Kurt Weill: Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?
Weill had brainstormed for years on ways to use his talents towards the American war effort. In 1941, he wrote, “Like everybody else, I have the ardent desire to serve the country in some capacity. I would take any job. But it seems to me I could really be of some help if I would be allowed to use my connections and reputation among Americans of German descent and refugees from Nazi Germany to organize an effective ‘cultural attack’ on Germany by short-wave radio…In word and music we would tell them the truth about their leaders, the hopelessness of their fight, the power of democracy, and the beauty of life in a free country.”
The ballad “Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?,” (“And what did the Soldier’s Wife get?”) with text by long-time collaborator and fellow exile Bertolt Brecht, was written in March 1942. Unpromted, Weill handed over the song to the War Department unit responsible for the shortwave broadcasts to Germany, and shortly thereafter, the song received its debut performance in an anti-Nazi pageant at Hunter College. The next year, the US government helped broadcast the song to Germany, featuring Lotte Lenya’s straighforward delivery, heard here.
The song’s text asks a question and answers it, repeatedly throughout the song with a litany of pillaged cities named. And what did the soldier’s wife receive from Prague?…shoes. from Oslo?…fur. from Amsterdam?…a Dutch hat. from Brussels?…rare laces. from Paris? …a silk dress. from Bucharest? …a shirt. But from Russia, she receives a widow’s veil for the funeral.
How does this pertain to our current era? After over 25 years of American boots on the ground in the Middle East, there seem to be few, if any winners, and the complex issues of the region only grow increasingly more muddled with each passing day. So what have we gained from our desire for oil, for political power, for exacting revenge? …