Kurt Weill's Little Three-Penny-Music is one of the mainstays of the repertoire for symphonic winds. It is in Weill's characteristic mixture of classical, popular, and dance music styles with an overlay of a rather seedy-sounding adaptation of European jazz styles. It contains one of the best-known of all popular songs.
Weill's successes on the stage led Bertolt Brecht to propose a full-length work to be adapted from Gay and Pepusch's The Beggars' Opera (1728). That work had done what Weill and Brecht wanted to do: It had practically swept traditional opera off the stage in London, substituting a new form that used popular ballads as its musical basis. Weill wrote all new music, while Brecht adapted the tale of the life and loves of the villain Macheath to a more contemporary setting, enabling him to attack the corruption and moral decay he attributed to the democratic Weimar government. Der Dreigroschenoper (Three-Penny Opera) was a sensation and played at least 10,000 performances in various productions in the 1920s.
In 1929, Weill responded to requests for an orchestral suite by adapting eight of its numbers into a suite. The scoring retains the wind-based scoring of the play and the "Overture" sets a grim mood with academic, classical counterpoint. The most famous number from the play was a last-minute addition to serve as an "entrance aria" for the villain-hero, Macheath. "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer," originally for singer and street organ, here becomes an oily sounding trombone solo with banjo accompaniment. It is a street ballad recounting the heinous acts of particular criminals. "Annstat-Das Lied" ("Instead-Of Song") is a tired and cynical ballad, while "Die Ballade vom angenehmen Leben" ("Ballad of the Easy Life") is a shimmy and the most jazz-like part of the suite. "Polly's Lied" concerns the hopes raised in Polly Peachum's heart by the prospect of romance with Macheath. Its tender strains contain a strong sense of sadness. "Tango-Ballad" is an outstanding solo for saxophone and muted brass, with an insistent and slightly smarmy Latin dance. Following it is the explosive and chilling "Kanonen-Song" ("Cannon Song"), a paean to the "benefits" of Army life. The last movement, "Dreigroschen Finale," begins with the cortege taking Macheath to his execution and (after the arbitrary pardon that spares him) ends with a chorale of thanksgiving.