Hear the ecclesiastical menace of the family in Sloth, the urgent strings in Anger, the cruel, a capella Barbershop Quartet of Gluttony, the valiant tenor aria in Greed and the devastating triumph of Anna I over Anna II in Envy’s grim march…
Kurt Weill (1900–1950)
The Seven Deadly Sins
BALLET WITH SONGS
TEXT BY BERTOLT BRECHT
Within days of the German Reichstag passing the Enabling Act that would lay the foundations for Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933, Kurt Weill left Berlin for Paris. The composer’s career had been gaining steam through the 1920s, particularly due to his successful collaborations with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, but his Jewish birth, his politics, his popularity and even his scores themselves made him a target for the Nazis – his music would be banned in Germany until after the Second World War.
The Seven Deadly Sins was the final in a series of collaborations between Weill and Brecht, which included The Threepenny Opera (featuring the hit Mack the Knife), Happy End and the jazz-infused Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – from whence comes the Alabama Song, since recorded by the likes of The Doors and David Bowie.
In Paris, Weill was soon commissioned by the wealthy English arts patron Edward James to create a work for his ballerina wife Tilly Losch. When Weill’s first choice of librettist, Jean Cocteau, declined the job, he was forced to turn to Brecht, now also in exile, who during their last collaboration had threatened to kick Weill down the stairs.
Brecht joined Weill in Paris briefly, supplied the libretto, and left. “After having worked with B. for a week I am of an even stronger opinion that he is one of the most repulsive, unpleasant fellows running around on this earth,” Weill wrote in a letter afterwards. “But I am able to separate this completely from his work.”
A searing critique of capitalism, the resulting ballet chanté (sung ballet) is set in a fantasy America and tells the story of two sisters, Anna I and Anna II, sent out by their family from Louisiana on a seven-year journey to earn money to build a little house by the Mississippi. Anna I is sung by a soprano – at the premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées it was Lotte Lenya, who was married to, but separated from, Weill – while Anna II was originally depicted by a dancer, Losch, in choreography by George Balanchine. In the Prologue, Anna I sets the scene and reveals that the two sisters are in fact one divided being. The two can be seen as stand ins for the Freudian ego and id. “She’s the one with the looks. I’m realistic,” explains the first Anna.
The Annas’ judgemental family members are sung by a male quartet (with a typical Weimar gender reversal that sees the mother sung by the bass) and are introduced in the first of the sins, Sloth. Across this bleak depiction of America – the Annas visit Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco – it soon becomes clear that the ‘sins’ are any qualms that might get in the way of making money. When Anna II expresses her desire to be an artist rather than a stripper in the ironic waltz of Pride (with its nod to Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus), her sister chastises her: “Leave your pride to those who can well afford it.”
You don’t have to look hard to find analogies to Weill and Brecht’s own world in The Seven Deadly Sins, both men leaving their homes and forced to make a living however they could (Brecht certainly didn’t hide his contempt for this job). The admonition in Anger not to “take offence at injustice” if you want to succeed financially must have felt particularly close to home given the situation they were fleeing in Germany. The acerbic Brecht also aims a swipe at his employer, James, in the character of the wealthy man, also called Edward, in Lust (James’ marriage to Losch was on shaky ground and they would divorce the following year).
Though Weill conceived The Seven Deadly Sins as a ‘sung ballet’, it has become popular in the concert hall thanks to its brilliantly wry music. Hear the ecclesiastical menace of the family in Sloth, the urgent strings in Anger, the cruel, a cappella Barbershop Quartet of Gluttony, the valient tenor aria in Greed and the devastating triumph of Anna I over Anna II in Envy’s grim march, before the sisters finally realise their dream of a little home in Louisiana.
Angus McPherson © 2021
The upcoming CSO performance is given by permission of Hal Leonard Australia Pty Ltd, exclusive agents for Schott Music Ltd of Mainz
Read the text in English, translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman