Hear a Newly Found Kurt Weill Song That Surprised Experts

Hear a Newly Found Kurt Weill Song That Surprised Experts


Mr. Juchem said he didn’t believe the archivist at first, but when he saw the handwriting, “My jaw dropped.”

Photo

Weill’s manuscript for “Song of the White Cheese.”

Credit
Freie Universität Berlin, Institut für Theaterwissenschaft, Theaterhistorische Sammlungen, Nachlass Gerda Schaefer

Then the search for the song’s origin began.

Lenya had mentioned the song before, but under a different title, “Song of the Blind Maiden.” In the 1960s, she attempted to find the song but came up empty. “Nowhere to be found,” she said at the time. “Probably buried in some basement.”

Weill scholars thought the song Lenya remembered was written for “Das Lied von Hoboken,” a German translation of the American play “Hoboken Blues” that starred Lenya at the Volksbühne in 1930. But, Mr. Juchem said, the lyric by Günther Weisenborn didn’t quite fit in the context of the play.

So Mr. Juchem looked into the name of the Weimar-era faith healer mentioned in the song, Joseph Weissenberg (1855-1941), who was a charismatic evangelist with thousands of followers in Berlin and used cottage cheese and prayer as treatment.

“He formed a real sect, and he was a constant feature in the Berlin tabloids” at the same time that Kurt Weill was reaching the height of his fame as a young composer in the city, Mr. Juchem said.

It was in newspapers that Mr. Juchem eventually found the origin of “Song of the White Cheese,” which Weill wrote for a politically charged revue to benefit actors who had been laid off from the Volksbühne in November 1931. (Other artists who participated included Brecht and the composer Hanns Eisler.)

Photo

Lotte Lenya, possibly photographed around the time when “Song of the White Cheese” had its premiere. A scribbled note on the back says “Lenya as the blind girl.”

Credit
Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

The song tells the story of a blind girl treated — unsuccessfully — by Weissenberg. It jokingly nods to the Lutheran chorale “Lord, Take My Hand and Lead Me” and ends with the girl wondering whether it would be better for everyone to be blind, so nobody would have to see “what’s currently going on in this world.”

At the time, Germany was in a political crisis as the Nazi party rose to power, and aftershocks of the Great Depression had reached Europe. “Song of the White Cheese” is very much a song of its time — a “zeit” song — Mr. Kowalke said.

Although the song’s satire was easy to grasp for Berliners of the time, much of it would be lost on most people today. “What do we do if the topical references have disappeared?” Mr. Kowalke said. He added that when it is published and recorded in English, “We might probably put an alternative lyric for Weissenberg’s name.”

How the song ended up in Gerda Schaefer’s collection is still a mystery. One theory, Mr. Juchem said, is that Lenya, who had to begin performances for the Berlin production of Weill and Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” may have sung in the revue only once or twice, then passed on the song to Schaefer.

That the song was never published isn’t unusual for Weill, who was often so busy he didn’t take the time to do that even for more major works like “Das Berliner Requiem,” Mr. Kowalke said.

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