Brecht and Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ Song: From Lotte Lenya to Nina Simone

11.00am Friday 3 July

With Professor Julian Preece

‘Seeräuber Jenny’ is one of the most famous songs from Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), which is about Berlin during the Weimar Republic but set in London at an indeterminate time and adapted from an eighteenth-century source (The Beggars’ Opera by John Gay).

It is sung by a downtrodden maid who reveals that she dreams of getting her revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on her in a most dramatic and violent way, putting her in absolute charge. The lecture examines the German text, explaining vocabulary and other points of context. We then listen to Lotte Lenya sing the song, trying to note her emphasis and interpretation. Lenya was in the original cast of Die Dreigroschenoper; her later roles included that of Colonel Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film, From Russia with Love.

The next part of the lecture is on the published English version, which made Brecht and Weill as famous in the USA in the 1930s as they already were in Germany. We look closely at the decisions taken by Marc Blitzstein in what amounts more to a ‘trans-adaptation’ than a translation, considering other lexical options open to him. We close by listening to the black American jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone perform her slightly amended version which she moves to a flophouse in South Carolina and consider the song’s message in the context of Simone’s wider oeuvre.

No knowledge of German is necessary but the lecture does deal with German vocabulary and issues of translation into English, comparing Bertolt Brecht’s original song ‘Seeräuber Jenny’, set to music by Kurt Weill in the Dreigroschenoper or Threepenny Opera, with the English translation by Marc Blitzstein.