Kurt Weill wrote “Complainte de la Seine” in Paris in 1934, which may have been the darkest time of his life. Just divorced from Lotte Lenya, the love of his life, and driven from Berlin by the Nazis, who hated his politics (actually socialist) as much as his ethnicity (Jewish), he stayed in Paris for a year or so before fleeing Europe entirely.
Considering the circumstances, it’s not at all surprising that he would choose a poem like Maurice Magre’s “Complainte de la Seine” for a song. The poem starts out lighthearted enough, mining Paris’s reputation and history for interesting things that might be found at the bottom of the Seine, and then waxes increasingly morbid, pondering the myriad corpses that have wound up in it over the centuries. Weill sets the poem to a melody that initially comes across as cheerful, frivolous even, but the rhythm in the accompaniment recalls Chopin’s famous funeral march.
Here’s a recording of Lys Gautier, for whom the song was written, and which she sang in Paris music halls that summer, to popular acclaim. Apparently it resonated not only in the life of Kurt Weill, but in the overall mood of Paris at the time. Gautier sings the song as if it’s just another music-hall number and she’s just a regular beautiful Parisian music-hall girl. You have to be paying attention to realize that this isn’t just another cheerful little ditty. To me, singing it this way actually increases the impact; the incongruity between the melody and the lyrics actually makes the grim stuff grimmer.
For contrast, here is Lotte Lenya singing the same song (she and Weill were re-united later in America). She is older and sadder in this recording than Gautier would have been in hers. She takes it slower, and with more rubato, and there’s something in her voice that tells you up front, this is not a happy song.
And a more current take: Ute Lemper really playing up the drama – too much? – my fangirling makes it hard for me to be objective.