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Composer Kurt Weill’s Long-Forgotten “Song of the White Cheese” Discovered in Berlin Archive

Listen to the 1931 ditty, which had gone unnoticed in the collection of a little-known actress

Elmar Juchem, Managing Editor of the Kurt Weill Edition, was able to identify Kurt Weill's manuscript while doing archival work in Berlin. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0119 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
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A long-forgotten song by Kurt Weill, the German composer best known for collaborating with Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmannon the “ThreePenny Opera,” has been discovered at an archive in Berlin. As Joshua Barone reports for the New York Times, the find has surprised musical scholars, who have not made a major discovery of Weill’s work since the 1980s. And to top it all off, the song is about cheese.

Weill wrote the composition, titled “Lied vom weissen Käse” or “Song of the White Cheese,” in 1931, during the waning years of the Weimar Republic. Musicologist Elmar Juchem, managing editor of the Kurt Weill Edition, found the manuscript while conducting research on “Happy End,” another theatrical collaboration between Weill and Brecht, at the Free University of Berlin. He asked an archivist if the university held any additional materials related to Weill, and was shown the manuscript for “Song of the White Cheese,” which had been stored amidst the papers of a little-known actress named Gerda Schaefer.

Weill’s signature was penciled onto the musical score, Deutsche Welle reports. The document is only three pages long, but Juchem said the discovery is nevertheless “sensational,” according to a press release from the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

"Nobody believed that something completely unknown by Weill could still surface,” Juchem adds, “let alone from his Berlin heyday."

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(2017 The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York)

In the 1920s, Weill and Brecht pioneered a new form of opera, which incorporated ragtime, jazz, and a barbed satirical sensibility. For the “Song of the White Cheese,” Weill worked with the lyricist Günther Weisenborn. The song is written in the voice of a blind "maiden," who describes how a faith healer attempted, unsuccessfully, to cure her blindness by putting white cheese on her eyes. Weill and Weisenborn were skewering the faith healer Joseph Weißenberg, who amassed a large following during the Weimar era and claimed to be able to heal people using prayer—and cottage cheese.

At the end of the song, the girl opines that it might be better for everyone to be blind so they would not have to see “what’s currently going on in this world”—a contentious lyric, given that the song was performed during the ascendance of the Nazi party, as Barone of the Times notes. In fact, just two years after the “Song of the White Cheese” premiered at the Volksbühne theater in Berlin, Weill was forced to flee Germany to escape Nazi persecution.

Weill wrote “Song of the White Cheese” for a 1931 revue to benefit actors who had been laid off from the Volksbühne. His then-wife, the actress Lotte Lenya, performed it.

Decades later, Lenya would search for the manuscript of the song, but she remembered it as “Song of the Blind Maiden.” In the 1960s, according to the Kurt Weill Foundation press release, she suggested that the manuscript was “[p]robably buried in some basement."

It is not clear how the document came to be included in the collection of Schaefer, who was an ensemble member of the Volksbühne. In an interview with the Times, Juchem theorizes that Lenya may have passed the song on to Schaefer after her performance at the Volksbühne revue.

A performance of “Song of the White Cheese” will soon be recorded and released, according to the Kurt Weill Foundation. In the meantime, you can listen to an audio excerpt below:

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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