Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform
By Stephen Hinton
University of California Press; 592 pp. $49.95
As late as the 1980s, Kurt Weill had the reputation of a second-tier composer whose greatest music was penned in the 1920s and early '30s. The critical position was that Weill's subsequent efforts — written after his immigration to the U.S. — amounted to an inferior sellout to American popular culture. Fortunately, these views have been displaced by an ever-growing appreciation of Weill's complete oeuvre, from his earliest theatrical efforts through his final works. One of those leading the charge in the rehabilitation of Weill's standing is musicologist Stephen Hinton, who here presents the first comprehensive analysis of Weill's entire corpus of theatrical and dramatic works — from ballet to cinema, from opera to Broadway musical.
Hinton's detailed book discusses each work individually and offers perspective on its importance within the larger framework of Weill's dramatic output. For the most part, these works are treated in chronological order, with a few skips made to organize them into categories, and the discussion is bookended and interspersed with considerations of Weill's aesthetics and influences, as well as accounts of the critical reactions to his efforts. Clearly directed mainly toward the scholarly community, Hinton's volume covers a tremendous amount of material, with ample footnotes for those seeking further information. Herein lie the book's strengths and weaknesses. Without doubt, Weill's Musical Theater is and will remain a cornerstone work in Weill studies: the analyses are thorough and deep. Hinton ties in important information from previous works, thus rounding out the thesis of continuity in Weill's creative career. However, the narrative line of the book frequently is upended by exhaustive investigations of tangential issues. In the first chapter, we are confronted with a long discussion of the ways in which Weill and his contemporary Paul Hindemith were composers of different viewpoints and personality types; in the following chapter, the discussion of Busoni's aesthetics overstays its welcome, particularly since by this chapter's ending the reader has traversed almost seventy pages and has yet to arrive at the topic proper. A consideration of A Kingdom for a Cow becomes bogged down in a discursion about the impact of operetta on Weill's creativity vis-à-vis the influence of the satirist Karl Kraus's obsession with Offenbach.
Hinton offers more closely focused accounts of the major collaborations with Brecht — Mahagonny, both singspiel and opera; Die Dreigroschenoper; Die Sieben Todsünden — as well as Der Silbersee, Der Weg der Verheissung and the American works such as Johnny Johnson and Lost in the Stars. In these discussions, Hinton truly enhances our understanding of the music, and of the cultural circumstances in which it was created.
While the casual reader may find the writing style challenging at times, Hinton's book is a goldmine of information. It will further burnish the composer's reputation as a key figure in dramatic music of the twentieth century.
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