A Bunch of Brecht (and Weill)

Yesterday we heard Weill and Anderson. Today it will be Weill and Brecht.

The Threepenny Opera is one of my favorite works of musical theater, and it was — is — a truly revolutionary piece. I don’t speak German, but I have memorized most of Threepenny’s amazing score — in German. My favorite bit is the refrain from “The Cannon Song,” just because it’s so darned fun to sing. It goes:

Soldaten wohnen
Auf den Kanonen
Vom Cap bis Couch Behar
Wenn es mal regnete
Und es begegnete
Ihnen ‘ne neue Rasse
‘ne braune oder blasse
Da machen sie vielleicht daraus ihr
Beefsteak Tartar!

From the Willett/Manheim translation:

The troops live under
The cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
They quick as winking chop them into
Beefsteak tartar!

The most popular English version of Threepenny, the 1954 translation by Marc Blitzstein (who has otherwise excellent bonafides but for some reason completely bowdlerized Bertolt Brecht’s seering lyrics), spawned the famous version of “Mack the Knife” that made Bobby Darrin and a generation of lounge singers quite wealthy indeed.

The much better Willett/Manheim translation keeps all the bite and bleakness. This performance by Nick Cave jettisons about half the verses, alas, but certainly holds true to the spirit of the song:

The original production of Threepenny in 1928 in Berlin was an overwhelming success, and it was performed more than 10,000 times. It was followed by another Brecht/Weill collaboration, Happy End. But the new show had been quickly thrown together, and it was a personal and commercial failure; its most redeeming quality was Weill’s inspired score, which spawned a few certifiable hits like “The Bilbao Song” and today’s selection, “Surabaya Johnny.”

“Surabaya Johnny,” the lament of a lover who has been used and betrayed, is (as one reviewer put it) “seething, sexual, cigarette-stained, lemon-tinged, imperishable.”

Bette Midler did a version. So did Marianne Faithfull. But the most high-toned version (literally and figuratively) is by the Greek-Canadian-American soprano Teresa Stratas. Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, lovingly preserved Weill’s music for modern audiences, and in the last years of her life passed the torch to Stratas, now considered by some to be the leading interpreter of Weill’s music. Here is Stratas doing an emotionally devastating version of the song, in German:

An interesting cross-gender version is by Jeffrey March (in drag, as always), singing in both German and English:

Most English versions of the song use the same excellent translation by Michael Feingold, which features the classic refrain, “Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat!” (Though René Magritte might have pointed out, “That’s not a pipe!” On the other hand, Sigmund Freud is quoted as saying, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. . . .”)

My favorite performance of the “Surabaya Johnny,” and probably the definitive English version, is by the aforementioned Dagmar Krause. It’s not on film, but here is a full-length MP3 of the song:

The only other English translation I’ve run across that I like is Tom Robinson’s, and he also plays with gender. It’s not on film, but his translation is so interesting that I thought I’d print some of the lyrics here:

I was just 17 when I met you
In a bar on a Harburg quay
I was new to the town and the country
But you said you could go with me
Well I asked what you did for a living
And you swore on your dead mother’s grave
You were planning some two-man business
And not a life on the ocean wave

You talk a lot, Johnny
A lot of rot, Johnny
You lied and cheated me right from the start
Don’t sit and grin, Johnny
You took me in, Johnny
You might at least take that pipe
Out your mouth when I’m talking to you

Surabaya Johnny
Why’d you treat me so rough
Surabaya Johnny
Oh I loved you so much
Surabaya Johnny
Now I’m down on my luck
You’ve got no heart, Johnny
And I love you so much. . . .

It began like a month of Sundays
As you showed me all over the town
But the moment we moved in together
Was the moment your fist came down
Every night you were drunk in a punch-up
And you’d come back home in a rage
My face in the bathroom mirror
Is like a man more than twice my age

It wasn’t love Johnny
You wanted money Johnny
I begged & borrowed
I stole from my home
You took it all Johnny
I gave you more, Johnny. . . .

Well there’s one thing you never did mention
And it’s not that you’re not one to boast
But you’d exactly the same reputation
In every other town on the coast
Waking up in a bed and breakfast
There’s a ship in the harbour outside
And you pick up your bag on your shoulder
And walk out without saying goodbye. . . .

How to end? I’m terribly torn. I had Lotte Lenya all lined up to sing “Surabaya,” but then the video was removed for a time. It’s now online here, though I can’t warrant that it will be there for long.

Then quite unexpectedly I found two videos that are very different, but both very good indeed. The first is Anne Kerry Ford’s deliciously biting version of “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny:

The second is the ravishing “Youkali,” performed by Teresa Stratas. It’s an Havana-style tango written by Weill in 1934 during his exile in France. Originally written as incidental music for the play Marie Galante, it was later given lyrics (in French) by Roger Fernay. Music and words invoke an island paradise and exactly capture the longing for escape from what Europe had become in the 1930s, or was about to become. Within a year of writing this music, Weill would flee France for the United States — one of the lucky few. I hope you like it:

From a Weill tribute page:

Musically, Weill was in the avant-garde of 20th-century European composition. Much of his most serious symphonic and choral work shares a sharp, hypermodern edge with Bartok, Hindemith, Webern, and Berg, with strong echoes of jazz and city honky-tonk; Weill was rarely trying to give a mass audience happy, feel-good tunes they could whistle as they left the theater. Instead he was constantly trying to find ways to touch the deepest parts of the human soul and challenge the highest realms of the intellect. Some music lulls us to sleep; Weill’s is always a startling awakening.

Yet none of his music is detached, technical and cold; all of it is infused with constant, tumultuous, immediate passion. One of his greatest ambitions was to use music to describe the lives and emotions of “ordinary” women and men to audiences whose sophistication had isolated them from real human experience. Every note of Weill’s music expresses love and hope as much as it expresses rage and despair.

Never confuse Weill’s work with a painful, highbrow experience; almost every encounter with Weill’s music is an instant and intimate pleasure and thrill; genuine laughter, sweeping romance, and just the electric joy of being alive are marbled throughout his work.


~ by Craig R. Smith on 2 September 2007.

11 Responses to “A Bunch of Brecht (and Weill)”

  1. I was hoping there’d be something waiting for me here this morning. I sat down with my tea and toast and enjoyed myself immensely.

  2. What he said. But I’m drinking coffee. Black and bitter. (I know what you’re thinking—finely ground and stored in the freezer!)

  3. Deloney: I have already finished writing the first fourteen posts. They’ll appear at 5:30 a.m., for you early risers.

    Indigo: Alex, what is, “How does she like her men?”

  4. you are quite the Stakhanovite, my friend: for myself the most intended version of Pirate Jenny is Nina Simone’s, and I once had and sadly lost an lp of threpenny Opera with Bert himself singing Macheath, in a cracked voice with the r’s rolling like the drum on a tumbril. Will we be getting Eisler? Silly question….

  5. Some translations for the rest of us, if you’ll allow me, Miz Slo.

    Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov (1906–1977) was a miner in the Soviet Union. He became a celebrity in 1935 (and was on the cover of Time magazine) as part of a movement intended to increase worker productivity and demonstrate the superiority of the socialist economic system. Personally, while I feel a great connection with the American Socialists of the ’30s, I’m more of a Democratic Socialist (or a Social Democrat) these days.

    Of all the major singers of the late 20th century, Nina Simone was one of the hardest to classify, I think. She recorded extensively in the soul, jazz, and pop idioms, often over the course of the same album; she was also comfortable with blues, gospel, and Broadway. I understand her revision of Weill-Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” reflected the bitter elements of African-American experience, but unfortunately I’ve never heard her version. It’s now at the top of my list.

    Eisler is Hanns Eisler, 1898-1962, a prolific Marxist composer, whose pre-World War II songs for the masses blended criticism of capitalism with advanced musical techniques. A number of Eisler’s songs were based on Bertolt Brecht’s texts. In 1942-43 he worked on Hollywood Songbook with texts by Brecht, Anacreon, Hölderlin, Goethe, Rimbaud, and others. Eisler also composed for Broadway plays and after moving to California for Hollywood films, such as Hangmen also Die (1943), directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and Brecht, and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), directed by Cliff Odets and starring Cary Grant. For both films Eisler received Academy Award nominations. Interesting tidbit: in Brecht’s play Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg, which he wrote in 1941-43 and for which Eisler composed the music, the characters of Hitler, Göring, and Himmler and others were made to sing. The play was not produced until in 1957; it perhaps inspired Mel Brooks’ first feature The Producers (1968).

    Eisler’s not on the schedule, but I think you’ll be pleased with some other off-beat choices coming up.

    And I would KILL to hear Brecht singing 3PO.

  6. http://www.peabodyopera.org/essays/threepenny04/: you need realplayer, I think. Now, I would like you to kill Michael Buble, if you don’t mind. I’d never heard the connection between Schwejk in the Scecond World War and the Producers. I saw Schwejl at the National with huge puppets of Hitler and Stalin, and apart from the puppets Mel Brooks was more pointed…thanks for being an explicator: I tend to waft along strewing allusions in my wake like Morrissey’s daffodils (you see?)

  7. I am forever in your debt for that clip of B.B. singing Mackie Messer.

    And Michael Buble has been on the hit list for a good year already. I’m just not willing to get that close to him.

  8. how about that “same excellent translation by Michael Feingold” that the astounding Dagmar Krause is singing? I found this page trying 2 locate the lyric 2 place on my profile.. but not even here -did I find that translation!
    I however can enlighten you 2 the existence of yet another English translation -I had just had the misfortune of encountering
    (it was by all means horrendous!)
    and 2 the existence of a Lotte Lenya clip on u-tube -singing Surabaya johnny!

  9. Dagmar Krause sings Surabaya Johnny (although the beginning section is missing) on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOGwxhZDCUA

  10. Thank you so much for posting all this information! I’m a singer, looking at various versions of Surabaya Johnny, which I’ll be singing at a Memorial Celebration of Julie Wilson at Town Hall later this month. I tried to print out the Tom Robinson version just to look at it, but no success. I will search for the Roger Fernay version since I sing a lot in French, and also see whether Julie sang Michael Feingold’s version. Many years ago I sang the song in German but never recorded it. When I sang it in English, I may have sung
    Marc Almond’s version. Bette Midler appears to have written her own translation – or perhaps someone wrote it for her. Not sure. In any case, I was happy to find your ‘blog’!

    • I am very familiar with your work! I’m actually a huge fan of yours—I came to see you numerous times at a club in the DC area back in the ’80s. (I forget which one—could it have been Charlie’s? I know it wasn’t One Step Down or Blues Alley…)

      As for Tom Robinson’s version, have you seen his lyrics here?

      Julie Wilson was a national treasure. I’m so glad you’ll be at the memorial.

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