Bertolt Brecht Sings ‘Mack the Knife’ From The Threepenny Opera, 1929

Bertolt Brecht was­n’t much of a singer, but he could real­ly roll his “r“s. This rare record­ing of the social­ist play­wright singing “Mack the Knife” was made in May of 1929, less than a year after the smash-hit pre­miere of The Three­pen­ny Opera.

The song, called in Ger­man “Die Mori­tat von Mack­ie Mess­er,” was writ­ten in a rush only a few days before the August 31, 1928 Berlin pre­miere, after the actor who played Macheath com­plained that his entrance was­n’t grand enough. Brecht wrote the words overnight and asked his col­lab­o­ra­tor, the com­pos­er Kurt Weill, to set them to music. The song is mod­eled after the Mori­tat (from “mord” mean­ing mur­der and “tat” mean­ing deed), a kind of medieval bal­lad tra­di­tion­al­ly sung by trav­el­ing min­strels recount­ing the crimes of noto­ri­ous mur­der­ers. An Eng­lish trans­la­tion begins:

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.

See the shark, how red his fins are
As he slash­es at his prey.
Mack the Knife wears white kid gloves which
Give the min­i­mum away.

Brecht’s grit­ty 1929 record­ing of the song is con­sis­tent with the ragged aes­thet­ic of the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of The Three­pen­ny Opera, with its inten­tion­al­ly thread­bare sets and its cast of actors who were not accom­plished singers. Although Weill was the one who wrote the score, Brecht per­son­al­ly enjoyed play­ing music. The actress Lotte Lenya, who played Jen­ny in the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion, remem­bered how Brecht would strum his gui­tar and sing bal­lads “ama­teur­ish­ly but with an odd mag­net­ism.” Besides “Mack the Knife,” there is also a record­ing from the same 1929 ses­sion of Brecht singing a less­er-known piece from The Three­pen­ny Opera, “Song of the Insuf­fi­cien­cy of Human Endeav­or.” You can lis­ten to that one by click­ing here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

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Comments (4)
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  • george scarlett says:

    Hor­ri­ble! The guy sounds like my TOMCAT!!!

  • george scarlett says:

    If ya paid 3 pen­nies for this, ya got ripped off!!

  • JUNE says:

    It’s a shame that peo­ple can hear and yet total­ly miss the point of a mat­ter. This song is not sung to show­case Brecht’s singing abil­i­ties. It is sung to shed light on the fact that Jack the Rip­per, who most at that time almost assured­ly believed was a mem­ber of a fam­i­ly of wealth, got away with mur­der. This song is sung to expose the hypocrisy of the nobil­i­ty or the bour­geois class. All well knew that a mem­ber of nobil­i­ty was a vicious mur­der­er but would not stop or con­vict him due to the fact that he was nobil­i­ty.

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