Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lotte Lenya: Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer ("Mack The Knife")

Lotte Lenya [1898-1981] sings Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer ("Mack The Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife"), a song composed by Kurt Weill [1900-1950] with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956] for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. This itself is based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, an English ballard opera dating to an 18th-century. The Brecht-Weill opera premiered at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on August 31, 1928. It is noteworthy that Lotte Lenya was Kurt Weil's wife.

The musical, set in London's Soho before Queen Victoria's coronation, is a socialist or Marxist critique of capitalism, where the anti-hero, Macheath ("Mackie Messer"/"Mack the Knife"), London's greatest and most notorious criminal, himself becomes a character whose very actions serve as an indictment against capitalism and its excesses. [You can read the synopsis here.]

The musical drama raises all the standard questions on conventional morality and societal norms, including the trope of "criminals" in respectable attire with their false moralities and pieties. It is as much about the social effects of poverty as it is about seeking social justice. Germany, between the wars, was feeling the adverse effects of an economy in shambles; Weill, a Jewish composer, and his family proved no exception. So, it's not surprising that the self-proclaimed "opera for beggars" was an initial hit when it first opened in Berlin:
The opening night audience at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm didn't quite know what to expect when the curtain rose on The Threepenny Opera on August 31, 1928, but after the first few musical numbers they began to cheer and call for encores. The show was a brilliant hit, and Threepenny-fever spread throughout Europe, generating forty-six stage productions of the work in the first year after the Berlin premiere. In 1931, a film version directed by G.W. Pabst entitled Die 3-Groschenoper opened, making an international star of Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, who repeated her portrayal of Jenny Diver from the show's first production
It didn't fare so well in New York when it opened in 1933, but became a popular hit in 1954 when the American public found themselves ready for such a staging. The song, which opens the opera, is a chronicle of the crimes that Macheath commits. Below are the original lyrics in German and a translation to English, which is not the same as the American version of the song adapted by Marc Blitzstein (1954) and made popular by Bobby Darin in 1959.

Die Moritat von Mackier Messer
Kurt Weill, Bertholdt Brecht, 1928

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
Und die trägt er im Gesicht
Und MacHeath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht

An 'nem schönen blauen Sonntag
Liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
Und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke,
Den man Mackie Messer nennt

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
Und so mancher reiche Mann
Und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
Dem man nichts beweisen kann

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit 'nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer,
Der von allem nichts gewußt

Und die minderjährige Witwe
Deren Namen jeder weiß
Wachte auf und war geschändet
Mackie welches war dein Preis?

Und die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die anderen sind im Licht
Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht

Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht

[English Translation
Courtesy of Hildegard Knef

And the shark, he has teeth
And he wears them in his face
And MacHeath, he has a knife
But the knife you don't see

On a beautiful blue Sunday
Lies a dead man on the Strand*
And a man goes around the corner
Whom they call Mack the Knife

And Schmul Meier is missing
And many a rich man
And his money has Mack the Knife,
On whom they can't pin anything.

Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her chest
And on the wharf walks Mack the Knife,
Who knows nothing about all this.

And the minor-aged widow,
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was violated
Mack, what was your price?

And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see

But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see