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Symphony No.1

Kurt Weill  - Symphony No.1

Kurt Weill is most famous for his bitingly ironical and radical ballad operas ‘The Threepenny Opera’ (1928), ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’ (1930) and ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ (1933) in which he collaborated with the evangelical playwright and dramatist Bertold Brecht. In these works he developed a highly individualistic style that was influenced by the risque audacity of the new jazz music, the dark romanticism and longing of Mahler, and the powerful psychological expressionism of Berg. Strongly satirising the decadence of contemporary Germany in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and the ills of a monstrous capitalism in ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, Weill’s music had a completely original spikiness that was sometimes witty and sometimes highly sardonic in its description of society. At other times his music poignantly evoked the sadness, suffering and frustrated romances and loves of poor and oppressed people.

Weill’s two symphonies were respectively composed before and just after this central period of ballad operas, whilst the very rarely performed Bastille music is an arrangement of incidental music for a play that dates from just before this period.

The First Symphony, dating from 1921, has few if any premonitions of the ‘songspiel’ and cabaret related style of the ballad operas, but it is nevertheless a highly original and unusual work and was considered very advanced when it appeared. That in fact occurred many years after its composition, as Weill never released it for public performance in his lifetime. When he had to leave Germany in 1933 (he was Jewish and would have perished had he stayed) the score was lost but remarkably did reappear some years after the end of the Second World War. By that time Weill was no longer alive (he had died in 1950) and so his First Symphony received its posthumous premiere in 1957 when it was performed by the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Schuchter. Written in one continuous movement, it is a far more severe work than the Second Symphony. Showing some influences of Mahler and Schoenberg, it is an inward, forceful and sometimes mournful composition written partly as an epitaph to the masses slaughtered in the First World War, but also as a religious expression of hope for a peaceful future. The score’s title page contained an epigraph from an expressionist play by Johann Becher called ‘Workers, Peasants, Soldiers - A People’s Awakening to God’ which appeared in 1921, the year of Weill’s First Symphony.

Jon Tolansky

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