John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“September Song” Is Chilling, Thrilling

Oft performed, but composer Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya offers haunting version.

By - Dec 12th, 2016 04:23 pm
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Lotte Lenya. Photo by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lotte Lenya. Photo by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The original version of “September Song” was done by the great actor Walter Huston (also father of director John Huston) in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday. Unfortunately, it sounds like it. All that’s missing are the bo-do-deeyos. I expected a deep rumble (Huston had a limited range), not megaphone fodder. But we have other choices, because this song became a standard and was was sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn to Louis Armstrong and Lou Reed.

But Lotte Lenya’s version has a special charm — she was married to the German composer Kurt Weil, who wrote it. The lyrics, steeped in beautiful autumnal gloom, were written by Maxwell Anderson. Lenya and Weill are themselves a long and fascinating story. They were married, divorced, and married again, and left Germany in the early thirties when the Weimar Republic was collapsing and their avant garde provocations were a perfect target for Hitler. The fact that Weil was Jewish made matters more urgent. He saw the writing on the wall and it saved his life and of course, enriched ours as well. She was a rising star in the world of German theater and cabarets — that’s how they met. Is there a movie about them? There should be.

Before departing, Weil collaborated with playwright Bertolt Brecht. They created The Threepenny Opera, The Rise And The Fall Of The City Of Mahoganny and, I think, decadence. Brecht took a more circuitous path to America, arriving much later. When Weil and Lenya arrived here they headed west, where there was a small expatriate German community in Hollywood. It included the brilliant director Billy Wilder and actor Peter Lorre, among others. The lucky artists who fled Hitler’s Germany set up shop here and added so much to modern culture. Weill became a major composer of Broadway musicals.

So why write about this song, this frigid week in December? Honestly, I don’t know. It just popped into my head. But it seems to linger, like the tale end of a cold. Not really welcome, but somehow mellowing. Also, the lyrics present me with the opportunity to use the word “elegiac,” which this haunting song exemplifies. Maybe that’s reason enough.

Oh, it’s a long long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
When you reach September

When the autumn weather
Turns leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down

To a precious few September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days 
I’ll spend with you

Oh, the days dwindle down
To a precious few September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days 
I’ll spend with you

These precious days I’ll spend with you

© Kurt Weill / Maxwell Anderson

“When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame.” What a beautiful phrase. The message is simple and perfectly stated. Musically, it’s a masterpiece. It must be considered an art song and has probably been sung in that funny operatic voice I’m still too young to appreciate. But voiced by artists like Lenya or Louis Armstrong, it chills and thrills.

The structure is unconventional, bordering on bizarre — the chords more so. If you feel a vague uneasiness somewhere around ‘November,’ it’s your monkey brain responding to an evil contraption called a diminished chord. This tense little number, never comfortable in its own skin, can sound like a threatening wind or rattling chains — it’s harmony’s bogeyman. Here it ratchets your nerves until they are set to pop, before releasing its death grip in the next section, one of the most inspirational these ears have experienced.

I believe songs are relevant if they pop into your head. It’s the subconscious picking a soundtrack for the unique moments we stumble into. This moment is quite unique. I wanted the last two years to rush by so we could put the endless campaign behind us, and they have. But what’s in front of us? As the days dwindle down to the inauguration, spin this one a few times. Or all day on January 20th.

Note: I talk a little about this song on Soundcloud; if you like nasally harmony nerds, it’s right up your alley.

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