The Eternal Road

If it's possible to think of Kurt Weill as a composer whose later work was eclipsed by the genius of his early compositions, then The Eternal Road serves as a reminder that there was much that followed The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the two collaborations with Bertold Brecht that are now heard as the sound of the pre-Nazi era.

This dramatic oratorio has its politics too. The brainchild of Zionist impresario Meyer Weisgal, it is set in a European city. The Jews shelter in the synagogue as a pogrom rages outside. The congregation look back on their past to imagine the promised land. When it premiered in 1937 in New York, the parallel with events across the Atlantic was obvious. The score was Weill's opportunity to show his breadth: he moves from sonorous cantorial music to huge neo-Baroque choruses; even the golden calf gets a jazzed-up theme of its own. Yet the oratorio was demanding. Four hours long with nearly 250 singers, it was never going to break even, and it closed after 153 performances. It has not been staged since and this appetite-whetting CD of its highlights is the only recording available.

The story of The Eternal Road is also that of Germany's Jewish diaspora: 'If Hitler doesn't want you, I'll take you!' 'Will Never Die' and 'A Flag Is Born' were all written in the 1940s and, given the tenor of the times, determinedly of the moment, but it's here that the agnostic composer put his Jewish identity on record.

Louise Gray

New Internationalist issue 376 magazine cover This article is from the March 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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