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The Symphonic Side of 'Mack the Knife' Composer Kurt Weill

Getty Images/Libray of Congress
Composer Kurt Weill in 1943. His best-known work, 'The Threepenny Opera,' included the popular ballad, 'Mack the Knife.'

The success of “Mack the Knife,” composed in 1928, and other popular music written by 20th-century German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill overshadowed his orchestral and classical work. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on his second symphony, and why it was not heard for decades.

On Sunday, April 11th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, April 12th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2, Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert from 2016, featuring Weill’s Symphony No. 2, along with works by Ravel and Gershwin written around the same period.

Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife," with lyrics by Bertold Brecht, became a jazz standard in the 1950s. Here's a 1960 performance by Ella Fitzgerald:

The popular tune was written in 1927 for The Threepenny Opera, when composer Kurt Weill was also writing classical instrumental and vocal works. He wrote his Symphony No. 2 in 1934, when the Nazis were coming to power.

"I fell in love with this symphony many years ago," says Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who recorded it with Orchestre Metropolitain in Montreal in 2005. “It was part of complete Kurt Weill program,” he says, which included a variety of Weill’s songs.

Weill's second symphony is rich with drama.  "If you’re not listening carefully, you can think it’s something very pleasant and happy and upbeat," says Yannick, pointing to the march in the third movement.  "And yet it is more about putting a certain twist to the military march. When he composed that symphony, he had to leave Germany."

Weill finished the symphony in Paris. Conductor Bruno Walter led performances in Amsterdam and New York. And then, the work fell prey to the darkness of the times.

"Unfortunately, it was banished in Germany and in Europe eventually," says Yannick. "Weill had come to the states and he became known as a more popular composer for theater, so that his youth music was for several decades completely ignored."

Weill died in 1950 in New York. His second symphony was finally published in 1966, after which the work began a new life.

Here’s “Happy End: Matrosen-Tango," (The Sailors’ Tango), one of the songs included on the 2005 album.


Yannick talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about Weill's Second Symphony, and why Weill and Gershwin could be considered the first crossover musicians.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.