3/5/09 - mack the knife

In today's encore excerpt--'Mack the Knife', surely one of the strangest songs in recent times, topped the U.S. charts in versions sung by Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, and found renewed fame in a Steve Martin comedy routine in which Martin repeats the famous line: 'Oh, the shark has, pretty teeth dear, and he shows them pearly white ...' However, the song was born in the despair, chaos and perversion of Germany in the 1920s, written by playwright Berthold Brecht and 

Weill grew up a shy, serious boy devoted to music. ... The transformation of Weill's style was quickened by Lotte Lenya. ... Weill became romantically and professionally involved with Lenya starting in 1924, and was never the same afterward. The product of a poor background and an abusive father, she found employment variously as a dancer, a singer, an actress, a stage extra, an acrobat, and, briefly, a prostitute—a profession that ensnared countless German and Austrian women during the years of chaos and inflation. ... His music began to resemble Lenya's voice—that famously unpolished, cutting, wearily expressive instrument. ...

"Brecht loved outlaws, thugs, men of no principles. In his adolescence, he idolized the turn-of-the-century Austrian playwright Frank Wedekind, who shocked Vienna with his scabrous, criminal appearance. ... Macheath a.k.a. Mackie, the antihero of The Threepenny Opera, is the nastiest of Brecht's homunculi. ... Brecht and Weill's Macheath is at once charming and more menacing than Gay's, mainly because of the musical number that introduces him: 'Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer,' otherwise known as 'Mack the Knife.' This most famous of Weimar songs takes the form of a 'murder ballad,' a catalog of killings. Macheath is revealed not merely as a high-living highwayman but as an apparent psychopath who kills as much for pleasure as for financial gain. Schmul Meier has disappeared, along with many rich men; Jenny Towler is found with a knife in her breast; seven children die in a great fire in Soho; a young girl is raped. [The libretto reflects the] Weimar culture, which then exhibited an unhealthy fixation on the figure of the serial or sexual killer. ...

"In 1962, Lenya appeared in the revue Brecht on Brecht at the Theater de Lys, in New York's Greenwich Village. A young Minnesota-born singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan came to see the show and found himself mesmerized by Lenya's singing of 'Pirate Jenny,' in which a prostitute fantasizes revenge on the men who exploit her. 'The audience was the 'gentlemen' in the song', Dylan wrote in his autobiography Chronicles. ... 'It wasn't a protest or topical song, and there was no love of people in it.' ...

"In the spirit of Brecht and Weill, Dylan proceeded to carve his own...phrases into the minds of late-twentieth-century listeners: 'The answer is blowin' in the wind,' 'A hard rain's a-gonna fall,' 'The times they are a-changin' .' The last was a direct quotation from one of Brecht's lyrics for Hanns Eisler. The spirit of Berlin played on."


Alex Ross


The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2007 by Alex Ross


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