The music of Kurt Weill's Street Scene is like a meal where the menu consists of a grilled cheese sandwich, chateaubriand, hot fudge sundaes, collard greens and gummy bears.
|Langston Hughes, lyricist|
Funny thing about Mozart - there's never a moment where he inserts a ragtime number or a polka, but that's just Wolfgang for you. Weill's strategy of juxtaposing wildly contrasting genres and styles, often with jarring effect, is a deliberate calculation. Does it work? It helps if you just sort of go with it. Does it succeed? As someone who composes myself, I've come to think that the only way to define "success" in music composition is via this standard:
Did the music turn out as the composer intended? Does it sound exactly as he hoped it would? Is it in fact the composition he meant to create?
If "yes", "yes" and "yes", then BANG: he succeeded. How it's greeted by the rest of us is not always relevant. Street Scene rings the bell from this point of view.
I'm intrigued by the duet for two nannies in Act 2, in a moment after the excitement of the murders and Frank Maurrant's arrest have died down and left the neighborhood in an uneasy quiet. The nannies croon a lullaby to infants in strollers, even as they peruse tabloid papers. The lyrics alternate between lines of nanny-like phrases and lurid references to the violence ("Hush, tiny tot; it shows where they got shot").
What I find intriguing here is that Weill momentarily seems to revert to the quirky, satiric, heavily ironic style of his pre-American collaborations with Bertold Brecht. The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins are nothing if not bitterly satiric and heavily ironic. Once landed in New York City, however, Weill "read the room", so to speak, of his new home and realized that such qualities were decidedly NOT to the American taste. Americans, he saw, are big on sentiment and sincerity, likely accounting for the relative lack of popularity of his European masterpieces in the USA.
But "Sleep, baby dear" is completely satiric and ironic! The disconnect between the languidly somnolent tune and the words eagerly recounting the bloodshed is an "in your face" gesture. I wonder if Weill realized he was momentarily abandoning the new-found earnestness of "Wrapped in a ribbon", "Somehow I never could believe" and the other numbers?
As noted in a previous post, virtually every number seems to be an homage of some sort, summoning up the varied styles and genres of mid-century American popular music. This includes one moment of Weill's self-homage - at least, in my opinion.
This happens in the "Ice cream sextet", an exuberant parody of Italian opera's tradition of concerted ensembles (I'm lookin' at YOU, Donizetti...). In the middle of the piece, following a robust opening more or less in the vein of a tarantella, Lippo Fiorentino waxes lyrical as he begins an ardent paean to American lunch counters where you can get every type of food you could want. His neighbors begin rapturous recitation of their favorites. Lyricist Langston Hughes indulged himself with a somewhat dubious quartet of rhymes:
"You can get chicken hash;
You can get potato mash;
You can get summer squash;
But I want succotash"
Do "squash" and "hash" really rhyme? Well, never mind...
I believe Weill told Hughes that he needed such a rapturous recitation of favorite foods because he wanted to salute his final European composition, The Seven Deadly Sins. In the "Gluttony" movement, Anna's family back home in Louisiana have a similarly rapturous recitation:
"Crab meat; pork chops; sweet corn; chicken; and those golden biscuits spread with honey."
A self-salute for those with ears to hear it.
A final detail that makes me smile is found in the opening number of Act 2; a children's singing game led by young Willie Maurrant with a bunch of his friends. As the song nears its end, all the kids suddenly break out with "Hey baba rebop, hey baba rebop". What's so notable about that? Bear in mind that Street Scene premiered in 1947. As it happens, the previous year saw the release of a swing/blues song by Lionel Hampton called "Hey baba rebop"; You can hear it on this Youtube video.
I really like the fact that, in the totally fictional world of Street Scene, Hampton's song (which spent sixteen weeks at No. 1 on the Rhythm & Blues charts and made it as high as No. 9 on the national hit parade) is a real song, one these fictional children hear on the radio every day and have incorporated into their street game.
It's just another instance of Kurt Weill absorbing and utilizing yet another style of mid-century American music as he found it, assembling them all like colors on a painter's palette.
How very unfair that an unhealthy life style caught up with Weill far too soon, taking him at age 50. How might he have refined his search for a viable voice for American Opera? We can't know.