Books

Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

spacer By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's Press; 304 pp. $29.99

Books Lenya Cover 113

Reading Ethan Mordden's consideration of the lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is like having dinner with a knowledgeable, garrulous companion while he holds forth on a favorite topic. Like many a born conversationalist, he finds plenty of tangents along the way. The pages of this relatively slender book contain, among many digressions, a pocket history of the Weimar Republic that backtracks to discuss the causes of World War I; an appraisal of the Josef von Sternberg–Marlene Dietrich movies; a half page for an anecdote about conductor Karl Böhm and soprano Lisa Della Casa; a couple of paragraphs dismissing director Fritz Lang's American career; and a short put-down of Andrea Chénier.

What the book doesn't include is a proper biographical narrative. The composer disappears for long stretches, his wife and muse for even longer. Mordden mentions Lenya's flourishing stage career in late-Weimar Berlin but gives us no indication of the reasons for her success, citing not a single review or contemporary assessment. He calls her "one of the planet's most irresistible women" but tells us nothing of how this rather plain actress exerted such sexual magnetism. Although he chronicles Weill and Lenya's 1933 divorce, he offers no information about their reconciliation: we find them together two years later with no intervening explanation. 

Morddeneschews the apparatus of citing sources: we get none of the biographer's customary explanation of how he has reached his conclusions. Likewise, the language makes more sense as transcribed conversation than as expository prose. It is riddled with "so to speak"s and "let us say"s, as if to indicate the vocal inflections needed for the words to register sarcastically. Even worse is the use of title case as an ironic rendering of received opinion ("Weill was no longer That Enfant Terrible Who Does the Kaiser Operas"), a mannerism that appears on nearly every page. Some of the book is factually questionable; for instance, the assertion that Gustav Mahler "in his lifetime was thought … hardly a composer at all" is, at best, a gross simplification. At other times, the prose makes little sense: "You could say salonistes ran society, or rich lesbians promoting the arts, or even couturiers," Mordden writes, leading one to ponder "salonistes" controlling "rich lesbians."

Mordden is best when addressing the works themselves. His knowledge of Broadway lore animates the "American" half of the book. He is rightly dismissive of the notion that Weill lost his unique voice when he came here, persuasively demonstrating that the Broadway works show the same originality and vitality as the famous collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. A Weill discography, included as an appendix, shows Mordden to be a sharp-eared listener and a discerning critic. But, if Love Song is any evidence, he is simply not a biographer. spacer 

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: November 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 5