Weill, Kurt


Weill, Kurt

Der Protagonist Op. 15 (1925) (complete opera score in one act with German libretto by Georg Kaiser)

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Kurt Weill – Der Protagonist

(b. Dessau, 2 March 1900 – d. New York, 3 April 1950)

“Only when I felt that my music contained the tension of scenic processes did I turn to the stage.” With these words, Kurt Weill explains in his essay and memorandum Bekenntnis zur Oper (1926, Blätter der Staatsoper Dresden) how and why he made the decision to devote himself to music theatre. It was precisely this inclination towards musical drama – as Heinrich Strobel states in his authoritative study Kurt Weill, 1920-27 – that characterised the Dessau composer’s lifelong work. Even the instrumental pieces, such as the String Quartet op. 8 and the Violin Concerto op. 12, which precede the theatrical attempts of the young Kurt Weill, do indeed exhibit a distinctly dramatic character.

In the Berlin of the 1920s, which was characterised by the Expressionist movement, Weill reflected on the aesthetic and sociological state of the opera genre. Wagner and his “epigones” – Engelbert Humperdinck, Hans Pfitzner and even Richard Strauss – had initiated a ground-breaking development in music theatre form. However, the aesthetic development of the avant-garde took an opposite path, “which temporarily led away from opera” (K. Weill, Die neue Oper): the path to “absolute music”, purified of any literary-narrative imaginary world. Nevertheless, Kurt Weill believed that the cross-generational reaction on programme music should lead to a reconciliation of opposites, “because the musical elements of opera are none other than those of absolute music”, as he emphasised in his reflections Die neue Oper in the years of the composition of Der Protagonist. The break was therefore to dissolve into continuity – but not without “variations”. On the one hand, Kurt Weill recognised the undeniable mastery of the classical Mozart, the “opera composer par excellence” (K. Weill). On the other hand, however, there were also the teaching of the new models: Schönberg, Berg, Webern – artists who could certainly coexist with Debussy – and above all Stravinsky with his inspiring Soldier’s Tale (1918): “Standing on the border between drama, pantomime and opera, this piece […] shows such a strong preponderance of operatic elements that it may become fundamental to a certain direction of new opera.” (K. Weill, Der neue Weg, in „Halbmonatsschrift für das deutsche Theater“, 1926)

The one-act opera Der Protagonist was completed in 1925. The work was inevitably written against the background of these turbulent and nervous times. Weill took Stravinsky’s teachings as his starting point: The operatic aspect of modern music drama could find its form in the ambiguity of an intermediate genre. In this respect, Russian theatre art had already strongly influenced him during the composition of the children’s pantomime Magic Night (1922). The composer learnt two fundamental principles from Stravinsky, which are put into practice in the one-act opera The Protagonist: the leading role of the plot in the organisation of the musical-dramatic form and the fact that “meaningful things can only be said scenically with the simplest, most unobtrusive means”. (Commitment to opera).


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