Utter the words “riot” and “classical music” in the same breath and you’ll likely conjure images of the Parisian haute monde feigning shock at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Or perhaps impresario Erhard Buschbeck’s pugilistic attempt against one of the more antagonistic patrons of the Wiener Musikverein during a Second Viennese School showcase that same year (described by composer Oscar Straus in a subsequent lawsuit as “the most harmonious sound of the evening”). But the third prong of musical Modernism, led by the diminutive Kurt Weill and his scabrous collaborator Bertolt Brecht, rarely gets a mention in the highlights reel of classical anarchy – despite its politically charged performance history.
The pair are perhaps best known for their 1928 masterpiece The Threepenny Opera. But it was their second collaboration, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, that turned their newly-found fame into infamy. The three-act drama follows the founding, flourishing and demise of a pseudo-American “paradise city” called Mahagonny. Here the only currency is vice. Anything goes – just as long as you have the money to pay for it. So when new resident Jim Mahoney loses everything betting on a fight he is unceremoniously sentenced to death. Even his lover Jenny refuses to bail him out. “In the whole human race there’s no greater criminal than a man without money” announces Mahagonny’s co-founder Begbick at the climax of the trial.
As with Threepenny, in exposing a society consumed by self-serving, hedonistic pleasure, Weill and Brecht hoped to underscore the perennial hopelessness of the human condition. But in this iteration the satire was both more savage and more pertinent. Since Threepenny’s premiere Germany had become deeply polarised politically, and by reflecting – even heightening – the fearful mood that was beginning to grip the country, Mahagonny became a dangerous expression of civil unrest – and one written by two known communists. The opera’s 1930 premiere in Leipzig was therefore the perfect rallying point for Nazi sympathisers, and, unsurprisingly, they greeted it with a riot. “Belligerent shouts, hand-to-hand fighting in some places, hissing, applauding... enthusiastic fury mixed with furious enthusiasm,” recalled the Austrian critic Alfred Polgar.
Further performances in Dortmund, Essen and Oldenburg were cancelled, and, whilst the first Frankfurt performance went off without a hitch, the second descended into a mass brawl after 150 Brownshirts flooded the theatre, setting off fireworks and shouting “Deutschland erwache!” (a Nazi Party slogan meaning “Germany, awake!”). Later that night a communist was killed by a beer stein to skull. The tragic irony, of course, was that by violently protesting the opera, the rioters unwittingly vindicated its message of despair: not long after the Berlin run came to an end the Nazis gained 37.4% of the vote in the Reichstag elections, becoming the largest political party in Germany. It was the beginning of the end for all those who didn’t toe the party line.
But is Mahagonny really a “Marxist” opera? Although that was certainly the line peddled by Nazis, the reality is more nuanced, and can be used to illustrate Brecht and Weill’s diverging attitudes towards the role of theatre. For Weill, Mahagonny transcended politics. Opera wasn’t so much about pointing fingers. He wanted to use it to bridge the gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and his tactics lay in the ear-worming quality of his music: by packaging up “universal social issues” in melodic, accessible numbers like the “Alabama Song” he could more easily bring his message to the masses; to spark conversation in German bars, factories and boxing rings; to have the working man whistle his tunes on the way to work.
A week after Mahagonny’s premiere he wrote to his publisher saying: “It is now absolutely clear that the closing demonstration [Begbick’s proclamation] is not at all communistic, but rather, like Sodom and Gomorrah, Mahagonny perishes because of the crimes of its inhabitants.” He even suggested arranging reviews according to the political tendencies of the papers, “in order to show that it isn’t a political work at all, since there have been positive reviews from papers of all political persuasions”. Weill didn’t care about right or left. He simply wanted Mahagonny to be as successful – and therefore as far-reaching – as Threepenny had been.
Conversely, Brecht had been deeply uneasy about Threepenny’s popularity, worrying it diluted the show’s satire (when the communist newspaper Die Rote Fahne published a review claiming it didn’t “have a trace of modern social or political satire”, he spent the next 20 years revising the libretto in order prove the opposite). So, as Mahagonny’s notoriety grew, the initial apathy he felt towards the opera morphed into a meticulous need to control its message – and to paint himself as its primary architect. In his journal Versuche, he published an “approved” version of the libretto, claiming the opera had been written purely as an experiment – one that proved the absurdity of an art form propped up by the decadent bourgeoisie. “If one wanted to start a discussion of opera and its function... one would have to write an actual opera”, he claimed. The episode reveals both an intensely controlling nature, and a fanatical desire to be seen as a true Marxist.
Mahagonny was to be the last opera Brecht and Weill worked on together. Their relationship broke down not long after its premiere, and by the end of 1933 they were barely speaking. One bitter argument ended with Brecht threatening to throw this “phoney Richard Strauss” down the stairs. Weill would later describe Brecht as “one of the most repulsive, unpleasant fellows running around on this earth.” Yet throughout his life he continued to send him money – and even helped him find work during fallow periods in Paris and Los Angeles. The same letter ends: “But I am able to separate this completely from his work.” For Weill never stopped believing in the collaborative magic that brought them Threepenny and Mahagonny – nor indeed in Brecht himself. When that shark bites, after all, it never truly releases you from its grip.