Felix Salten wrote these words in 1929, when he reviewed The Threepenny Opera.

…the young Weill’s musical style is as unique as Brechts’s language. The rhythms are as exciting as the poems. The lyrics are as triumphantly trivialized as the rhymes. There are also many allusions. Weill’s jazz treatment of the instruments is just as humorous as his text.

(qtd. Salten (188). These traits are related to the concept gegus. Epic theatre uses actors as demonstrators of characters, not the characters. Brecht wanted actors to be able to see that they are playing the emotions and stories of another person. Epic performers tend to be more concerned about wider social relations than their individual characters. Gestus expresses wider social relationships with the “idea of contradictions, oppositions and the need to find an effective theatrical way to express both these opposites and the unity between them” (Morley 186). The theatrical moment in which the play’s social relationships and attitudes are depicted is called the gestus. Verfremdungseffekt literally means “the effect to make strange”2. This would cause the audience’s environment to be reexamined by taking away what was taken for granted.

Weill’s contribution as a composer to The Threepenny Opera’s gestic idea was to create musical aids to help performers display the appropriate attitude at all times. Brecht claimed that the music was an active participant in the “degrading bare of middleclass ideas.” (Brecht on Theatre 85-6). The Threepenny Opera’s humor is highlighted by music that is at odds with its lyrics. Ronald Taylor suggests that gestic or musical music is initially expressed in “the rhythmic dispositions” of the text. These rhythms are then driven home through the insistent rhythms. Peter W. Ferran is concerned primarily with The Threepenny Opera’s lyrical, or musical, gestus. However the songs are effective because of the combination of the two. The piece’s intentions, satirical social attitudes and other gesti are communicated through these different gesti. Weill wrote a dissonant, jazzy, dissonant score to express these sentiments. This music was a parody of the traditional opera’s lyrics4 or libretto5 and satirized the German bourgeoisie.

The audience is made aware of this satirical gesture at the moment that the orchestra begins to play. The orchestra uses saxophones instead of the traditional operatic string quartet (Sanders 115) After the prologue, which describes an opera that is “so inexpensive even a beggar could afford it”,6 there is a baroque-like overture. It is rhythmically slow and harmonically minor. It is easy to imagine Weill’s smug grin when he composed the scale-based, repetitive melody as well as the Haydn-like sforzandos7 at every beat. Foster Hirsch points out the overture is written in 3/4 (as many Threepenny song lyrics are) but it is asymmetrical and features a “unpredictable, seeming inept voice-leading within its repeated notes” (44). This style frustrates the audience at the beginning. It is obvious that it “here will be music which speaks with a forked mouth” (Taylor 137)

“The Ballad of Mac the Knife”, (“Moritat Vom Mackie Meser”), is a well-known Bankelgesang style. It features a “matching the gestical” work.

Hans Keller says the “motto song” is the inspiration for the music in “Mac the Knife”. Hans Keller states that the melody, as well the harmonic cell, of “Mac the Knife”, was used to create the music. The sixth, also known as the “Moritat motif” by David Drew (151), is a very common jazz instrument that gives the structure an unsettling feel. The sixth is known as the “inhibitory degree par excellence” because it opposes the tonic on the strongest possible measure. This is why the arch-inhibition and interrupted cadence V to VI…the added sixth are the wrongest ‘wrong’ notes. (Keller 147).

The ballad has a simple, bluesy tempo and a misleading near-repeat of its 16-measure melody (Fuegi 220). Kim Kowalke points out that each stanza after two previous ones is outfitted in a new musical costume, which can be made from rhythmic patterns, altered instrumentation and dynamics. Fuegi 202. The 4/4 blues are a contrast to the lyrics.

The Thames’s turbulent waters

Men suddenly fall down.

Is it plague?

Oder a sign Macheath is in town? (3PO 3)9

It is quite long and includes nine stanzas. The feeling is that this is just the beginning, and Macheath’s transgressions are far more extensive than we realize.

Brecht’s witty lyrics and Weill’s sentimental tune are used to mock the bourgeois audiences that occupied Berlin’s opera stage. It is clear that the bourgeoisie are hypocrites. This draws a parallel between Macheath’s criminals, who drown and rape men, and the criminals in Berlin’s financial sector, who make their own wealth by plundering the poor. Macheath repeats this sentiment in Act Three. What’s the difference between murdering and employing someone? (3PO76).

Geoffrey Abbott says that Weill used Mac the Knife to accompany Macheath’s entrances in the original Threepenny Opera production. His style was adjusted to the scene. Macheath, for instance, was led to death by the song (“a funeral march”) (168). This device isn’t used often in Threepenny Opera productions. However it may be useful that we remember Brecht/Weill’s satiric intent and remember that parody/satire can be created partly through repetition. Brecht or Weill may have made a subtle snide at the world opera music by repeating “Mac the Knife”, throughout the production.

In “Peachum’s Morning Hymn”, Jonathan Peachum cynically reveals to the audience that his world is full of dishonest criminals. The song is delivered in an intentional, sanctimonious and hymn-like waltz in the minor key. It’s accompanied by a large instrument and reads almost like a sermon. Although we’ve already classified it as a “Moritat motif”, stylistically and rhythmically we could still call it the “Peachum Motif”. Peachum believes he is above these “ramshackle Christians”, but the “angry pitism” (Sanders 115) that Peachum exhibits isn’t appropriate for a man who owns a beggar outfitting business and takes fifty percent of their meager earnings. Non and Nick Worrall notice that Peachum is particularly angry in the German text “Verschacherdein Ehweib du Wicht!” (“And Sell Your Old Woman, You Rat!” [lxvi]). These guttural consonants permit the actor to spit his words with a pious fury, which clearly illustrates the character of Peachum from the beginning. Peachum’s singing style is often slow and even. He sings as if it were his realization of his hypocrisies.

Drew suggests Drew use this repetition of the sixth to give the chord a signalling function. One could even call it the Dreigroschenoper Chord. (Drew 151). Drew refers to the Dreigroschenoper and Moritat-motif use as “necromantic contortions” (150), but does no explain the dramatic connotations. You can find Weill’s humor in these tunes by using the examples mentioned above. The Moritat-motif is used to group the songs and creates one message for the audience. The Street Singer first appears, telling us about Macheath and his knife “not so obvious place” (3PO 3). Peachum sings, and we are shown another man who is able to take advantage of the needy, although he does so in a more gentle manner.

Later in the first Act, Macheath is married to Peachum’s child Polly. Polly lends her talents to make the wedding singable after the men have failed to provide the proper song (“Wedding Song, Less Well-Off”/ “Hochzeits-Lied”). Polly was inspired to create the song “Pirate Jenny” (“Seerauberjenny”) by a story about a barmaid she saw at a Soho dive shop. In her fury at the poor treatment she received by customers, the barmaid predicts that one of the pirate ships (3PO 20), would arrive in the harbor. It will destroy the entire town. The song is based in Senta’s revenge-ballad in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Weill recreates the same “quasi-Wagnerian mood of mystery & lofty expectation, translated to neurotic twenty-century terminology” (Sanders 110). There are two distinct parts to the song: the slower, more awe-filled descriptions of the ships (the instrument of destruction) in Polly’s verse.

This song is not meant to be an empowering ballad, but it could be mistakenly interpreted as such. Foster Hirsch points to the fact that, if “Pirate Jenny” were performed as an opera, Jenny would have sung her revenge with “the orchestra crashing down and…the soprano spinning though endless histrionic routines to denote victoryant retribution.” (46). We see that Jenny answers softly to the question “who will die” when asked by pirates. And as the heads start to roll, I will say “hoppla!” (3PO21). Jenny is singing her “hoppla” a cappella in Weill’s score. Hirsch suggests that Hirsch is comparing this inflection to today’s “whatever,” which is a flat, void-of-meaning phrase. The chilling chord progression is pointing towards the dominant but never stops, leaving Jenny feeling uneasy and lacking in strength.

“The First Threepenny Finale – Concerning Human Insecurity” (“I. Dreigroschenfinale”), features the Peachums and their daughter, Polly. Peter W. Ferran points out two vocal modes (15). The first is personal. This is Polly’s ignorance about what she considers love. She wants to “enjoy the embraces of a man” (3PO 32), but she doesn’t realize that her husband has at least three more lovers. Peachum continues his moralizing and piety, complete with a Bible. (Notice that our “Peachummotif” is back: Polly’s words are pulverized into Peachum’s sustained, deliberate delivery accompanied only by an organ. Ferran points out the change from a Peachum-specific description to one that is more a reflection of worldly attitudes (15). The song ends with a “last word” rhythmic gesture. Eight measures are of decisive 16th-, eighth-, and eighth-note diatonic finale in G minor. Half a step more than the song’s ending F-sharp mine (17). The universality of the message is symbolized musically by this tonal shift (Blitzstein). Because the song can be sung in many keys, it is universally applicable to all societies.

Macheath and Jenny are probably the best examples of the contrast between music and lyrics within Threepenny Opera. The song is written in a tango style, which is popularly associated with exoticism or romance. Although the tango meter has a simple 2/4 rhythm, the marcato half-note drives the beat. This is followed by a series of eight notes. This is the rhythm that tango dancers use to describe their slow, slow, quick and slow rhythm. The syncopation reminds the audience subtly of Berlin’s current jazz craze, while still giving them enough variation to prevent them becoming complacent. This is where the marcato quarter-note comes in. Each note is an attack and not a graceful transition from one to the next. This is similar to the Threepenny “Overture”, which has repeated sforzandos. When one looks at the lyrics, it is clear that the minor key exudes false romance. In Europe, Tango music was a relatively new form of dance and Weill seems have used it to show that Macheath is not a simple couple. Instead, the relationship between Macheath (or, perhaps, the sexual arrangement with Jenny) is complex and a series of syncopated, sadomasochistic attacks. Jenny describes Macheath’s habit of “knocking [her] headlong down (PO 44).” The last verse tells about Macheath’s inadvertent immaturity of Jenny. But, to deal with the problem, the couple “flushed it down a sewer” (3PO44). This is where the lyrics and music contrast. The lovers use the third person to describe one another in a duet. As another example of this violent relationship, Jenny’s epilogue in this song, where she betrays Macheath is also visible. The Threepenny Opera world is evident through the song, as well as the scene below. No one can trust anyone, and anyone will betray anyone for their thirty silver coins.

This idea connects to “The Second Threepenny Finale: What Keeps Mankind alive?” (“II. Dreigroschenfinale”), which ends Act Two. This song is where Brecht appears to be becoming explicitly political. It actually has three systems. Ronald Sanders describes it as “appropriately dark…the least dramatic of the score’s endings”, (121). Macheath & Jenny say the famous lines “Food is first/ Morals follow on” (PO 55). The way that men live is by eating and sharing, so morality should not even be brought up while the poor still hunger.

Macheath assumes control of the second system and asks, “What keeps humanity alive?” This question is not for the wealthy. It is open to everyone. Brecht, Weill, and others work together to create the notion that all men are able to survive “by bestial actions” (3PO 56). This could be the rich Berliners in the audience or common prostitutes such as Jenny. The audience should not be forced to contemplate the complex way that humanity survived, regardless of its social status. It is also fascinating to see that Macheath sings his first question (“What keeps an man alive?”) in strong, fermata filled rubato. (As if Macheath was saying, “Listen, this”), and in a major-key key. He seems to hope (or infer) that the answer is easy and satisfying for all by doing this. But this is not the case. He launches into a litany a brutal complaints against humankind, employing cannibalistic languages and demeaning cynicism.

The chorus then joins the third system. Peter W. Ferran mentions how the chorus creates the thesis statement for the song. He then says that opera’s chorus often “enunciates a timeless truth”, and the chorus is the “voice of today”, addressing the hypocrites around the globe. The loud, booming antistrophes as well as the lyrics, keep the audience on their toes.

Macheath bribed Smith, an Officer, to get him out of prison. Jenny then betrays him and he ends up in prison waiting to be executed. Peachum interrupts his story, saying that he cannot risk offending the audience and will instead lead him to the Gallows. “Justice gives[s] way before mankind” (3PO78) and “The Third Threepenny Finale Appearance Of The Deus Ex Machina”) (“III. Dreigroschenfinale”), Macheath is reprieved by Brown on horseback.

Brecht insisted that the cast follow the formal obligations of the “final chorus” (Ferran 18), even though the execution was exaggerated. Weill described this as “an example of opera’s very concept being used in order to resolve a problem, i.e. “the plot must be established and presented in its most authentic and pure form.” (qtd. Manheim & Willett 90.

Macheath gets saved by the gallows. Jonathan Peachum and Cecilia Peachum move in front to address the crowd and remind them “saviours on horses are rarely met with practice”11 (3PO79). Peachum’s sermon-like prose and deliberate rhythm make the Peachum motif appear again. Drew observes that the C minor allegro modorato’s “anapaestic beat” echoes Macheath and Polly’s “Call from the Grave”, and that the commitment to the minor mode “reinforces the belief that nobody has been saved” (157). Weill and Brecht help us to forget that we are doomed by a burst of dominant 712 harmony. A dominant seventh is a common chord used by jazz composers to destabilize triads. The audience can hear Macheath experiencing freedom from the gallows. Although the music is parody, it is “decidedly hymnic…from distended melody to orchestral-like orchestration.” (Ferran 19,). These four lines remind audiences to “track out injustice” (Blitzstein), but they will also die. This implies that the poor will be frozen to death much sooner than injustice. Therefore, it is important for the poor to act quickly. The music recalls many Bach cantatas that featured “solos” and choral voices, with dialogue being dressed in recitative.

Manheim, Willett and Willett did not include an epilogue in their translation. However the Blitzstein version features the Street Singer singing the opening tune to “Mack the Knife”. The Street Singer, who laments the “dividend of darkness and light” (Blitzstein) brings the audience back into reality with the reprise. The audience is challenged by the last lines, in typical Brechtian fashion. This provides them with no final resolution. As Brecht wrote, this gives the end of the opera a sense of “consequence-less-ness” (qtd. Ferran 20. Because the opera’s finale message inspires the audience, it is 20.

Despite all the success, it seems that the 1928 Berlin-bourgeois audience that Weill and Brecht satirized either didn’t get the humor of the play or enjoyed it. They used the play to justify their own corruption. The Threepenny Opera’s critique against capitalism proved profitable15. In Berlin, a “3-Groschen-Bar”, which Franz Jung noted attracted all those who were part of culture, opened within weeks of the opening of The Threepenny Opera. Hinton 58 played only The Threepenny Opera music. Threepenny Opera wallpaper was even sold in one store so that a bourgeois fan of Macheath and Jenny could decorate his kitchen (Taylor, 145). Brecht lamented his show’s success as it was due in part to the “everything that didn’t mean to me: romantic plots, love stories, and music” (qtd. Kowalke. “The Threepenny Opera in America”, 75). Weill thought the show was a success despite its being “industrialized”. (qtd. in Taylor 146).

Weill’s essay, “Gestus and Music,” stated that an opera’s structure is flawed if it doesn’t give the music a prominent place in its overall structure and execution of its smallest parts. The music in an opera must not be left to the libretto, stage-setting or any other person who is responsible for carrying out the dramatis personae. The Threepenny Opera is a musical theatre that combines lyrics and music in different ways. Manheim and Willett 90. These combinations make Weill’s composition more than just the songs themselves.

Take-home points:

1. Remember the main ideas.

2. Jot down any key points.

3. Summarize the important details.

1 Morley’s essay discusses gestic musicality generally. I will use his statements to start to talk about gestic musicality in The Threepenny Opera.

2 This effect is commonly called “the alienation phenomenon” in English.

I can’t describe all twenty-two songs in 3 Space so I will limit my description to the best examples.

4 Unless I’m quoting a work using another translation, Manheim & Willett have translated The Threepenny Opera (London, Methuen Publishing), 2005. Although the original German text is used often in academic works, it has not been translated into English. Both have been listed for clarity. Some parts of my analysis require Blitzstein’s translation. These are properly noted.

5 Although John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is often remembered by Brecht, The Threepenny Opera almost exclusively belongs to Elisabeth Hauptmann. Brecht still took home 62.5% (Fuegi196).

6 This prologue is Marc Blitzstein’s translation. It is the most popular. The prologue was not preserved in the Manheim/Willett version.

7 Sforzando, a dynamic NOTATION that means “play and emphasis”, was Franz Joseph Hadyn’s Symphony no. 94 is his most famous piece. He intended it as a joke.

8 The theoretical structure of the “motto tune” is third-fifth-added sixth, also known as mediant-dominant-submediant, or “mi”-“sol”-“la”. I will use numerical references to musical intervals, i.e. third-fifth-sixth.

9 The abbreviation of “3PO” refers to Manheim & Willett’s translation.

10 This idea was visualized in a University of Wisconsin production in 2004. Macheath, Peachum were dressed alike to subtly remind them that they were not different.

11 The Blitzstein recording contains this melody, but the Manheim/Willett translation is used.

12 The dominant Seventh is a Major Triad (root-thirdfifth-fifth) that includes an additional seventh.

Since the advent of jazz and pop music, 13 dominant sevenths have become increasingly popular in composition. Weill was certain that jazz-wild Berlin would recognize their “jazziness.”

14 This should never be misunderstood as catharsis. Brecht clearly establishes the idea of audience responsibility. The resolution to the chord only indicates that there is hope.

15 “Mack the Knife”, a single, has been commercially very successful. There have been dozens of covers recorded, including those by Bobby Darin and Sting. McDonald’s introduced a McDonald’s character named “Mac Tonight” that sold hamburgers using a jingle inspired by Weill and Brecht.


  • noahtaylor

    Noah Taylor is a bloger, teacher, and writer living in upstate New York. He is the author of the highly successful educational blog, Noah's World, and the creator of the popular teacher resource, Noah's Notes. He has also written for many online publications, including Parenting, The Huffington Post, and The Learning Place. Noah is a graduate of Williams College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.