Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya: Love in the Creative Partnership
On the 3rd of April 1950, German composer Kurt Weill died of a heart attack in New York City. His highly innovative and eclectic works for the theatre, such as the Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny, Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, but also numerous popular songs and instrumental music, have secured him lasting fame and a reputation that continues to grow in time as more of his music is performed. Thinking of Weill one must also remember his wife and life and work companion Lotte Lenya, whose voice is associated with most of his songs. After Weill’s death, it was also Lenya who contributed most to the popularisation of her husband’s compositions. Therefore her input into Weill’s career should not be disregarded.
The composer and his future wife first met in the summer of 1924 and instantly took a shine to each other. They were both very distinctive individuals in search of their true artistic paths. And it is probably this distinctiveness that formed the ground for mutual attraction. At the time Weill was “[a] small, balding young man with eager, burning eyes, quiet in his manner, deliberate and always soft-spoken, dressed more like a candidate for a degree in divinity than a young composer in the flamboyant Berlin…, sucking a conservative pipe with the absent-minded absorption of an instructor in higher mathematics.” (Jurgen Schebera, Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life). As much as she was fascinated by his strange looks, Lenya recognised the greatness of his talent above all. In the recollections of her first visits to Weill’s apartment in Berlin, Lenya stated: “He had a charming little apartment, and that’s when he was working on Der Protagonist. And he asked, “Would you like to hear a little bit of it?” I said, “Oh, yes. I would like very much to hear.” And he said, “Well, my brother [Hans] hated it, but I wonder what your reaction would be.” Strangely enough, as atonal as it was, I loved it. I said, “Well, Mr. Weill, I don’t know why, but I really, really love that music.” And he was so happy that he said, “May I make you some tea?” Of course, there was no refrigerator, so from the windowsill he got a little butter wrapped in paper and a little bread. And I had such a hard time to get that butter down, because it was so rancid – which he didn’t even notice, because they were used to it; he went through the war, you know. So I didn’t say anything; I ate it.” (Kurt Weill, Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya)
Soon, they became a couple and Weill’s wish to fall in love “to the point of madness” (Schebera) was fulfilled at last. Whenever apart, they would write each other letters, which are now the solid proof of Weill’s deep affection for Lenya. In one of his first letters to her, from the summer of 1924, Weill wrote:
It’s true that you need a human being who belongs to you, because there has to be someone to whom you don’t need to lie. It’s also true that this someone has to be me. But then how will you answer? Such a step would not be possible for me without a strong commitment of what you call – with a shrug of your shoulders – “feeling” and in which you’d gladly believe, since you don’t know what it is. But right now you couldn’t have such feeling for me. Are you willing to wait???????????? I think of you often and always happily. And I wished we could stay right where we were at the end of this evening.????
Do come soon. Please.
Kurt Weill” (Speak Low…)
The relationship with Lenya gave Weill the kind of freedom but at the same time security that helped him significantly in his creative process. In a letter to his parents he wrote: “Of course living with Lenya has a lot to do with that. It has helped me a great deal. It is indeed the only way I can abide having another person beside me: two different artistic interests next to each other, each encouraged along its way by the other. How long will this last? Quite long, I hope.” (Schebera)
His wish was fulfilled, as they stayed together until the end of his life. However, their relationship went through many ‘rocky’ periods. Married twice in 1926 and again in 1937 (following their divorce in 1933), both of them were involved along the way in many love affairs which, oddly enough, would never stand in the way to their successful professional collaboration. In fact, on many occasions Weill would involve Lenya’s lovers in his productions, and Lenya was acceptant of his mistresses too. Unfortunately, it all ended much too early with Weill’s death at the age of fifty, leaving Lenya, like the “soldier’s wife” from one of Weill’s ballads, with the “widow’s veil.” And she wore that “veil” with pride, worshipping and promoting her husband’s life and work until her own death in 1981.
Film Credit: jonthesYT