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January 7, 2015

Book Notes - Pamela Katz "The Partnership"

The Partnership

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Pamela Katz's The Partnership vividly recounts the collaboration of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in a book as insightful as it is entertaining.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"With a novelist's eye for telling details, Katz offers a colorful, perceptive and riveting portrait of a remarkable artistic partnership."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Pamela Katz's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink:


As a book about a composer and a poet/playwright, whose monumental achievements in music, theater, and musical theater include the invention of an altogether new songwriting style, much of my narrative focuses on what it was that made the Brecht/Weill songs so unique, and so powerful.

Here are four examples of songs they wrote in 1927, 1928 and 1929 — ones that have been performed by an astonishing number and variety of artists all over the world:


"THE ALABAMA SONG" (1927)

The journey this song has taken from its inception in 1927 is humorously revealed in a comment I discovered on YouTube. Lotte Lenya's version is available there, and is remains as haunting, and also as witty, as the day she performed it. The commenter, however, doesn't agree with me on this point. Their contribution to the page laments the fact that Lenya's version is a "terrible cover for the great Doors Song."

Such comments reveal part of my reason for wanting to write a book about Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and of course, their brilliant female collaborators. I wanted to share my fascination for these two geniuses, and to recreate the culturally vibrant Weimar Republic in a way that contemporary readers could understand. The intense, hopeful and ultimately doomed period between the World Wars was inhabited by artists who changed art, music, and theater for all time. The Partnership sees that world through the eyes of Brecht, Weill, Helene Weigel, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Lotte Lenya.

A bit more on "The Alabama Song:"

Weill's imagination, which he likened to an airplane, took off when he read Brecht's beguiling poem, surprisingly written in English, titled "Alabama Song." — this was the first collision between poet and composer and it launched a partnership that was as stunning as it was to be short-lived.

The "ALABAMA SONG" was part of a short opera the two artists presented at a highbrow music festival. And although Brecht failed in his attempt to bring the actresses onstage completely naked, nudity would not have been more astounding to this audience than the sound of an actual melody, a "real unmistakable tune," as Lotte Lenya exclaimed. But shocking the elite patrons of modern atonal music, shocking a small group of snobs, was just a beginning.


"THE PIRATE JENNY SONG" (1928)

This song is especially hard for a gal to resist. Whether it's sweet Polly in her wedding gown singing it — as she did in the original theater version — or Lotte Lenya, as the whore Jenny, singing it to bemoan Macheath's betrayal — as she did in the famous Pabst film — it's a song about revenge, about pain, and about triumph. For the girl, that is. There are many reasons why it was written for Polly to sing, and many other reasons for Jenny to do so — the placement of the song has been controversial ever since Pabst chose to change it. But one key element is the song's universal shout of protest and successful, if eerily violent, echo of revenge and triumph.

When Brecht originally placed the song at Polly's wedding, to be sung by the bride, it was because he knew that the character of Polly, as a supposedly pure woman who has gleefully given way to desire for the scoundrel Macheath, could go far to expose the kind of hypocritical bourgeois morality that he had been satirizing for as long as he had been writing. This is, of course, not the song one expects from a lovesick bride, and it was just this sort of contrast between surface naivete and profound irony that formed Brecht and Weill's early signature — a contrast that made "Threepenny" groundbreaking for its time, as well as a style that became classic almost overnight.


"SURABAYA JOHNNY" (1929)

"Surabaya Johnny" was performed in Brecht and Weill's second show, titled "Happy End." It was done in response to the overwhelming success of "The Threepenny Opera" but ended up revealing the emerging differences between Brecht and Weill.

The raging "Threepennyfever" had pushed Brecht and Weill in opposite artistic directions. Brecht wanted to use their breakthrough as a hammer to smash the operatic form to bits—in fact, to smash all elite forms of culture to bits; Weill wanted to continue transforming the opera to reinvigorate its popular appeal.If both men were wondering where to take this audience next, and were in fact coming up with conflicting destinations, neither of them spoke openly about it yet. They were frozen in the spotlight, and they hoped their next musical play, an attempt to perpetuate the success of "Threepenny," could be a way for them to continue the glorious present. In part because the partnership was beginning to unravel as the new play, called Happy End, was written and performed, in part because Brecht sabotaged the opening night, little is remembered of this work beyond this one song. "Surabaya" is a young girl's tragic tale of lost innocence, but for a long time, the theme of betrayal also invoked the memory of Brecht's surprise destruction of the show he created with his partner, an act the increasingly political poet deemed necessary in order to prevent him from again suffering the embarrassment of success with which "Threepenny" had burdened him.


"MACK THE KNIFE" (1928)

Brecht and Weill would probably disagree, but when it comes to an audience, this is the neon light of their songbook. As I was writing, this song was the most frequent point of engagement for people who asked what my book was about. Music and theater afficionados aside, the work of Brecht and Weill is not as popularly known as it deserves to be. Their influence on music, theater and musical theater is so utterly woven into the fabric of, for example, American culture, that few even know how responsible these two men have been for what we now take for granted. So when I would say my book is about the partnership of Brecht and Weill, many stared at me blankly. When I said they wrote "The Threepenny Opera," some percentage of people became excited, but not as many as I would have thought.

But because the song "Mack the Knife" entered the popular imagination with such force, indeed it is one of the most famous songs ever written, it was usually the moment when the eyes of my listener would light up, finally feeling as though they might be able to relate to the book as a whole. I don't think the outsized talents of both men, either together or separately, can be primarily represented by this one great song, but I do think it's a great, great song. One day, I played a recording where it is sung by Bertolt Brecht, in his thick Bavarian accent, rolling his ‘r's' in way that sounds exaggerated. It is a cultural relic, perhaps difficult for a non-German speaker to relate to, but it is moving, even haunting, just the same. Afterwards, I played the famous short film where Louis Armstrong does his famous rendition. The journey this song traveled, from Brecht to Armstrong, from Germany to America, from 1928 to today, provides a powerful vision about what the creation of enduring art can be. Hearing these two versions side by side is particularly moving for me, after traveling the long road to writing this book and living in the world in which this song was created.

As you can read in the book, this song was written in less than 24 hours and under circumstances as humorous, as wicked, and as original as the Mack the Knife himself.


Pamela Katz and The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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