In late 1928 Kurt Weill accepted a commission from Radio Frankfurt for a new work, which he duly fulfilled with Das Berliner Requiem (The Berlin Requiem). In collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, Weill selected several of Brecht's preexisting poems in order to craft what he termed a "secular requiem that gives voice to contemporary Man's feelings about death." All of the texts used in the Berlin Requiem deal specifically with forgotten dead; faceless war casualties, or victims of violent crime whose bodies are disposed of in an undetected location. The work is economically scored for three-voice male chorus, wind band, guitar, banjo, and organ. Often the accompaniment texture is extremely spare, with much of the "Ballade vom entrunkenen Mädchen" supported by guitar alone.
The first version of the Berlin Requiem utilized seven poems: 1) "Vom Tod im Wald" (Death in the Wood), 2) "Können einem toten Mann nicht helfen" (Can't Help a Dead Man), 3) "Ballade vom entrunkenen Mädchen" (Ballad of the Drowned Girl), 4) "Marterl" (Memorial), 5) "Erster Bericht über den unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen" (First Report on the Unknown Soldier Buried Beneath the Triumphal Arch), 6) "Zweiter Bericht über den unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen" (Second Report on the Unknown Soldier Buried beneath the Triumphal Arch), and 7) "Grosser Dankchoral" (Great Chorus of Thanks).
The Berlin Requiem had already undergone a number of changes by its premiere in Frankfurt on May 22, 1929. Weill dropped "Vom Tod im Wald" from the score; it had already been heard on an earlier occasion in 1927, and didn't fit with the rest of the Requiem. Relocating the "Grosser Dankchoral" to the opening, Weill added a new setting, "Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen" (At Potsdam Under the Oaks), to conclude the work. In 1930 Brecht and Weill decided to transfer "Können einem toten Mann nicht helfen" into the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and at that time Weill also decided to remove the Potsdam number from the score -- a pity, for its full orchestration has not survived. While Universal Edition continued to press Weill for an approved version of the score for publication, he stalled to work on other projects, and at some point the autograph manuscript of the Berlin Requiem disappeared, never to be seen again.
In the years following Weill's death in 1950, only one piece from the Berlin Requiem was known; "Ballade vom entrunkenen Mädchen," sung with chilling efficiency and drama by Weill's widow Lotte Lenya. In due course a copyist's manuscript of the original seven-part Berlin Requiem turned up and was edited for publication in 1967 by David Drew, 38 years after Universal Edition had first asked for it. In this edition, the remaining five numbers were retained and the "Grosser Dankchoral" repeated at the end, in keeping with the form of Brecht-Weill's school opera Die Jasager (1930), to which the Requiem is thematically related.