The Seven Deadly Sins
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) composed his ballet chanté (sung ballet) The Seven Deadly Sins during a time of tremendous political upheaval and turmoil in Europe. Weill’s most enduring works of this period were his collaborations with leftist writer Bertolt Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera. But, by 1933, when The Seven Deadly Sins was conceived, both Weill and Brecht had realized the implications of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany and had left the country. Weill went to Paris, and Brecht joined him there after a brief detour through Vienna. Weill would never return to Germany – he died in New York in 1950 – and Brecht would return to his homeland when the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was founded in 1949, realizing (he thought) his dream of a Marxist utopia.
The Seven Deadly Sins marks the end of Weill’s European career and the beginning of a nearly two-decade hiatus in Brecht’s. It was Weill’s last collaboration with Brecht and the last enduring work that he composed in his European theater style. This style is characterized by its directness, which is a product of Weill’s use of elements from popular music – in the case of this work, dance music and the barbershop quartet – as well as his use of established musical forms, like the church chorale. Weill would adapt his style to Broadway when he came to the United States in 1935, and he really never composed anything quite like The Seven Deadly Sins again.
The ballet was commissioned by Edward James, a wealthy Englishman whose Paris ballet troupe, Les Ballets 1933, counted the choreographer and dancer George Balanchine among its founders. James wanted a ballet for his estranged dancer wife, Tilly Losch. It was decided that the ballet would be sung, with the main character, Anna, “split” into singing and dancing halves. This way, Weill’s estranged wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, could star alongside Losch. Incidentally, although James’ effort at reconciliation would fail, Weill and Lenya emigrated to America together.
The score for Weill’s ballet, which was first published in 1955, contains the composer’s original version, for soprano, quartet, and orchestra, along with transpositions of four numbers for mezzo-soprano and an English translation of Brecht’s text prepared by Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden. (The inclusion of transpositions and the translation allowed for the widest possible dissemination of the work, both in concert and in fully-staged performances.) These Weill centenary performances use the original soprano version.
The work is a biting critique of capitalism, without the irony of the earlier Brecht-Weill collaborations. The concept is laid out in the Prologue. Anna has gone to the city to make enough money as a dancer to build a new house for her family in Louisiana. A singer (Anna I) and a dancer (Anna II) represent two sides of Anna. The first is level-headed and cautious, and the second, in the words of Weill biographer Jürgen Schebera, is “the dancer, the girl degraded into a commodity.”
In the first deadly sin, Sloth, Weill composes a stylized chorale as Anna’s family invokes the Lord to watch over her and reminds her, in a suitably preachy fashion, not to be lazy. A tenor sings the role of the father, tenor and baritone portray Anna’s two brothers, and bass the mother, so that Weill can poke fun at barbershop style in the work when the quartet appears.
Pride is a waltz: Anna II has become a dancer at a topless cabaret in Memphis. Brecht drives his anti-capitalist point home here – Anna II isn’t rich enough to be proud; she has to undress for money.
In Anger, the Annas have moved to Los Angeles and gotten a job at a movie studio. Anna II’s anger at seeing an extra mistreated almost gets the Annas fired. Weill uses a fox trot for the studio scene, and he also displays his virtuosity as an orchestrator in the careful way that he contrasts woodwinds and strings.
For Gluttony, Weill deploys the family as a barbershop quartet. The family warns Anna against overeating – she’s signed a star contract that has a weight clause. The writing for the quartet is extremely challenging, as it is almost entirely a cappella.
Lust is an elaborate dance scene for Anna II, accompanied vocally by Anna I and the family. Anna II is the kept woman of a wealthy man named Edward – Brecht couldn’t resist biting the hand that was feeding him – and Anna I is in love with a poor man named Fernando. The girls need money, so Anna I leaves Fernando so that she won’t have to support him with the wealth Anna II gets from Edward.
In Avarice, Weill parodies a heroic opera aria for the father. The family is worried about rumors that Anna is leaving men financially ruined and getting a bad name for her greed.
Envy is a triumphal march on the
surface, with a painful musical metamorphosis occurring underneath as Anna II realizes that she’ll never be as happy as other people until she learns to say no to the joys of this world.
During the Epilogue, the Annas return to Louisiana and to the new home they’ve built.
- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.