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"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928. The song has become a popular standard.

Contents

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.

Original German text

The song was inserted in the play shortly before its premiere in 1928, because Harald Paulsen, who created the role of Macheath, wished a more effectful introduction of his character.[1] The original German text is:[2]

German literal English translation
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, he has teeth,
And he wears them in his face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife cannot be seen.

At the 1928 premiere, the Moritat was sung by Kurt Gerron, who was a noted film and stage actor in Germany, and who also played the part of the Police Chief Brown. Weill also intended for the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer.[3]

1954 Blitzstein translation

"A Theme From The Threepenny Opera (Mack The Knife)"
Single by Louis Armstrong
B-side Back O' Town Blues
Released 1956
Format 7"
Recorded Los Angeles, CA
28 September, 1955
Genre Jazz
Length 3:25
Label Columbia 40587
Coronet KS-349
Writer(s) Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, English lyrics Marc Blitzstein, arr. Turk Murphy

In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The 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 jack-knife has Macheath dear
And he keeps it out of sight.

This is the version popularized 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, which already named several of Macheath's female victims.

The rarely-heard final verse — not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1930 movie — expresses the theme, and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:

German English translation
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

1976 Manheim-Willett translation

In 1976 the version translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett opened on Broadway, later made into a movie version starring Raúl Juliá as "Mackie". Here is an excerpt:

See the shark with teeth like razors
All can read his open face
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not 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 same movie features Darin's rendition over the opening credits.

1994 translation

A much darker translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse theatrical production in London. The new translation attempted to recapture the original tone of the song:

Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
Still you see them white and red
But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
Cause he slashed you and you're dead

Crimes of Macheath

The song attributes many crimes to Macheath:

  • A dead man in London, on the Strand
  • A rich man, Schmul Meier, disappeared for good and possibly robbed
  • Jenny Towler, killed with a knife in the chest
  • A cabbie, Alfred Gleet, missing and presumed dead
  • Seven children and an old man killed in an arson fire
  • Rape of an underage widow (minderjährige Witwe) in her bed

The arson, rape and disappearance of the cabbie were omitted from the original cast recording of the Blitzstein version, but remain intact in the libretto.

Popular song

"Mack the Knife" was introduced to the United States hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1956, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version at Fulton Studios on West 40th Street, New York City, on December 19, 1958 (with Tom Dowd engineering the recording). In 1959 Darin's version reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart, and earned him a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it wouldn't appeal to the rock & roll audience. To this day, Clark recounts the story with good humor. Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Jimmy Buffett, called Darin's the "definitive" version. Darin's version hit #3 on Billboard's All Time Top 100.[4] In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, pop mogul Simon Cowell named "Mack the Knife" the best song ever written.

Brecht's original German language version was appropriated for a series of humorous and surreal blackout skits by television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, showing, between skits, the vibrating soundtrack line.

Ella Fitzgerald made a famous live recording in 1960 (released on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) in which, after forgetting the lyrics after the first verse, she improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned her a Grammy Award. Robbie Williams also recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning. Other notable versions include performances by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Brian Setzer, Kevin Spacey, Westlife, and Michael Bublé. Swiss band The Young Gods radically reworked the song in industrial style, while jazz legend Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental version entitled simply "Moritat" in 1956. A 1959 instrumental performance by Bill Haley & His Comets was the final song the group recorded for Decca Records. Tito Puente also recorded an instrumental version. Salsa musician Rubén Blades recorded an homage entitled "Pedro Navaja."[5] Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, in his adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "A Volta do Malandro" and "O Malandro No. 2", with lyrics in Portuguese.

The song has been put to many other uses. American parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" in their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove. In the mid-1980s, fast food giant McDonald's introduced "Mac Tonight", a character whose signature song was based on "Mack the Knife." Comedian Steve Martin famously parodied "Mack the Knife" in his opening monologue to the premiere of Saturday Night Live's third season in 1977.

Selective list of recorded versions

See also

References

  1. ^ Henneberg, Fritz, ed (1985) (in German). Brecht-Liederbuch. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. p. 388. ISBN 3-518-37716-7. 
  2. ^ "Die Moritat von Mackier Messer", full text
  3. ^ Farneth, David (2000). Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. pp. 75-78. ISBN 0-87951-721-2. 
  4. ^ The Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs (10–01) (July 2008)
  5. ^ Pedro Navaja on MaestraVida.com

External links

Preceded by
"Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
(Bobby Darin version)

October 5, 1959 (6 weeks)
December 7, 1959 (3 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Mr. Blue" by The Fleetwoods
Preceded by
"Here Comes Summer" by Jerry Keller
UK number one single
(Bobby Darin version)

October 16, 1959 (2 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Travellin' Light" by Cliff Richard and The Shadows







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