Brecht, Weill, Hitler, and Bernie Madoff

21 May 2009

I’ve always liked the work of Ute Lemper, the German singer who’s probably best known for her interpretations of Kurt Weill‘s work, although she has performed songs by many others as well, including Nick Cave and Elvis Costello (on her excellent Punishing Kiss record)..

In a recent interview she explained how she first got interested in the Brecht-Weill songbook in the late ’70s as a way of filling the silence of her parent’s generation about the war, and the Holocaust:

“I didn’t sense that anyone felt any grief.” She pauses. “Grief!” she says again, this time with deep emphasis. “Sadness, madness, anger. How could that happen? How could such organised crime have happened, this imperial Caesar who felt he could take over the world, and the crime of the killing of all the Jewish people. I was numbed with pain – I couldn’t breathe for years.” Brecht-Weill filled both the cultural vacuum and the political silence. Politically, Brecht’s poetry supplied the anger and indignation that she craved. She devoured the history of how Weill, as a German Jew, became a target of the Nazis and was forced to leave the country in March 1933. Five years later, his compositions were paraded in the Düsseldorf exhibition of “degenerate music”.

The same silence, it is sometimes said, was also filled by the violence of Baader-Meinhof’s Red Army Fraction. But this isn’t just history. As she points out in the interview the financial crisis has brought Brecht and Weill’s songs right up to date.

The brutal, corrupt world that Brecht and Weill captured in Weimar Germany is alive and well, she insists, and every bit as relevant today as it was then.”Who is Mack the Knife?” she asks with a knowing look. “He’s that man who did it so courageously, so gutsily. The one now sipping champagne in prison. Bernie Madoff.”

Her version of mack the Knife – from you tube, of course – is at the top of this post. (There’s also a more theatrical version in English here – part of the Elizabeth Taylor concert where her singing is followed, a little bizarrely, by a stage appearance by Michael Jackson.)

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