Spring Symphonies: 42/60 - Weill: Symphony No 2
It's hard to think why Kurt Weill - man of the theatre - would want much to do with writing a symphony. That he did so twice is even more surprising. The man who brought us "Mac the Knife" in the Threepenny Opera - not to mention many other great works was as parsimonious in the writing for classical ensembles as he was prodigious for the theatre. His stage works and songs far outnumber his orchestral works and his piano and chamber works number a mere 5. He is not cut from the same material as is teacher Busoni or many classical composers of his time like Hindemith or Schonberg.
Weill's work is remembered as being a cornerstone of an avant grade movement in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Weill's persecution by the Nazi's would have been almost certain as a prominent leader of a degenerate (as the Nazi's saw it) musical group, a leftist and a Jew. He fled Germany in 1933 and made his way to America by 1935. Along the way he completed his second symphony in Paris and turned his back on works for orchestral thereafter. This symphony is the work of a man on the run and also a man seeped in German musical traditions. He was between marriages (both to Lotte Lenya) at that stage too. Exiled to Paris he would have been very close to what was happening in his home land. But this is stubbornly at times, not a nostalgic symphony. That word was hardly in the lexicon for Weill. It is fully in his voice.
The work opens withe menace, a gripping figure - immediate and growing uneasily. Its a memorable start. The music shifts to repeats of the figure and a trumpet solo which typically for Weill, takes a downward side step to deflate all around it. The motoristic figure which follows is derived from the figure but has a fantastic alacrity about it as the orchestra takes it up against growning lyric lines. It is hard to think of many symphonies of the time which sound so completely worked through in a traditional sense and yet maintain such a brevity of expression. The development section has a brighter outlook but this turns into something slower and more dogmatic. The music picks up with woodwind flourishes straight out of Hindemith. There's a great deal of that typical Weill repetition and more than usual amount of tension arising form the composer's excellent ear for the rachetting impatience with the trumpet figure. This is like film music and it may not be a proper sonata structure (though it may well be in an improper one). The music rises and dies abruptly with a kurt final chord.
The Largo is also fantastically full of foreboding in a way that seems to counter the slow marking. In truth it's a march of some momentum push through on a repeated figure. In it's quieter moments this feels like the accompaniment to a song, using a technique as old as Schubert Lieder. A trombone represents a typical Weil melody - indeed the tunes we hear here and elsewhere in the symphony have a lyrical quality straight out of Weill's stage works. When it does descend into quitter music the Weill rhetorical style is answered with more of the same and with excellent brass wring he gets to bigger places than this smaller symphony ought. The music moves with a steady tread and it is reinforced with some poignant chorales - those long dark melodies of Weill's stage works - shorn of sarcasm and beautifully orchestrated are hugely persuasive and compelling. Its the kind of narrative and authenticity a Russian symphonist might achieve but that Mahler would struggle to convey. There's variety of form and great drama as a tango like rhythm interjects to a massive, seemingly tragic, climax.
The Allegro Vivace finale begins with mysterious scurrying building to one of those glorious tunes that Weill made his own - a melody on brass of ambiguous potential. I love these aspects of Weill - puncturing the certainly of the classical musical language. I can't tell whether the music is serious or sarcastic. The scurrying music is recycled and mood is urgent and joyful. There's a good deal of brilliance in the orchestration but with a daring economy. The woodwind march which follows could be straight out of Hindemith. And there's a great forward momentum in a supremely accessible form. This is almost classical in the directness of it's expression.
The music speeds up to a euphoric height - I'm still not sure if it's just playing with us. The ending is typically brusque. Weill is not a sentimental man. The overarching drama builds to a conclusion with brass and timpani and after emphatic chords the journey's done.
Weill was a man on the run from the Nazis and he would go on to America from France where this symphony was completed. It was premiered in Amsterdam in 1934 with Bruno Walter conducting. There's a sense of peril, or probably more accurately flight, in the last movement and some seriousness about the second movement. But he doesn't labour the fix he's in and I think the symphony is all the better for that. It is a fine symphony which is out of it's time somewhat. Weill joins a number of composers including Hindemith, Hartmann and Pfitzner who's more traditional symphonies are lost behind the barrage of neo-classicism, impressionism and very late Romantic tone poetry. No wonder Bartok, Strauss and colleagues never really got near the form. In England and France, Scandinavia and the US - symphonies like this became common place - the Russian and Soviet symphonists were many. Symphonic art lost traction and identity in Germany as Weill fled to America.
Weill died at the age of 50 and who knows if he would ever had returned to the form. The stage took up most of his time in America to great success. But it's nice to remember his roots and utterly individual language in a long orchestral form and this work is the best example you'll find I think.
Here's Edo de Waart conducting it:-