Monday, February 29, 2016

Nannas Lied

An analysis of Nannas Lied  (Words by Bertolt Brecht; music by Kurt Weill, 1939)

Historical context
At Christmas 1939, Weill set a Brecht text, "Nannas Lied," as a Christmas present for his wife, Lotte Lenya. Apparently, she never performed the song in public. The lyric was part of Brecht's play, Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe, [the round heads and the pointy heads] and had previously been set by Hans Eisler.  The play is a satirical anti-Nazi parable about a fictitious country called Yahoo in which the rulers maintain their control by setting the people with round heads against those with pointed heads, thereby substituting racial relations for their antagonistic class relations.

Lotte Lenya always regarded Weill’s songs as Art Songs in the manner of Schubert, and not cabaret songs, according to her friend Lys Simonette, in her introduction to Teresa Statas’ collection of Weill songs.

The song is about a prostitute who is pretending to have no regrets. The refrain,

Wo sind die Tränen von gestern abend? Where are the tears of last night,
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr? Where is the snow of yesteryear?

comes from a line of the medieval French poet François Villon in his Ballade des dames du temps jadis ("Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past") with his question, Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?"). This in its turn draws on a whole tradition of nostalgia in medieval poetry.

In the context of Weill’s repertoire
The song is similar to other Brecht / Weill songs, having a bittersweet and melancholic quality, and showing the influence of klezmer (Ashkenazi Jewish music) in both style and the way it is performed. It has an ironic quality, as the woman pretends not to care about her lost innocence, but in the last verse, admits that it is not easy, changing lust into small change. This motif of presenting a facade to the hearer also occurs in Je ne t’aime pas, which was a collaboration between Weill and Maurice Magre.

In the context of vocal repertoire
This could be classified as a Song of Characterisation, or a Song of Reminiscence. It is strophic, although Lotte Lenya claimed that Weill’s songs were art songs. It is melancholy and poignant.

Meine Herren, mit siebzehn Jahren
Kam ich auf den Liebesmarkt
Und ich habe viel erfahren.
Böses gab es viel
Doch das war das Spiel
Aber manches hab’ ich doch verargt.
(Schließlich bin ich ja auch ein Mensch.)

Gott sei Dank geht alles schnell vorüber
Auch die Liebe und der Kummer sogar.
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern abend?
Wo ist die Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?

Freilich geht man mit den Jahren
Leichter auf den Liebesmarkt
Und umarmt sie dort in Scharen.
Aber das Gefühl
Wird erstaunlich kühl
Wenn man damit allzuwenig kargt.
(Schließlich geht ja jeder Vorrat zu Ende.)

Gott sei dank geht alles schnell vorüber, usw.

Und auch wenn man gut das Handeln
Lernte auf der Liebesmess’:
Lust in Kleingeld zu verwandeln
Ist doch niemals leicht.
Nun, es wird erreicht.
Doch man wird auch älter unterdes.
(Schließlich bleibt man ja nicht immer siebzehn.)

Gott sei dank geht alles schnell vorüber, usw.
Gentlemen, when I was seventeen
I came onto the market of love
And I’ve got a lot of experience.
There was a lot of bad stuff
however, that was the game
but some of it I deserved.
(In the end, I am human too.)

Thank God everything goes by so fast
Even love and trouble, just the same
Where are the tears of last night,
Where is the snow of yesteryear?

Admittedly, with the years, you go
more easily onto the market of love
and embrace them there in droves.
But your feelings
Become remarkably cool
When you don’t ration them.
(in the end, every bargain comes to an end.)

Thank God everything goes by so fast, etc

And even when you’ve learnt to trade
in the fairground of love:
to change love into small coin
it’s still never easy
but it’ll be managed.
But you get older in the meantime.
(at least you don’t stay seventeen forever)

Thank God everything goes by so fast, etc


The music for this song was written in 1939. The words had been written earlier by Bertolt Brecht for a play satirizing the Nazis. The song tells the story of a prostitute who pretends not to feel regret for her career. The line “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” comes from a medieval French poem and is in a long tradition of melancholy nostalgia.