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Mack the Knife

From Academic Kids

"Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", was composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928.

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The Threepenny Opera

A moritat is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels, from mori meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed". 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 was less dashing and much more cruel and sinister and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.

The opera opens with the moritat singer comparing Macheath with a shark, and then telling tales of his robberies, murders, rapes, and arson:

The first verse in German:

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

Literal translation:

And the shark, he has teeth,
And he wears them in his face,
And Macheath has a knife
But the knife one does not see.

In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of Threepenny Opera, which introduced the song to English-speaking audiences, the words are:

Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jacknife has Macheath dear
And he keeps it out of sight.

This is the version performed on popular hits by Louis Armstrong (1956) and Bobby Darin (1959), 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, which already named several of Macheath's female victims.

In 1976 the version translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett opened on Broadway. Here is an excerpt:

See the shark with teeth like razors
You can read his open face
And Macheath, he's got a knife, and
In such an obvious place

This is the version later performed by Sting and Nick Cave. It is also the version performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the film Quiz Show (1994).

The rarely heard final verse, which closes the opera, and expresses the theme, compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:

In German:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

In English:

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

Crimes of Macheath

The song attributes many crimes to Macheath:

  • a dead man on the Strand
  • a rich man, Schmul Meier, disappeared for good
  • Jenny Towler, killed with a knife in the chest
  • Seven children and an old man killed in an arson fire
  • Rape of a child widow (minderjährige Witwe) in her bed

The arson and rape were omitted from the Blitzstein version.

American popular song

In the United States, the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version in 1959. It was #1 on the US pop chart. It was introduced to the US hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1954.

Darin's version was described by Frank Sinatra, who also recorded the song, as the "definitive" version. Ella Fitzgerald made a famous live recording in which she forgot the lyrics after the first verse and successfully improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned a Grammy. Robbie Williams also recorded the song, the latter in his 2001 Swing album, Swing When You're Winning. Another version was recorded by Texas singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

See also

External links

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