On The Threepenny Opera
The success of The Threepenny Opera, comparable in scale only to that of an operetta, makes it tempting to believe that here the operetta has merely been sophisticated by simple means and made palatable to a knowing audience that needs to avoid being bored without being obliged to feel ashamed of the manner in which it is amusing itself. It is supposed that a sure hand has served up on society’s flat banquet table the Columbus-like discoveries of an art that is self-consistent, or in common parlance, highbrow, and that at the same time society would not mind consuming. Anyone sociologically suspicious of pat consensuses initially regards himself as having been refuted by the fact of this success—a success that is supported by inoffensive souls and legitimated by the most progressive intellectuals. He is thus impelled to substantiate doubts regarding the ostensibly sophisticated operetta form of the work in itself and thereby to expose its success as a misunderstanding; impelled, ultimately, provided that it is a work of substance, to come to its defense in defiance of its success. The success of significant works is always a misunderstanding at the moment of their first appearance. Only beneath the cloak of the trite and familiar are new levels of originality capable of communicating themselves and coming into contact with those who listen to them, provided they do not cloak themselves in the obscurity of the work beforehand; the talk of Mahler’s banality, of Schoenberg the Romantic and then Schoenberg the Impressionist, attests to this. Perhaps the tension between a work of music and its listener, as this tension is disclosed by the work’s history, inheres merely and entirely in misunderstanding, and one would not risk asserting anything fantastically wide of the mark about The Threepenny Opera if one sought such misunderstanding in it. For the interpretation of it as a modern operetta very strongly belies its superficial shape. Anybody can sing its melodies, which have been written for actors; the rhythms, simpler than those of jazz, to which it owes much of its instrumental color, are hammered home in sequences; its entire homophonic fabric is transparently audible to the layman; its harmonies make do exclusively with tonality, or at least with tonal chords. It initially sounds as though the road to the paradise of intelligibility has been paved with all the latest achievements of modernity and set foot on without further ado; so granted: the functional wires between the chords have been cut through, to employ Westphal’s coinage, because one does this as a matter of course in the New Objectivity, which brazenly pushes chords closer together; granted: they are spiced with grotesquerie, slackened by jazz; nevertheless, they, the chords themselves, ultimately remain what they are. In short, at first blush it would seem that the cozily cultivated man has been handed a pretext for openly finding beautiful what he has so far been listening to in private on his gramophone.
Only upon taking a second look at the work does one find that it is not offering anything of the sort. To be sure, at first The Threepenny Opera looks very much like a parody of an opera and even more like a parody of an operetta; it preserves the techniques of opera and operetta even as it distorts them. But the precise fact that it appropriates these forms quite bluntly, leaves them utterly undisturbed, as is possible only thanks to an attitude that will have little truck with freely chosen forms; whereas of course high-class jazz composers nimbly modernize and fluently refine such elements—the precise fact, in other words, that here the opera and the operetta tread the boards with frozen grimaces on their faces should make one uneasy about the work’s serendipitous popularity. For of course nothing that is going on here and now can be reeled in from the past so literally. And even the concept of parody, which might help us to understand these old-fashioned elements as simple quotations, does not get us very far. What use, what topical interest, could there be in parodying opera, which is a dead genre, or even operetta, about whose sphere it is so little possible to harbor any illusions that one can expose its sunken face without even pulling off its mask?
One will descry what is actually going on here not in those aspects of the work that are far from being blatantly topical or parodic in intent, that are not smart and stylish, not bar-ready, but, rather, old-fashioned, dusty, anachronistic, and trite--evocative of 1890, even of 1880. Everybody knows Mackie and Polly’s love duet in the stable; a valse lente –not a Boston, mind you—as intimately shopworn and tearfully soothing as the sort of thing that’s only ever still played on barrel organs; the wheezing caesuras also remind us that there are holes in the waltz; and an amorous pathos runs riot like something from the first great electrical exhibition; the lady should be buxom and have fat, bashfully displayed calves; on her backside perhaps a bustle or at least a cul de Paris. The gentleman is holding in one hand an opera hat and in the other a bouquet of artificial flowers; he isn’t actually doing this, because he is after all in a New Objectivist stable, but the music is doing it for him. They also sing of the certificate from the civil registry office that they haven’t got, and they would like to know who has united them, like in the good old Gypsy Baron, which utilizes the bullfinch for that purpose1 anyhow; the stodgy libertinage of donkey’s decades ago, when one’s grandmother was carrying on a love affair and nobody would have dreamt of such a thing. Nowadays that sort of thing is dreamt of all the time and isn’t parodied, and everything else that is dead always lends itself just as poorly to parody. But perhaps it is now coming back from the dead as a phantom. We are all acquainted with photographs, clothing advertisements, from the period, as well as with these sorts of melodies; how much of the surface merchandise of the second half of the nineteenth century has already spontaneously taken on a phantasmal appearance in our eyes! The surface of a life that was illusorily closed off and falling into decay became transparent; afterwards life seeped away; the putrescent geniality of that bourgeois world roams through our dreams in the form of dread like a ghost; art is capable of seizing the scraps of dreams, which is all that we have left of them; it is permitted to lay bare their demonic foundation, whose name is still missing, to orientate itself towards it as their object, and namelessly apprehend it in the image; in other words, preemptively interpret it and destroy it. This is what The Threepenny Opera is all about, whether or not it was ever the conscious intention of the work’s authors, who cognized in its shape and via that shape evinced insight. In the operatic and operettatic form of its compositorial surfaces the work takes hold of the petty phantoms of that bourgeois world and reduces them to ash, while at the same time it exposes them to the glaring light of waking memory. The fissures in the music of 1890, through which its content fled; the falsity of the emotions in that music; whatever fractures time has beaten into its bygone surface—Weill, who presents it from here and now and hence from the other side of the great beyond and in a three-dimensional perspective, against the background of lost time; Weill must as it were substantively compose out of these things whatever time has pre-composed into them for the benefit of consciousness. The melodies of that time are fragile, and we hear their metrical organization into barracks as an assemblage of fragments; this is why in order to interpret the old melodies Weill himself composes his new melodies out of debris; he assembles the rubble of the clichés that time has shattered. The harmonies, the embarrassing diminished seventh chord, the chromatic alterations of diatonically stately melodic steps, the espressivo that expresses nothing—they sound wrong to our ears, so Weill himself must turn the chords he fetches forth here into wrong chords; he must add to his triads a note that sounds every bit as wrong as even the pure triads from the light music of 1890 sound to us; he must twist the melodic steps, because those simple familiar steps sound twisted to us; he himself must shape the stupidity of those modulations without modulating at all but rather acquiescing in a succession of chords that do not belong together and did not even belong together when used in modulations during the interregnum; or in the most intricate passages of the score he must displace the harmonic difficulties in such a way that the harmonic proportions tip over and thereupon tumble into the demonic abyss of the nothingness of that method of composition that modulates from nothing to nothing. From such techniques it is a sure and easy transition to the radical Stravinsky at his best; to his Histoire du soldat or his four-handed piano pieces, a good portion of which also begin as parodies. But Stravinsky makes haste to abandon this formal world, to overplay it with humor and invective, and quickly seeks his salvation elsewhere than here, where there is but little space left between lunacy and triviality; whereas Weill’s modus operandi presses all the deeper into the phantasmal region the more closely he feels his way along its ruptured walls; hence, he is seemingly all the more faithful in his appropriation of everything tendered to him by the old operettas. This modus operandi accounts for the shape of the music; for the strange, illogical juxtaposition of banal timbres, for their adulteration with wrong notes, for the photographic, almost pornographic sleekness of the rhythmic process; for the tenacious call to arms of a mode of musical expression that would like nothing more than to pour its heart forth into the void of utter meaninglessness. It may be of great and enlightening power when the nineteenth-century elements of the work are consorted with by the formulas of jazz, which here under the moon of Soho already sounds every bit as passé as that duet called “Who Has United Us?”2 It is completely in keeping with the interpretative form of this opera that it allows its material to be predetermined by another opera and no less so that it confines that material to the lumpenproletariat, which itself reflects the entire questionable order of the bourgeois world in a concave mirror; rags [Lumpen] and rubble, that is all that is left over for the illumined consciousness of that fundamentally disenchanted bourgeois world; rags and rubble are all that it may perhaps knowingly salvage. The operettas of the past expose themselves to The Threepenny Opera as satanic; this alone makes it possible for it to be a contemporary operetta. With the geniality of the practicable operetta, with bright and cheerful utility music, it comes to a sudden end.
Admittedly this does not happen as the result of any clearly conceived design or by any means altogether unambiguously. It seems to be the fate of every interpretative artist who seriously ventures into that demonic sphere of the dilapidated that he succumbs to it all the more perilously the more profoundly he masters it; Stravinsky fared no differently. Because The Threepenny Opera knowingly shapes and alters the light music of 1890, it must pay the price of becoming the light music of 1930 over long distances. Lurking within it is an abundance of uninterrupted vitality from the realm of jazz that is relished by those very people whom the stage ought to bring face to face with their own embalmed likenesses; the parodic surface is sufficiently thick, reflective, and colorful to make them believe in it for fun’s sake, to take a slightly better but none too sharp-eyed look at it. And then there are the melodies, which they can literally sing note for note. These little children are quite happy to listen to it, even if its whoremongers have their morals, which are laughed at because they are reassuring; and even if its criminals turn out to be the same sorts of stuffed shirts as the respectable people in the stalls, who at the same time envy them on account of their permissiveness. The affection quotient of the dashing Mac the Knife must not be underrated either. Ultimately the spectators responsible for this success hail from the Kurfürstendamm and not from where the play is being acted, the Weidendammer Bridge, that venerable stage prop of poesie about paupers.3 But this fact does not detract a jot from The Threepenny Opera’s subversive, indeed, superabundantly subversive, character. Society has many ways of coping with inconvenient artworks. It can ignore them; it can annihilate them with criticism; it can swallow them whole so that nothing is left of them afterwards. The Threepenny Opera has whetted society’s appetite to the point of ravenousness. But we do not yet know how agreeable it finds the meal. For as gourmet cuisine The Threepenny Opera remains a health hazard: it propounds no communitarian ideology in either its libretto or its music; in it nothing noble and transfiguring is posited as a form of collective art; rather, the dregs of art are sublated as a means of sleuthing the sound of the dregs of society. And he who is interpreting its discarded collective content here is entirely alone, with nobody but himself for company; perhaps they only like it because they can laugh at his loneliness as they laugh at that of a clown. It is impossible to play at reconstruction with any melody in The Threepenny Opera; its eviscerated simplicity is nothing less than classical. It really would be better off being performed in bars, with whose semidarkness it is harshly illuminated, than sung in the meadows. The Threepenny Opera is of importance to the collective—and what art of any truth-value, be that art ever so solitary, would not contain the collective within it?—but not to the available, existing collective it is servicing at the moment, but rather to one that is as yet unavailable, nonexistent, a collective that it would like to invoke in its own wake. Its successful interpretation of the bygone becomes for it a signal of the futurity that is becoming visible because the old has become interpretable. Thus The Threepenny Opera, despite its singability and box-office takings, can legitimately and in no banal sense be regarded solely as utility music. It is utility music that in this heyday of smug security is savored as a leaven but cannot be utilized to conceal what is. When it suddenly shifts from the interpretative mode into explicit utterance, it bluntly urges us, “because the weather is cold,” to “remember the darkness and the great coldness.”
1. Namely, the purpose of uniting a couple in marriage like a priest. Adorno alludes to the love duet of the exiled nobleman Barkinay and the gypsy girl Saffi in Act II, Scene III of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta: “BARKINAY: Who has united us? / Do tell! SAFFI. You tell me! BARKINAY: The bullfinch [in German Dompfaff, literally meaning a cathedral priest], the bullfinch has united us!”
2. See n. 1 above.
3. The Kurfürstendamm is a street in southwestern Berlin that in the early twentieth century ran through some of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods. The Threepenny Opera premiered at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, only a few hundred feet from the Weidendammer Bridge in the city center. “Poesie about paupers” may be an allusion to Arno Holz’s 1886 poem “Großstadtmorgen” [“Big City Morning”] (1886), which mentions a beggar selling matches on the bridge.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 18, p. 535.