Mahagonny-Songspiel

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Mahagonny-Songspiel, also known as The Little Mahagonny, is a "small-scale 'scenic cantata'" written by the composer Kurt Weill and the dramatist Bertolt Brecht in 1927. Weill was commissioned in the spring to write one of a series of very short operas for performance that summer, and he chose to use the opportunity to create a "stylistic exercise" as preparation for a larger-scale project that they had begun to develop together (the two had met for the first time in March), their experimental 'epic opera' The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930).[1]

The Little Mahagonny was based on five 'Mahagonny Songs', which had been published earlier in the year in Brecht's collection of poetry, Devotions for the Home (Hauspostille), together with tunes by Brecht. To these five was added a new poem, "Poem on a Dead Man", that was to form the finale. Two of the songs were English-language parodies written by Elisabeth Hauptmann: the "Alabama Song" and "Benares Song". Using one or two of Brecht's melodies as a starting-point, Weill began in May to set the songs to music and to compose orchestral interludes along the following pattern:

Song One | Little March | Alabama Song | Vivace | Song Two | Vivace assai | Benares Song | Sostenuto (Choral) | Song Three | Vivace assai | Finale: Poem on a Dead Man [2]

The Little Mahagonny was first produced at the new German chamber music festival at Baden-Baden on 17 July 1927. Brecht directed, Lotte Lenya played Jessie, and the set-design was by Caspar Neher, who placed the scene in a boxing-ring before background projections that interjected scene-titles at the start of each section.[3] According to a sketch published years later, they read:

  1. The great cities in our day are full of people who do not like it there.
  2. So get away to Mahagonny, the gold town situated on the shores of consolation far from the rush of the world.
  3. Here in Mahagonny life is lovely.
  4. But even in Mahagonny there are moments of nausea, helplessness and despair.
  5. The men of Mahagonny are heard replying to God's inquiries as to the cause of their sinful life.
  6. Lovely Mahagonny crumbles to nothing before your eyes.[4]

A programme note for the performance stated:

Mahagonny is a short epic play which simply draws conclusions from the irresistible decline of our existing social classes. It is already turning towards a public which goes to the theatre naïvely and for fun."[5] The production lasted about forty-five minutes and was a great success, although there were no immediate plans for a revival.[6]

Stephen Sondheim was asked to translate this piece once with W. H. Auden, but declined. He said of this event, "But, I'm not a Brecht/Weill fan and that's really all there is to it. I'm an apostate: I like Weill's music when he came to America better than I do his stuff before...I love The Threepenny Opera but, outside of The Threepenny Opera, the music of his I like is the stuff he wrote in America—when he was not writing with Brecht, when he was writing for Broadway."[7]

Performance history[edit]

After its first performance in 1927 with the Deutsches Kammermusikfest under the direction of Walter Brügmann and conducted by Ernst Mehlich, it was presented on 11 December 1932 in Paris at the Salle Gaveau. Hans Curjel directed and Maurice Abravanel was conductor.

Years later, The Little Mahagonny was produced, in a much adapted version, by the Berliner Ensemble at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in East Berlin. It opened on 10 February 1963 and was directed by Matthias Langhoff and Manfred Karge.[6]

On 20 January 1971 the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven presented the work directed by Michael Posnick and conducted by Thomas Fay in a double-bill with Brecht & Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins.

Other notable productions included one by the English National Opera on 8 September 1984, conducted by Lionel Friend; the Brooklyn Academy of Music's production by Peter Sellars, conducted by Craig Smith; and, as part of the 12-hour concert, Wall-to-Wall Kurt Weill, on 30 March 1989 at Symphony Space in New York.

Twenty-first century productions took place on 25 March 2000 in New York by the Enesmble Weil directed by Ari Benjamin Meyers and on 5 and 7 June 2008, the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz performed the piece.

Recordings[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ Willett and Manheim (1994, xvi-xvii, 358).
  2. ^ Willett and Manheim (1994, 358).
  3. ^ Sacks (1994, xix) and Willett and Manheim (1994, xvi, 358-9).
  4. ^ Quoted by Willett and Manheim (1994, 359)
  5. ^ Quoted by Willett (1967, 29).
  6. ^ a b Willett (1967, 29).
  7. ^ Pat Cerasaro, "InDepth InterView: Andrew Lloyd Webber Talks LOVE NEVER DIES, PHANTOM 25, Ricky Martin & More", 29 January 2012 on broadwayworld.com Retrieved 4 February 2012
Cited sources
  • Sacks, Glendyr. 1994. "A Brecht Calendar". In Thomson and Sacks (1994, pp. xvii–xxvii).
  • Thomson, Peter and Glendyr Sacks, eds. 1994. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. (Cambridge Companions to Literature Series). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41446-6.
  • Willett, John. 1967. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. Third revised edition. London: Methuen, 1977. ISBN 0-413-34360-X.
  • Willett, John and Ralph Manheim, eds. 1994. Introduction and Editorial Notes in Collected Plays: Two by Bertolt Brecht. (Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry, Prose Series). London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-68560-8.