Basics: Music

Threepenny Opera: The Music

Weill talks about his music

Kurt Weill
The “Threepenny Sound,” widely cherished and instantly recognizable, is a result of Weill’s unique gifts. Not surprisingly, the composer considered his music and orchestrations “sacred” and insisted on the importance of the “Klangbild” (sound-scape) in all of his works.

Surprised by success? Well…

Now that I've finished work on the Beggar’s Opera, I think I've written a good piece and that several numbers in it, at least musically, have the best prospects for becoming popular very quickly. (letter to his publisher 10 days before the premiere)

Why would anyone sing onstage?

With every musical work for the stage the question arises: how is music, particularly song, at all possible in the theatre? Here the question was resolved in the most primitive way possible. I had a realistic plot, so I had to set the music against it, since I do not consider music capable of realistic effects. Hence the action was either interrupted, in order to introduce music, or it was deliberately driven to a point where there was no alternative but to sing. (letter to the journal “Anbruch”, January 1929)

Don’t mess with my “Klangbild”…
Kurt Weill

I hear from Frankfurt that they already want to start making all kinds of orchestra reductions in the Dreigroschenoper. I consider that very dangerous and ask that you forbid the director from making any changes in the music or instrumentation without my permission. (letter to his publisher on October 11, 1928)

In the twenty years of its existence, the Dreigroschenoper has become a classic, and thousands of performances have rendered proof of its artistic strength as well as of its power over an audience. In music schools, the work’s full score is being taught as an example of great orchestration achieved by modest means, and up to now, no one has ever gotten the idea that this full score should be improved on. … In no case would I allow my music to be changed arbitrarily. (letter to a theater in Switzerland, January 31, 1949)

1st page of the full score for "Seerauberjenny. Click to enlarge. Take a closer look at the composer's handwriting: here's the first page of full score for "Seeräuberjenny" / "Pirate Jenny."
Click image to enlarge.

Tschaikowsky? Stravinsky!

Stravinsky is really enthusiastic about Dreigroschenoper. … It’s seen as a play that could have originated only on German soil, but just the same an entirely new mixture of Shakespeare and Dickens. The music, he said, is perfect. I’m supposed to send him all recordings and music immediately, because he wants the piece to be with him always. (letter to Lenya on January 27, 1930)


The Orchestra

The music sounds so easy but when you look at it … how did the 7 original band members manage 23 instruments?

The Orchestra: The Lewis Ruth Band (photo) led by Theo Mackeben at the piano. They were placed on stage in a prop of a fairground organ. Most of today's bands need 11 to 13 players to cover all the parts. [Special thanks to Archiv Dr. Jürgen Schebera, Berlin, for the photo.]

"If Jenny ever becomes a major role, then there's something goddam wrong with the whole production."
-Lotte Lenya (1962)
Lotte Lenya in a 1956 recording session

The Cast

Countless actors have mesmerized audiences with their skills but when it came to singing they stopped the show for all the wrong reasons. Likewise, many a trained singer has beautifully hit all the right notes but could audition successfully only for Madame Tussaud’s. So casting is key. Threepenny can’t be done with pure singers, and it can’t be done with pure actors. Each role calls for specific qualities, and no one should be fooled — Polly and Macheath are vocally demanding parts. Here’s a portrait of the original cast:

Harald Paulsen

Macheath: The role was written for the dapper Harald Paulsen, a seasoned operetta tenor with excellent acting skills.

Carola Neher

Polly: The substantial soprano part was conceived for Berlin’s shooting star, 27-year-old Carola Neher. Because of her husband’s sudden death she had to be replaced at the premiere, but she joined the cast some months later and also played the part in the 1931 film version. Roma Bahn played Polly on opening night in Berlin.


Mr. Peachum: Erich Ponto, a noted stage actor and later a film star (“The Third Man”), had no trouble with this straightforward bass-baritone part.


Mrs. Peachum: Rosa Valetti was a political cabaret performer, handling the part of Mackie’s true antagonist with a fine mezzo voice and accomplished acting skills.


Jenny: Lotte Lenya’s name was accidentally omitted from the opening night program, but in this mezzo part she made a memorable impression on Berlin’s feared theater critic, Alfred Kerr: “Who was she? She was good!”

Kate Kuhl

Lucy: Kate Kühl had wanted to become an opera singer but ultimately chose the career of a chanteuse and actress. The number “Lucy’s Aria” had to be cut at the premiere because it requires the skills of a coloratura.

Kate Kuhl

Tiger Brown: A trouble-free baritone part, it was performed by Berlin’s famous and beloved Kurt Gerron, who starred in countless plays, revues, and films (e.g., “The Blue Angel”).

List of Musical Numbers

1. Ouvertüre





2. Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Ballad of Mack the Knife

Street Singer

      Act I


3. Morgenchoral des Peachum

Peachum’s Morning Hymn

Mr. Peachum

4. Anstatt daß-Song

Instead-Of Song

Mr. + Mrs. Peachum

5. Hochzeitslied

Wedding Song

The Gang

6. Seeräuberjenny

Pirate Jenny

Polly Peachum

7. Kanonensong

Cannon Song

Macheath, Tiger Brown

8. Liebeslied

Love Song

Macheath, Polly

9. Barbarasong

Barbara Song


10. Erstes Dreigroschenfinale

First Threepenny Finale

Peachum Family

     Act II


11. Melodram



*Pollys Lied

Polly’s Song*


*Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit

Ballad of Sexual Dependency*

Mrs. Peachum

12. Zuhälterballade

Pimp’s Ballad (Tango Ballad)

Macheath, Jenny

13. Ballade vom angenehmen Leben

Ballad of the Pleasant Life


14. Eifersuchtsduett

Jealousy Duet

Lucy, Polly

15. Zweites Dreigroschenfinale

Second Threepenny Finale

Macheath, Mrs. Peachum

     Act III


*Arie der Lucy

Lucy’s Aria*


16. Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens

Song about the Futility of
    Human Endeavor

Mr. Peachum

17. Salomonsong

Solomon Song


18. Ruf aus der Gruft

Call from the Grave


19. Grabschrift



20. Drittes Dreigroschenfinale

Third Threepenny Finale

Chorus, Macheath, Brown,      Peachum Family

*Number was cut on opening night but later reinstated on occasion.


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