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Double bill: two composer birthdays – Smetana and Weill

Double bill: two composer birthdays – Smetana and Weill featured image

Ella in Berlin – Grammy-winning album of Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, with Ella’s infamous memory slip


Today we’re looking at two composer birthdays today: Bedrich Smetana and Kurt Weill.

Czech nationalist Bedrich Smetana was a leader in developing and promoting a distinctly Czech musical style, a movement picked up by Dvorak a few decades later. He was active as a pianist, music teacher, and composer, and one of the works he is best known for is “Die Moldau” (the other being his opera, “The Bartered Bride”).

Like many Czech composers, Smetana wanted to promote the wealth of musical talent of his homeland, and featured aspects of Czech culture whenever he could. There’s no better example of this than “Die Moldau”, which describes the flow of the Vltava River from the mountains of the Bohemian Forest, though the Czech countryside, on to the city of Prague. The opening is fantastic. Through use of “tone painting”, Smetana conjures up images of cold, sparkling river streams that takes us to a decidedly pastoral moment; it’s borderline Disney level. Then, more swirling of water that takes us to a triumphant cadence, concluding the work.

Here’s Smetana’s “Die Moldau”.

Bedrich Smetana was born March 2, 1824 in Prague, Bohemia, and died May 12, 1884, in Prague.


From 19th century Prage, we fast-forward travel to 20th century New York City, via Dessau, Germany. Kurt Weill was a Jewish German composer who composed some traditional classical works, but developed a strong following among Germans in the 1920’s and 1930’s for his vocal and musical theatre works. A good sense of aesthetic would be the film Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli – Weill was composing during the time that movie was set, in 1930s Germany.

Weill and his wife fled Germany as the Nazi’s presence was making itself known, and settled in New York City. He adapted to his surroundings, learned the American popular and stage music style, and many songs from this time were considered an important development in the American musical.

Weill’s best known work was The Threepenny Opera (1928), written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht (the guy who pioneered modern aspects of theatre, like acknowledging the fourth wall). One of the most famous songs from this opera is Mack the Knife. A popular live recording in Berlin was sung by Ella Fitzgerald, whose bubbly version was infamous because she forgot the lyrics. Didn’t matter; she still received the Best Female Vocal Performance (Single) and Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album) at the Third Annual Grammy Awards.

Here’s the live recording from Berlin – despite her slip, she kept grooving like only Ella could.

Kurt Weill was born March 2, 1900 in Dessau, Germany, and died April 3, 1950, in New York City.


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