opera-inside, dreigroschenoper, threepenny opera, Mack the knife, Moritat, Mackie Messer, der Haifisch der hat Zähne, Kurt Weill, Bertold Brecht

The Portrait of Kurt Weill’s and Bertold Brecht’s song MACK THE KNIFE

Read Interesting facts and hear great YouTube Videos about the famous Aria “MACK THE KNIFE“.


If you want to hear more about the THREEPENNY OPERA, click on this link to the opera portrait


The Song MACK THE KNIFE – Synopsis and background

Synopsis: A fair in Soho. The beggars beg, the thieves steal, the whores whore. A carnival singer sings the Moritat about Mackie Messer, the assassin who kills on commission.

This song stands at the beginning of this work with a background of social criticism written by Weill and Brecht. They called it “the Moritat of Mackie Messer”. Moritat (probably coming from the word “murderous deed” or “morality”) was a horror ballad that were sung at fairs and was accompanied by violins or barrel organs.
From the beginning, the Moritat became a popular song par excellence and the most famous piece of the Threepenny Opera. Interestingly, this song was not included in the original version. It was written at the last moment because the actor Harald Paulsen insisted on being the first actor to perform a song.
The Threepenny Opera departs from the traditional approach of musical drama that we know in opera. Brecht and Weill demanded from the performing artists not to interpret the scenes psychologically but to interpret them socio-politically. The actor must not be absorbed in the role. Consequently, it was not the sensitive opera singer who was the ideal interpreter, but the singing actor.
The piece consists of 6 verses and begins only with the accompaniment of a harmonium. With each verse, more of the total of 9 instruments join. Weill writes at the beginning “in the manner of an street organ”. The rhythm develops more and more into a foxtrot.
Weill wrote a music with a simple but suggestive melody, accompanied by a jazz band with 9 musicians who do not sit in the orchestra pit but play music on stage.
The piece can be formally divided into an A and a B part.
The song begins in C major. To make life easier for the actor, Weill refrained from large leaps in tone and the singing voice moves within a narrow range:

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Despite the gruesome lyrics, the singer remains unmoved. This so-called “alienation effect” allows the audience to keep their distance to allow critical thinking. What counts is no longer the empathic musical drama we know from Verdi or Wagner, but Brecht’s “epic theatre”. Consequently, this spine-chilling ballade is mostly set in major key, only shortly at the beginning of the B-part Weill changes to a minor key:

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The Aria – the text of MACK THE KNIFE


Original German lyrics

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

Und es sind des Haifischs Flossen
Rot, wenn dieser Blut vergießt
Mackie Messer trägt ’nen Handschuh
Drauf man keine Untat liest.

An der Themse grünem Wasser
Fallen plötzlich Leute um
Es ist weder Pest noch Cholera
Doch es heißt: Mackie geht um.

An’nem schönen blauen Sonntag
Liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
Und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke
Den man Mackie Messer nennt.

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
Und so mancher reiche Mann
Und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
Dem man nichts beweisen kann.

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit ’nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
Der von allem nichts gewußt.

Wo ist Alfons gleich, der Fuhrherr?
Kommt er je ans Sonnenlicht?
Wer es immer wissen könnte
Mackie Messer weiß es nicht.

Und das große Feuer in Soho
Sieben Kinder und ein Greis
In der Menge Mackie Messer, den
Man nichts fragt, und der nichts weiß.

Und die minderjähr’ge Witwe
Deren Namen jeder weiß
Wachte auf und war geschändet
Mackie welches war dein Preis?


Darin’s American-English lyrics

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old Macheath, babe
And he keeps it out of sight

You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears old Macheath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red

Now on the sidewalk, ooh, sunny morning, uh-huh
Lies a body just oozin’ life
Eek, and someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

There’s a tugboat down by the river, don’t ya know
Where a cement bag’s just a-droopin’ on down
Oh, that cement is just, it’s there for the weight, dear
Five’ll get ya ten, old Macky’s back in town

Now d’ya hear about Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash
And now Macheath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy’s done something rash?

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town

Look out ol’ Macky’s back




Famous interpretations of MACK THE KNIFE


First we hear the version of the first macheath, Harald Paulsen, to whom we owe the existence of the piece (see introductory text).

Der Haifisch hat Zähne  –  Paulsen

His role later in the Third Reich, however, was a sad one. He was an opportunist and notorious as an informer.


Leonard Bernstein took up the opera in the 50s and asked Blitzstein to create an English version for the Broadway. Blitzstein moved the “Three Penny Opera” to the New York of 1870 and wrote the text in American slang. Lotte Lenya again sang Jenny as she die in the premiere 30 years before. The work had a huge impact in America.

Many jazz musicians appreciated that Weill, unlike other European composers, really wrote in the stile of jazz and the song found many adaptations by American jazz musicians. The first one was Louis Armstrong, who, with his voice and the arrangement, made the song a great swing number.

Mack the knife  –  Armstrong


In 1960 Ella Fitzgerald brought “Mack the knife” back to Berlin and received a Grammy for it. Her interpretation turned the key chromatically one step higher with each line, 11 times in total. Breathtaking.

Mack the knife  –  Fitzgerald


Hildegard Knef, a german speaking actor, recorded the song in 1962. Ella Fitzgerald described her as the ♪ Interesting facts ♪ great YouTube Videos ♪ about Weill’s famous song MACK THE KNIFE ♪ with interpretations of Fitzgerald, Paulsen, Sinatra ♪”best singer without voice”.

Und der Haifisch der hat Zähne  –  Knef


At a mature age Frank Sinatra included the song in his concert repertoire, with resounding success.

Mack the knife  –  Sinatra





Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to the song “MACK THE KNIFE” from the threepenny opera  from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht







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