Vandaag is het vijftig jaar geleden dat (nog maar voor de tweede keer) de Grammy’s werden uitgereikt. En wie won de Grammy voor beste song van het jaar? Bobby Darin met “Mack the Knife”!
“Mack the Knife” or “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” (German: “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer“) is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their 1928 music drama The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper). The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US and UK number one hit for Bobby Darin in 1959.
A Moritat is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels. In The Threepenny Opera, the Moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay‘s The Beggar’s Opera (who was in turn based on the historical thief Jack Sheppard). The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.
The play opens with the Moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark and then telling tales of his crimes: arson, robbery, rape, murder.
The song was a last-minute addition that was inserted before its premiere in 1928 because Harald Paulsen, the actor who played Macheath, demanded that Brecht and Weill add another number that would more effectively introduce his character. However, Weill and Brecht decided the song should not be sung by Macheath himself, opting instead to write the song for a street singer in keeping with the Moritat tradition. At the premiere, the song was sung by Kurt Gerron, who played Police Chief Brown. Weill intended the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer. At the premiere, though, the barrel organ failed, and the pit orchestra (a jazz band) had to quickly provide the accompaniment for the street singer.
|Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,|
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.
|And the shark, it has teeth,|
And it wears them in the face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife can’t be seen.
The song was introduced to American audiences in 1933 in the first English-language production of The Threepenny Opera. The English lyrics were by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky. That production, however, was not successful, closing after a run of only ten days. In the best-known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway for over six years, the words are:
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight.
Blitzstein’s translation provides the basis for most of the popular versions heard today, including those by Louis Armstrong (1956) and Bobby Darin (1959; Darin’s lyrics differ slightly), and most subsequent swing versions. Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong’s recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics (“Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya”), which already named several of Macheath’s female victims. The Armstrong version was later used by Bobby Darin.
The final stanza — not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1931 movie — expresses the theme and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:
|Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln|
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.
|There are some who are in darkness|
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.