Jonathan Peachum cynically tells the audience of his world, which is full of dishonest criminals. The song is delivered as a deliberate, sanctimonious waltz in a dirge-like minor key, reading like a sermon and accompanied by a large organ. (Melodically, we have already classified this as one of the “Moritat-motif”; however, rhythmically and stylistically, we could call this the “Peachum-motif”.) Peachum sees himself as above these “ramshackle Christians” (3PO 5), although the “angry pietism” (Sanders 115) that Peachum delivers is hardly fitting for a man who runs a business outfitting beggars and taking a fifty-percent cut of their meager earnings. Non and Nick Worrall note that Peachum’s angry character especially comes through in the original German text, “Verschacher dein Ehweib, du Wicht!” (“And sell your old woman, you rat!” [lxvi]) These guttural consonants enable the actor playing Peachum to spit out his words with a pious fury that clearly illustrates his character from the very beginning. Peachum commonly sings in a slow, even manner, as if he realizes his hypocrisies and hopes that his style will do the proselytizing for him.Drew suggests that by using this repetition of the added sixth, “the chord acquires, during the course of the score, a signalling [sic] function so prominent that one may well describe it as the Dreigroschenoper chord” (Drew 151). He describes the use of the Dreigroschenoper chord and the Moritat-motif as “necromantic conjurations” (150) but does not explain the dramatic connotations of the motif. By using these two examples listed above, it is possible to find a dramatic through-line within a melodic through-line, and in doing so, find Weill’s satirical gestus in these tunes. The two songs together constitute a single message to the audience, using the Moritat-motif as a grouping mechanism. First, the Street Singer appears and tells us the story of Macheath, with his knife “not in such an obvious place” (3PO 3). This scene immediately gives way to Peachum’s song, in which we see another man who takes advantage of the poor, albeit by a less violent means.10Later in the first act, Macheath and Peachum’s daughter Polly are married in a stable with Macheath’s cohorts as witnesses. After the men are unable to provide an adequate wedding song (“Wedding Song for the Less Well-Off” or “Hochzeits-Lied”), Polly volunteers her talents for the entertainment. The song, “Pirate Jenny” (“Seeräuberjenny”) is the story of a barmaid that Polly saw in a dive bar in Soho. The barmaid, fuming over her customers’ ill treatment of her, predicts that one day a pirate ship “with eight sails and all its fifty guns loaded” (3PO 20) will appear in the harbor and destroy the entire town, save Pirate Jenny herself. The song is based on Senta’s revenge ballad in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, and here Weill creates a similar “quasi-Wagnerian atmosphere of mystery and lofty expectation, translated into neurotic twentieth-century terms” (Sanders 117). The song has two contrasting sections: the breathless patter of the verse, in which Polly describes the actual process of killing the lot, and the slow, sustained, awe-filled description of the ships (the instruments of destruction) in the chorus.However, it would be a mistake to interpret this song as an empowering ballad for either women or the lower classes, as it has sometimes been described. Foster Hirsch notes that if “Pirate Jenny” were sung as a conventional opera, Jenny’s revenge would have been accompanied by “the orchestra crashing in and…the soprano spinning through endless histrionic roulades to denote her triumphant retribution” (46). But as we see, when the pirates ask Jenny who of the town will die, she answers softly, “the lot! And as the first heads roll, I’ll say: hoppla!” (3PO 21) In Weill’s score, Jenny’s “hoppla” is spoken a cappella. Hirsch suggests that this inflection is akin to today’s “whatever,” a flippant phrase deadened of emotion and devoid of meaning (46). The chilling chord progression moves towards the dominant but never resolves, leaving Jenny to sail off in uncertainty, rather than a flourish of newly-found strength.“The First Threepenny Finale – Concerning the Insecurity of the Human Condition” (“I. Dreigroschenfinale”), features the Peachums and their daughter, Polly. Peter W. Ferran rightly points out that there are two vocal modes at work here (15). The first is personal (“Is it much that I desire?”), in a major key and a quick tempo. This illustrates Polly’s naiveté in what she thinks to be love: she wants to “enjoy a man’s embraces” (3PO 32), not realizing (yet) that her new husband has at least three other lovers on the side. Peachum cuts in with his pious moralizing, complete with a Bible in hand. (Notice the reappearance of our “Peachum-motif”: the allegro tempo of Polly’s words pull back into Peachum’s deliberate, sustained delivery accompanied by the organ.) The impersonal second vocal mode takes over here (“Who would disagree?”) and Ferran notes the shift from a description of the Peachum’s own circumstances into an observation of common worldly attitudes (15). Finally, the song ends with a “‘last-word’ rhythmic gesture: eight measures of decisive, sixteenth- and eighth- note diatonic finality in G minor, half a step higher than the song’s concluding F-sharp minor” (17). This tonal shift seems to musically symbolize the universality of the message: “the world is mean” (Blitzstein). The song is sung in multiple keys, and therefore, its message is applicable in multiple societies.Macheath and Jenny’s “Ballad of Immoral Earnings” (Zuhälterballade) is probably the best example of the contrast between music and lyrics in Threepenny Opera. The song is written as a tango, a South American style most often associated with exoticism and romance. Although the meter of tango is a rather simple 2/4, the marcato quarter-note drives the beat and is overlaid with a somewhat complex pattern of dotted-eighth and dotted-sixteenth notes, followed by a pair of eighth notes. (This is what tango dancers refer to when they describe the “slow, slow, quick, quick, slow” rhythm.) Again, the syncopation subtly reminds the audience of the current jazz craze in Berlin, while giving them enough of an uneven rhythm to keep them from being lulled into a sense of complacency. The marcato quarter-note plays a huge role here – each note is a new attack, rather than every note moving gracefully into the next. (This can be compared to the repeating sforzandos of the Threepenny “Overture”.) The minor key exudes a false romanticism, especially when one considers the lyrics, which are most definitely un-romantic. Tango music and dance were new to Europe in the early 1920s, and Weill seems to have used this novel and complex style to underscore the fact that Macheath and Jenny’s relationship (or, rather, sexual arrangement) is anything but simple; rather, it is a patter of syncopated, sadomasochistic attacks. Jenny describes how Macheath would “knock [her] headlong down the stairs” (3PO 44). The final verse tells the story of Macheath accidentally impregnating Jenny, but to take care of the problem, they “flushed it down the sewer” (3PO 44). Alienation here is expressed in the contrast between the music and the lyrics. Just as importantly, it is expressed in the lovers’ use of the third person when describing each other in a duet (“She was generally booked up” [3PO 44]). The epilogue to this song, in which Jenny betrays Macheath, can be seen as another verse illustrating this violent relationship. Through the song and the following scene, the world of Threepenny Opera clearly emerges: no one is to be trusted, and anyone will betray anyone in order to earn their thirty pieces of silver.This idea connects with the next song, “The Second Threepenny Finale – What Keeps Mankind Alive?” (“II. Dreigroschenfinale”), which ends Act Two. It is in this song that Brecht seems to become expressly political. It is actually composed of three separate systems. Ronald Sanders describes the first system as “appropriately stark…the least operatic of the score’s finales, this number sounds like a nightmarish version of a Salvation Army hymn, a choral preachment turned into an antibourgeois black mass” (121). It is in this system which Macheath and Jenny utter the famous lines, “Food is the first thing/ Morals follow on” and “Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance in keeping its humanity repressed” (3PO 55). Men live by feasting upon each other, and morality ought not to be discussed as long as the poor are still starving.Macheath takes over the second system, asking, “What keeps mankind alive?” It is important to note here that the question is not, “What keeps the rich alive?” The question is extended to all of humanity. In this way, Brecht and Weill work together to form the idea that all men survive “by bestial acts” (3PO 56), be it the wealthy Berliners in the audience, men like Jonathan Peachum, or common prostitutes like Jenny. Therefore, the audience should be left to think about the complicated way in which the human race survives, regardless of social status. It is also interesting to note that Macheath sings his initial question (“What keeps a man alive?”) in a strong, fermata-filled rubato (as if Macheath is saying, “Listen to this”), in a major key. By doing so, he seems to infer (or at least hope) that the answer to the question is both easy and satisfactory to all. However, this is not to be, as he launches into a litany of brutal complaints against the human race, employing cannibalistic language and derisive cynicism (Blitzstein’s Macheath sarcastically reminds us, “Forget that they’re supposed to be his brothers”).It is here that the chorus joins in for the third system. Peter W. Ferran mentions that it is the chorus which makes the thesis statement of the song: “So gentlemen, let’s face reality: We all survive by criminality” (17). He goes on to argue that since an opera’s chorus usually “enunciates an eternal truth”, the chorus here becomes the “voice of the times”, addressing the hypocrites of the world. The over-articulation of the lyrics and the music, with its booming strophes and antistrophes, pointedly keeps the audience in check, reminding them that they are the ones to be trusted with this message.Macheath has bribed Smith, an officer, to let him out of prison; however, he is betrayed again by Jenny and finds himself in prison again, waiting to be hanged. As he is led to the gallows, Peachum interrupts the action, telling the audience that he can’t risk offending them; therefore, a different ending will be substituted. Here, “justice give[s] way before humanity” (3PO 78), and in “The Third Threepenny Finale – Appearance of the Deus Ex Machina” (“III. Dreigroschenfinale”), Macheath is reprieved by Brown on horseback.Although exaggerated in its execution, Brecht instructed that the cast “must carefully carry out the formal obligations of this final chorus” (Ferran 19). This is, as Weill wrote, “an instance of the very idea of ‘opera’ being used to resolve a conflict, i.e. being given a function in establishing the plot, and consequently having to be presented in its purest and most authentic form” (qtd. in Manheim & Willett, 90).Macheath is saved from the gallows, and Jonathan and Cecilia Peachum step in front of the curtain to directly address the audience and to remind them that “saviours on horseback are seldom met with practice”11 (3PO 79). The Peachum-motif appears again here, in Peachum’s deliberate rhythm and sermon-like prose. Drew notices that the “anapaestic rhythm” of the C minor allegro moderato echoes Macheath’s “Call from the Grave” and Polly’s “Pirate Jenny”, “while the continued commitment to the minor mode reinforces the idea that in truth nobody has been saved – for the world remains poor and man remains evil” (157). However, Weill and Brecht rescue us from the notion that we are doomed in an outburst of dominant seventh12 harmony. The dominant seventh is commonly used by composers, especially those of jazz, to destabilize the triad before (usually) bringing it to resolution with a major chord.13 This progression reminds the audience of the previous scene: tension and trepidation (as illustrated by the seventh chord) followed by release and freedom (as illustrated by the resolving dominant/tonic chord). Here, Macheath’s experience of being freed from the gallows is reproduced both musically and thematically for the audience.14 In addition, the question posed in the Second Finale, “What keeps mankind alive?” is twisted slightly to say, “What will keep mankind alive?” The answer is here in the final statement issued by the entire company: “Injustice should be spared from persecution: Soon it will freeze to death, for it is cold” (3PO 79). The music here, although a parody, is also “decidedly hymnic…from piously distended melody to organlike orchestration” (Ferran 19). These four lines remind the audience to “track down injustice” (Blitzstein), but that it, too, will pass away. The implication here, however, is that the poor will freeze to death long before injustice does, so the poor had better do something about their situation before it is too late. The music here is reminiscent of many of Bach’s cantatas, in which “solos alternated with choral figures and dialogue was dressed in recitative” (Hirsch 51).Manheim and Willett’s translation has no trace of an epilogue; however, the Blitzstein version brings back the Street Singer, who repeats the opening tune of “Mack the Knife”. This reprise brings the audience back to reality: the beggars disappear into the shadows while the Street Singer laments that “we divide up those in darkness from the ones who walk in light” (Blitzstein). In typical Brechtian form, the final lines are a challenge to the audience. This denies them a final resolution, and therefore, catharsis. As Brecht wrote, this gives the end of the opera a sense of “consequence-less-ness” (qtd. in Ferran, 20), since the final message of the opera is one that spurs the audience into action.But with all of its success (from the 1928 opening up to current productions), it still seems that the 1928 Berlin bourgeois audience satirized by Brecht and Weill either missed the satirical gestus of the play or reveled in it, using the play to justify its own corruption. The critique of capitalism in The Threepenny Opera became profitable,15 and not only for Weill and Brecht. Within weeks of the show’s opening, a ‘3-Groschen-Bar’ opened in Berlin, which, as Franz Jung noted, attracted “whoever considered themselves part of culture” (qtd. in Hinton 58) and played only music from The Threepenny Opera. One store even sold Threepenny Opera wallpaper, so that a bourgeois fan could decorate a kitchen with pink and yellow images of the killer, Macheath, and his favorite prostitute, Jenny (Taylor 145). Brecht lamented the show’s success, since it was due to “everything that didn’t matter to me: the romantic plot, the love story, the music” (qtd. in Kowalke, “The Threepenny Opera in America”, 78), rather than the critique of society. However, Weill still viewed the show as a success, despite the fact that it had become “industrialised”: this, he said, “speaks for it rather than against it, and we should be lapsing into the errors of our old ways if we were to deny the importance and quality of a piece of music simply because it had become popular among the masses” (qtd. in Taylor 146).In his essay “Gestus and Music,” Weill wrote: “The structure of an opera is faulty if a dominant place is not given to the music in its total structure and the execution of its smallest part. The music of an opera may not leave to the libretto and the stage-setting the whole task of carrying the dramatic action and its idea; it must be actively involved in the presentation of the individual episode” (29). In The Threepenny Opera, the music combines with the lyrics in various ways to ultimately create “a new type of musical theatre” (qtd. in Manheim and Willett, 90). These combinations, rather than the individual songs on their own, make Weill’s composition a minor work of gestic genius.Notes1 Morley’s essay discusses gestic music generally; I hope to use his statements as a springboard to discuss the specific use of gestic music in The Threepenny Opera.2 In English, this is commonly referred to as “the alienation effect.”3 Space prevents me from describing all twenty-two songs; therefore, I will concentrate on the ones which I feel best illustrate this concept.4 Unless quoting a work which uses another translation, I use Manheim & Willett’s translation of The Threepenny Opera (London: Methuen Publishing, 2005). The original German is often used in scholarly works, but not translated into English. I have listed both for clarity. Some of my analysis requires the use of Blitzstein’s translation; these are appropriately noted.5 Although Brecht is often credited with adapting John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was almost entirely the work of his assistant, Elisabeth Hauptmann. Nevertheless, Brecht walked away with 62.5% of the royalties (Fuegi 196).6 This prologue is from Marc Blitzstein’s translation, which is currently the most widely performed. The Manheim/Willett translation carries no trace of the prologue.7 Sforzando is a dynamic notation meaning “play with emphasis.” Franz Joseph Hadyn wrote Symphony no. 94 (one of his most famous pieces) as a tranquil piece emphasized by a sudden, unexpected sforzando, intended as a joke.8 The theoretical structure of the “motto tune” is third-fifth-added sixth, also known as mediant-dominant-submediant, or “mi”-“sol”-“la”. For the sake of clarity I will refer to specific musical intervals numerically, i.e. third-fifth-sixth.9 The abbreviation “3PO” will reference Manheim & Willett’s translation.10 This idea was visually expressed in a production at the University of Wisconsin in 2004, in which Macheath and Peachum were dressed in costumes reminiscent of one another to subtly remind the audience that the two were not so different after all.11 This is sung in the Blitzstein recording, but spoken in the Manheim/Willett translation.12 The dominant seventh is a major triad (root-third-fifth) with an added seventh.13 Dominant sevenths have become more and more popular in composing since the beginnings of jazz and its subsequent transition into pop music; the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” and “Golden Slumbers” are two perfect examples of songs which use the dominant seventh to set up a tension before resolving. Weill must have been sure that jazz-wild Berlin would recognize the “jazziness” of the songs.14 This should not be mistaken as a form of catharsis. Brecht clearly sets up the idea that the audience has a responsibility; the resolution of the chord merely indicates that all is not lost.15 “Mack the Knife” has been commercially successful on its own, even to this day. Dozens of covers have been recorded, most notably by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Sting, and Ella Fitzgerald. In the ultimate ironic twist, McDonald’s created a character called “Mac Tonight” in the 1980s, who sold hamburgers with a jingle based on Brecht and Weill’s violent tune.