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At-A-Glance

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Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, banjo ( = guitar), strings, soprano, and quartet (2 tenors, baritone, and bass).

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 30, 1982, with soprano Elise Ross, tenors Michael Reynolds and Dennis Mills Heath, baritone Kenneth Knight, and bass Thomas Wilcox, Simon Rattle conducting.

About this Piece

Kurt Weill composed his ballet chanté (sung ballet) The Seven Deadly Sins during a time of tremendous political upheaval and turmoil in Europe. Weill had made a career in Berlin during the 1920s. His most enduring successes of this period were his collaborations with leftist writer Bertolt Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera (for which Weill composed some of his greatest songs, like “Mack the Knife”). But, by 1933, when The Seven Deadly Sins was conceived, both Weill and Brecht had realized the implications of the Nazi seizure of 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 his ability to parody popular music – in the case of this work, dance music and the barbershop quartet – as well as 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 a wealthy Englishman named Edward James, 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, James’ effort at reconciliation would fail in his own case, but Weill and Lenya emigrated to America together.)

The ballet is a biting critique of industrial capitalism, without the irony of the earlier Brecht-Weill collaborations. The concept of the ballet 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 Schebra, is “the dancer, the girl degraded into a commodity.”

The first deadly sin, Sloth, has Weill parodying the chorale as Anna’s family invokes the Lord to watch over her and reminds her not to be lazy. The quartet uses a tenor for the father, tenor and baritone for Anna’s two brothers, and bass for the mother, so that Weill can potentially 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 capella.

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 Covetousness, 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