(Philip Hensher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/3.)
Some historical periods immediately conjure up the sound made by their orchestras. Think of high imperial Vienna and a Strauss waltz starts to sound, while Edwardian England calls up Elgar. Another is, surely, Weimar Germany. Its characteristic sound is a small orchestra, heavy on the brass and wind, a banjo and a guitar at work. They are making a busy, sour, staccato fugue. Soon a woman will start declaiming in a harsh voice. It’s the sound of Brecht and Weill – and nobody summons up the sound of helpless, furious laughter on the precipice of catastrophe more vividly.
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is about to be mounted at the Royal Opera House in London. It’s a rare outing for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s most extensive and demanding collaboration, itself the culmination of a series of joint works: The Mahagonny Songspiel, The Threepenny Opera and Happy End. The collaboration was problematic – Brecht and Weill came from very different places, and had very different ambitions. What happened after the March 1930 premiere in Leipzig permanently hobbled the piece, and it has never quite recovered. With the exception of Alabama Song, covered by everyone from Gisela May to the Doors, its songs have not seeped into the mass consciousness like Bilbao Song and Surabaya Johnny, survivors of the wreckage of Happy End.