…because Macheath’s back in town
These lyrics are from “Mack the Knife”, the famous Kurt Weill song that opens The Threepenny Opera. According to Wikipedia, at least 29 pop versions of “Mack the Knife” have been recorded, and lucky for us, many of them are on YouTube. In the coming months, before Macheath really is in town, I think it’d be fun to examine the many incarnations of “Mack the Knife”, or “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” in the original German. The big question is, how did such a dark song, composed in Berlin on the eve of historic political instability, become an upbeat, popular American staple?
Let’s start at the beginning. The first version on record is by Bertolt Brecht, the revolutionary playwright who wrote the text for The Threepenny Opera:
“A moritat (from mori meaning “deadly” and tat meaning “deed”) 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. 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 robberies, murders, rapes, and arson.
The song was inserted in the play shortly before its première in 1928, because Harald Paulsen, who created the role of Macheath, wished a more effective introduction of his character. The original German text is:
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 its face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife one doesn’t see.”
Serious stuff, with not much for a swinging Sinatra-type to grab on to. We’ll see how that came to be next time.