Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Rudolf Forster in G.W. Pabst’s 1931 “Die 3-Groschen-Oper 
One challenge of exploring how music allows people to respond to murder, tragedy, and other forms of violent hardship, is that it makes one attuned to, well,  murder, tragedy, and other forms of violent hardship.  This can be a bit of a burden to bear over time.  We all have our moments, I think, when we need to process traumatic events, whether they be personal events or news events; and sometimes that processing involves singing or listening to the kind of music we discuss here on Murder Ballad Monday.  Although I’m now disposed to listen to a bit more rough music, it’s not the entirety of what I’m listening to.  I try to keep some kind of balance between the grave material and the light.  

It’s been a grim summer of crime and violence in the United States, between events that have made national news to the ongoing epidemic of violence that seems to have intensified in my city, Chicago, this year.  My fellow bloggers and I had a moment at one point during the summer when we discussed whether to post something (either to the blog or to our facebook page) responding to a tragic event in that day’s news.  We decided against it, largely because the psychic cost of having to decide which event to respond to and which not to respond to would be too high over time.

And, as we affirmed in the week discussing “Harris and the Mare,” we confirmed that we are fundamentally a music blog; not a crime blog.  If the music we listen to, the themes we explore, and the words that we write help unfold your experience or your reflections on current events in a new and/or better light, we’ve pretty much hit our target.  But, we don’t plan to be a current events blog.  (Heck, despite the marine life references in this week’s material, we’re not even timely enough to hit Shark Week on schedule.)  


Mack the Knife

The balance between gravity and lightness is part of our look into “Mack the Knife” this week.  That balance is part of the content we’ll discuss, and frankly, the desire to go for something a little less heavy this week seemed the way to go for a number of reasons.  I’m getting underway with it with some trepidation, as I have some suspicion that it might get as involved and convoluted as “Frankie and Johnny,” given the song’s overall popularity. 

There’s an aspect of “Mack the Knife” that suggests, both in the lyrics and in the music, the thinness of the boundary between safety and danger, between life and death.  The song is one of crime and death, but also of indirection and elusiveness.  It originates in theatrical satire, but comes to popularity more broad than that origin, and evolves into downright festive productions that belie the underlying, if fictitious, crimes it describes.

Hieronymus Hess (1799-1850): “The ballad singer”
I decided to look into “Mack the Knife” at the suggestion of my friend, Seth, who mentioned it to me when I first told him about the blog.  He explained to me that the original version, which gives this post its title, invokes the German Moritat–a medieval murder ballad tradition.  The Moritat (or “deadly deed”), I thought, would give us a different strain to look at than our normal fare of British-American balladry.  I had high hopes, thinking that I’d find a rich vein of material on this tradition.  I have yet to strike gold, however, as it’s been difficult to find a more extensive discussion of the Moritat from English language sources.  The best I could do in German was a Wikipedia entry on the subject, which actually places the origin of the term, if not the style of music itself, in the 19th century.  So, perhaps more of that exploration later, when we get further in and maybe more scholarly in our approach.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
The origin of our particular Moritat is easy to place, with the crafting of Bertolt Brecht‘s Threepenny Opera, and its musical score by Kurt Weill.  Brecht’s musical, which debuted in 1928, was adapted from John Gay‘s Beggar’s Opera, a hit of the English theatre in the 18th century, and thought  to be one of the first musicals.  Beggar’s Opera is the work that first introduces Macheath–a gentleman rogue in Gay’s treatment, and more of an anti-hero in Brecht’s.  Brecht was also a Marxist, and it’s appropriate to view Threepenny as advancing a theatrical class critique.

There are more resources on the play and its history than you can shake a stick at.  The Threepenny Opera link above is a good one.  There are also good explanations of the play’s history (and to a certain extent the song’s) from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope, and this rather extensive, if poorly edited, lecture from 1999.

I don’t intend to go into much detail on the setting of the song within the Opera, for a number of reasons.  The most important of these reasons is that I haven’t seen a live production of it, only the 1931 G.W. Pabst film, and there are a number of plot differences in that movie version.  The other is that I’d rather focus on the music specifically, rather than the dramaturgy.  If you’re interested, the blog of the Madison Opera has a few posts about Threepenny and “Mack the Knife.  It doesn’t go into as much detail on the music as I intend to, but does have a bit more to say about the production.  Incidentally, it also appears to be the source material for some parts of the Wikipedia entry on “Mack the Knife.”  The Sydney Theatre Company’s post on the song and the musical is also quite good.

So, my goal in this initial post is to fix a relative starting point for a couple larger questions for us to think about this week.  First, why did this song become such a hit? And second, how and why does it swing back and forth between the lighthearted and the menacing in its various iterations in the decades since Weill penned it?  There may be no one answer, but I hope to provide an interesting way for you to explore the questions.

From the beginning

Let’s start with the earliest iterations of Weill’s original, in the German minstrel style, with street organ.  Here’s Brecht himself, from an archival recording included on September Songs, a tribute to Weill’s music:

“‘Mack the Knife’ from The Threepenny Opera” performed by Bertolt Brecht (Spotify)


Here’s a similar version in a YouTube clip from the Pabst film, retaining both the street organ style as well as including the kind of flip chart depicted in Hess’s painting above.  The subtitles for the film provide us with an English translation of the original lyrics–lyrics containing some elements later bowdlerized out of the more popular versions.  



Is Forster’s Macheath creepy enough for you?  A tad more Lurch than Gomez, perhaps, although he does win the heart of Miss Polly Peachum there in the polka-dot dress.

Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, who winds up figuring prominently in the history of “Mack the Knife” in a number of ways, also provides us with a German version close in arrangement to Weill’s original style.  There’s a carnival atmosphere to the arrangement here, particularly toward the end:

“Mack the Knife” by Lotte Lenya (Spotify)

(Incidentally, Lotte Lenya appears in the Pabst film as well, in the role of Jenny, singing another one of the signature songs from the production, “Pirate Jenny.”)

There are two things worth pointing out at this point.  First, even in these early arrangements, the music is light, and not menacing or deliberately dark.  This is a trend that will keep going in many popular arrangements through the mid-twentieth century.  In the case of Brecht’s productions, the intent is likely satirical.  In the other, popular arrangements it’s not clear that satire is intended.   The song becomes popular for a much wider audience than ever sees the play or a movie version.  

Kai Fatheuer, Dessau, Anhaltisches Theater, 1998


Second, what’s interesting to me about the lyrics (whether the subtitled version above, or subsequent English versions) is that they account for Mackie’s crimes mostly indirectly.  That is, the contrast between the shark and Macheath is made along the lines of how overt their menace is.  After that, the  lyrics demonstrate what that initial shark contrast asserts–we hear of the results of the crimes, but Mackie’s involvement is always to be inferred.  Nothing as direct as “he drew a saber through her” or “he shot him through the heart.”  It’s the victim’s stories, and the ever elusive Mackie slipping away.

As story telling, it is a series of snapshots, all of which are taken after the action has happened.  They are events happening to other people, perpetrated by other people, and the listener engages their tabloid or “if it bleeds, it leads” quality.  It is the news, but it is not cautionary.  There is no moral, at least in the traditional sense.

I’ve been doing a good bit of wrestling with this song over the past few weeks, trying to figure out how it functions for singer and listener.  It’s complicated, because sometimes you can consider the song as song, and other times it only makes sense in the context of the Opera.  We can safely assume, I think, that there’s a large swath of people who have listened to and loved the song without any real awareness of its origin or function in a Marxist theatrical satire.  If so, what is it about Mack as a character or “Mack the Knife” as a song that is compelling?  I think I’m on to something about its popularity that will have some interesting implications for understanding our genre, but I’ll need to work my way through a few more iterations of the song.

I’ll move to jazz, pop, folk, and rock versions in upcoming posts, and explore the song as it gets away–rather far away, actually–from its original context.  Before closing this post, though, it’s worth taking a look at a later Lotte Lenya performance of the song, produced for the BBC after World War II.  The presenter’s introduction and the video montage behind Lenya point in a very direct and particular way to a specific example of the contending forces of brutality and civilization operating within Brecht and Weill’s work.  The piece essentially argues that Brecht was critiquing the forces that led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler.  This seems a little too pat to me, and distorted by the trauma of World War II and its aftermath, and it ignores Brecht’s broader Marxist critique (despite Lenya’s black coat and beret).  My impression is that Brecht’s aims were more sweeping in the play than directly skewering Nazis.  




As I said above, there is no moral here in the traditional sense, but there is a dance, of a kind, going on about danger and safety–both within the song and in the pre-war and post-war receptions of it.  We’ll explore a bit more of that in the days ahead.

Next up

We’ll take take an even larger step away from our normal folk music fare by giving a listen to three titans of 20th century jazz and popular song.  In the process, we’ll see how the popularization of “Mack the Knife” involves a particular kind of evisceration of the song’s potential power.  Mackie indeed becomes more toothless as more and more people are “on to him.”  Later in the week, we’ll see if anybody can get that power, and Mackie’s menace, back.

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