Weill’s early, Weimar-era works reveal the qualities that found a natural home in his golden age American musicals.

Kurt Weill is often described as if he were two composers. One spun quintessential sounds of Weimar-era Berlin in works like “The Threepenny Opera,” and the other wrote innovative earworms for Broadway’s golden age. His career was bifurcated, so the story goes — split not only by a shift in style, but also by the Atlantic Ocean, when he fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States.

Yet it’s possible to trace an unbroken line from Weill’s earliest works, as a teenager, to his final projects for the American stage, before his death in 1950. This path is evident in a recent wave of streamed performances — from his hometown, Dessau, as well as from Berlin, Milan and elsewhere — that together form a rough survey of his European output and reveal a spongy mind, a desire for novelty and a steady progression toward simplicity that found a natural home in his pathbreaking Broadway musicals.

The oldest piece on offer came, appropriately, from Dessau, where Weill was born in 1900. Today it’s a dreary town in the former East Germany, but it has a rich cultural heritage: The Kurt Weill Center is inside one of the Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus school, which is a local landmark and a venue for the annual Kurt Weill Festival. That celebration went online this year, with events including a spirited recital by the young pianist Frank Dupree.

Between duets with the trumpeter Simon Höfele, Dupree played “Intermezzo,” a short piano solo from 1917, before Weill had studied with the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni or worked under the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. You can already hear, in this tender work, a gift for melody, as well as the textural sophistication of Brahms.

Music history looms over Weill’s early efforts. The First Symphony (1921) — recently streamed by the Berlin Philharmonic under its chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko — reflects the energetic enthusiasm of a student absorbing works of the post-Wagnerian generation, with an expressionistic nod to Schoenberg and a debt to Mahler. But it has more than a classroom sense of craft; Petrenko made a persuasive case for how tautly constructed and delicately balanced the symphony is within its uninterrupted, chaotic 25 minutes.

Kirill Petrenko conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a recent livestream of Weill’s First Symphony.
Monika Rittershaus, via Berliner Philharmoniker

At the same time, Weill was also showing an interest in popular styles, such as in “Langsamer Fox und Algi-Song” — a textbook cabaret number that was charmingly arranged by Dupree for piano and trumpet in his Dessau program. It foreshadows Weill’s embrace of the lowbrow, which he bent to ironic and politically charged effect in “The Threepenny Opera.” But that was still some years off, and until then, his music carried traces of fashionable atonality, with a teeming urge for originality that came out in works like the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, written in 1924 and featured in a stream by the Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan Academy.

Despite the title, the concerto is also written for percussion and double basses; nonetheless, it’s a gambit of orchestration, pitting a string soloist against an ensemble of much louder instruments. The Karajan musicians and the conductor Marie Jacquot — joined by the coolly able violinist Kolja Blacher — may have played with a timidity that paled some of the piece’s wit. But overall, they validated the claim of the musicologist Kim Kowalke, the president of the Kurt Weill Foundation and author of the landmark study “Kurt Weill in Europe,” that “nowhere is the acuity of the ear more apparent than in the orchestration of the concerto.”

Elsewhere — such as in “Der Neue Orpheus,” a cantata for soprano and violin soloists — Weill proved a master of balancing disparate voices, with a keen ear for precise orchestration. It’s why his works from the 1920s rarely call for a large ensemble — and perhaps why so many of them, normally neglected for their modest scale, have been programmed during the pandemic.

One that remains overlooked is the short comic opera “Der Zar Lässt Sich Photographieren” (“The Czar Has His Photograph Taken”), written in 1927 and the embodiment of the mocking question Busoni is said to have asked Weill: “What do you want to become, a Verdi of the poor?” (To which Weill responded, “Is that so bad?”) It’s easy entertainment but also revolutionary, not least for its use of a prerecorded tango played onstage from a gramophone.

The dramatic works that have recently been staged, however, are significant as well. In Milan, the Teatro alla Scala paired “The Seven Deadly Sins” with “Mahagonny Songspiel,” Weill’s first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht (and the raw ingredients for their full-length opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”). Weill’s music was already moving away from its flirtation with atonality, toward deceptive simplicity and a wholesale adoption of dance and jazz idioms; his goal was nothing less than the reformation of music theater.

via Teatro alla Scala

Weill sought out partnerships with the playwrights and poets he considered the best of their time. He had admired Brecht’s collection “Die Hauspostille,” as well as a radio broadcast of “Mann Ist Mann.” Though they had different temperaments, and were ultimately incompatible, the pair created some of the definitive artworks of Weimar-era Berlin, in which Weill’s music reached its most potent, most subversive political power.

Irina Brook’s staging of “Mahagonny Songspiel” for La Scala — conducted clearly if slowly by Riccardo Chailly and featuring the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey and the soprano Lauren Michelle — was an imaginatively scrappy reflection of the New York Times critic Olin Downes’s report from the 1927 premiere, which he described as “a clever and savage skit on the degeneration of society, the triumph of sensualism, the decay of art.”

Chailly’s foot-dragging interpretation, which didn’t put enough trust in the music’s dancing rhythms and tempos, is a common problem among Weill performances today. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic came close, but ultimately fell short, in playing the jubilant fox trot “Berlin im Licht” (1928) and the “Threepenny” suite “Kleine Dreigroschenmusik” (1929) in one concert, and Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg’s suite from the “Mahagonny” opera, imprecisely conducted by Thomas Sondergard, in another. Contrast these performances with Dupree’s rollicking arrangement of “Berlin im Licht,” whose smiling spirit wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1920s nightclub.

“Kleine Dreigroschenmusik” in particular reveals how the liveliness of dance is essential to a Weill performance. The music has to be enjoyable, even while sticking its tongue out at you; that’s the sly magic of its politics, the triumph of Weill and Brecht’s partnership, admired to this day by composers like David Lang. Otherwise, the piece risks being weighty and ponderous — in other words, no fun.

An energetic interpretation can lift even the less successful of Weill and Brecht’s projects. Take “Happy End” (1929) — loved by neither man, but nevertheless packed with hits including “Bilbao-Song” and “Surabaya-Johnny.” For the Brecht Festival, in Augsburg, Germany, the actress Winnie Böwe, joined by Felix Kroll on accordion, salvaged the show by presenting “Happy End für Eilige,” a breathless abridgment that cleverly repurposed the script’s bite in touches like singing the mocking hymn “Hosiannah Rockefeller” from inside an apse.

Weill and Brecht parted ways while preparing a revised “Mahagonny” for its Berlin run in 1931. But they were reunited in their exile following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Weill had fled to Paris not long after “Der Silbersee,” which features one of his finest European scores, became a target of Nazi demonstrations and was banned. In his new city, he quickly received a commission from George Balanchine’s Les Ballets 1933.

It became “The Seven Deadly Sins,” a “ballet chanté” that tells the story of two sisters — one singing, one dancing — who set out from Louisiana hoping to make enough money in the big city to build their family a little home on the Mississippi River. It’s a bitter tale, prone to aggressive interpretations. But at La Scala, Lindsey struck a balance of ironic beauty and grittier outbursts held in reserve for maximal effect. In Amsterdam, the Dutch National Opera presented its own virtual “Sins,” starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, who approached the role with a sort of generic elegance fascinatingly at odds with unhinged acting, intensified by the multicamera production’s kinetic close-ups and harsh lighting.

Sanne Peper

There is some of the “Sins” score in Weill’s Second Symphony, which was written at the same time and premiered in 1934. Performed by the Karajan Academy alongside the violin concerto, this symphony is more focused than its 1921 predecessor in the genre, but is also composed with a straightforward language better suited to dramatic than concert works. It’s likable, but to what end?

That’s a question you could ask of much of Weill’s music from this interlude between Berlin and Broadway. His inclination to novelty is reflected more in chameleonic adaptation than in innovation. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic recently played “Suite Panaméenne,” which is adapted from “Marie Galante” (1934), a show whose music is clearly eager to be loved — and was, especially the tango “Youkali” and the chanson “J’Attends un Navire,” which became something of an anthem for the French Resistance. There is a confidence and an unpretentious ease in these songs, but they behave like the work of a tunesmith. “J’Attends un Navire” doesn’t sound ironically French, the way schmaltz is skewered in “Mahagonny” as “eternal art”; it just sounds authentically French.

But the hallmarks of this period in Weill’s life — high standards for collaborative partners, a knack for internalizing diverse styles, an ear for unforgettable melodies — would soon serve him well in the United States. Some of his best work was still to come: setting Ira Gershwin’s lyrics in “Lady in the Dark”; blending opera and Broadway with Langston Hughes in “Street Scene”; pioneering the concept musical with Alan Jay Lerner in “Love Life.”

He just had to get there first. That opportunity would come a year after “Marie Galante,” when Weill left for New York and a project with a fitting provisional title: “The Road of Promise.”