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September Blog


September Blog

My previous blog, on comic strips, was dated August 30th, which is when I typed out the original draft, although by the time I had reread and corrected it and sent it off to be posted it was into September. This one obviously has to be dated in September. And that, to an old person lying awake in bed thinking about what to write in his next blog, inevitably--at least for this old person--brings to mind: September Song.

And if naming that doesn’t call up anything in your mind, you are too young to know one of the great American songs, composed by a great German composer who became an American, Kurt Weill. It’s one of the songs in his musical “Knickerbocker Holiday,” The play, and the words of the song, are by Maxwell Anderson, and his libretto is best unremembered--he was an anti-FDR isolationist and conservative. But forget that, think only of the song. It was sung in the musical, and in the original recording, by Walter Huston--the famous actor whose son, the director John Huston, brought him back in his “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to play the old prospector. (John himself appears in the film as an American tourist who is stopped on the street of a town in Africa more than once by Humphrey Bogart, who asks him for money.) Walter Huston starred in quite a few Hollywood movies of the 1930s--“Dodsworth” was one of them--most of them worth seeing. In “Knickerbocker Holiday,” which played on Broadway in l938 into ‘39, he is the aging Peter Stuyvesant who sings this haunting song to a younger woman he is courting: “Oh it’s a long long time/ From June to December/ But the days grow short/ When you reach September--/ When the autumn weather/ Turns the leaves to flame/ Then you haven’t got time/ For the waiting game--/ Then the days dwindle down/ To a precious few--/ September,/ November--/ And these few precious days/ I’d spend with you--/These precious days/ I’d spend with you.”  Walter Huston made the first recording of the song, and I remember, as a young person, disliking his old voice and wondering why they hadn’t got somebody better to sing it. Now, in a DVD reissue that collects original Kurt Weill recordings, it’s a treasure.

I used to be able to sing it myself, accompanying myself on the piano--the piano part is relatively easy to play--and I remember in those days in the 1980s when Hsingyuan and I were separated before our marriage, me in Berkeley and she in Beijing, recording it secretly and sending it to her on one of the small audiotape cartridges we used for messages. Perfect for someone of my age to send to someone so much younger whom he loved.

I was an early Kurt Weill enthusiast, even fanatic, long before the new production of his great Dreigroschenoper or “Threepenny Opera” in New York in 1953 brought him back to national attention. I had bought a 78 RPM recording, three 10” disks in an album issued by Bost, of six of his songs sung by his wife Lotte Lenya with Kurt Weill himself playing the piano. A dubbing from this, another treasure, is still available on the same DVD of old Kurt Weill recordings--buy it, listen to it over & over! “Soerabaya Johnny,” “Au fond de la Seine,” “J’Attends un Navire,” “Lost In the Stars”--all very poignant, moving, authentic. (The same DVD collection includes a Danny Kaye performance! in which he sings one of his scat songs.)

I was in New York on my Metropolitan Museum fellowship in 1953 when the “Threepenny Opera” opened at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in the new translation by Marc Blitzstein, with Lotte Lenya starring--I went to it over & over, and introduced it to all my friends at the Met. (I recall one of them, afterwards, beating on my door and saying “Play Mack the Knife for me!”--she couldn’t go another day without hearing it again.) I organized a Kurt Weill evening for those friends, playing the old Bost records and others I had collected.  And I wrote a long, fervent fan letter to Lotte Lenya, telling her about my passion for Weill’s music, asking where to find the sheet music for his songs, speculating (correctly, as it turned out) which song had been the first that inspired the whole Blitzstein translation. She wrote me a long, self-typed reply, several pages, which I treasured for years but can’t find now. (Maybe it’s in the Cahill Archive at the Freer.)

I owned a piano score for the “Threepenny Opera” and used to play and sing quite a lot of it. It’s based loosely on the old Gay/Pepusch “Beggar’s Opera,” which I also used to know more or less by heart, from another great recording. The Brecht/Weill work uses only one song from the “Beggar’s Opera,” with new, German words. The original-cast recording of their “Threepenny Opera” is only of excerpts, unfortunately, but is nonetheless another treasure. If my memory serves, the street-singer who sings the famous ballad about Mack the Knife (“Und der Haifisch/ Der hat Zâhne/ Und die trâgt ehr/ Ins Gesicht--“) was none other than the famous leftist singer Ernst Busch. (My daughter Sarah likes the Louis Armstrong recording, with Lotte Lenya helping; for me it’s all wrong, the outcome of an unfortunate coming-together--see the previous blog--of a great singer & great song for a mis-matched performance--he doesn’t really care about the lyrics.) Unhappily, the original Dreigroschenoper performance was not only never completely recorded, but was never made into a movie that was true to the original- -the Pabst movie based loosely on it, fine as it is in itself, is pretty much an independent creation (Pabst moves it to London and tacks on a new ending, with Queen Victoria arriving in a carriage!.)

Among my favorite songs in the Brecht/Weill original are Mack singing to Jenny about how love either lasts or doesn’t--“Die Liebe dauert, oder dauert nicht/ In dies oder jener Ort” (from memory, probably wrong,) and the great finale of the second act, a rousing leftist angry song calling on the mighty of the world to share their wealth--“Erst muss es möglich sein/ Auch arme Leute/ Von grossen Brotleib sich ihr Teil zu schneiden!” (First it must be possible for poor people to also cut their slices from the great loaf of bread. I’m sure that’s wrong, but it’s close enough.) I used the music for this finale in one of our Faculty Club Christmas Party musicals, the one in 1971, to address the budget-cutters whom Governor Ronald Reagan had sent to our campus. (I had to sing it myself--nobody else in that year’s cast knew the music well enough.) My first stanza--the whole is accessible on pp. 10-11 of the CYCTIE on this website--went:

You gentlemen who come to trim our budget

And show us how we should economize

It’s very clear, however much you fudge it

You’re here to hurt, and not just to advise.

You say that smaller classes have to disappear,

You say that we should auction off our books,

The fate you plan for us is like Procrustes’ bed—

You’ll trim the limbs until the patient’s dead.

A university can surely perish

When they attack who are supposed to cherish.

All this is, I hardly need to say, deeply applicable to the situation we are in now, and my first thought is: where is our Brecht-Weill team to write great songs attacking what Wall Street and the super-rich are doing to our society? And my second thought: Yes, but the Brecht-Weill side lost out, and Hitler came to power. Is that our future? Can we only write bitter songs and think bitter thoughts, and helplessly watch it all happening? And that’s my suitably bitter ending for today’s blog: September, November. . .

James Cahill, September 3rd, 2012.

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