Workin’ for the Money: Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins

Workin’ for the Money: Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins

On November 2, 3 and 4, the Houston Symphony welcomes renowned conductor Bramwell Tovey and vocalist Storm Large back to Jones Hall for The Seven Deadly Sins, a playfully provocative program of works by Strauss, Scriabin and Weill. Learn more about The Seven Deadly Sins, Weimar Germany’s swan song, in this post.

Composer Kurt Weill

Born in 1900 to a German-Jewish family, Kurt Weill began as a classically trained composer of symphonies and string quartets, but he would end his life as one of Broadway’s most successful songsmiths. He is best remembered, however, for capturing the spirit of Weimar Republic Germany in a series of collaborations with playwright Bertolt Brecht, including The Threepenny Opera (the source of the hit song “Mack the Knife”) and other stage works that defined the cultural moment. Like Mozart and Da Ponte, Gilbert and Suillivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Weill and Brecht are one of the great duos in the history of theatrical music.

The Seven Deadly Sins would be their last work together, ending a six-year string of successes cut short by personal conflict and grim political realities. Kurt Weill fled Berlin for Paris on March 21, 1933, only days before the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, effectively making Adolf Hitler a dictator. Weill’s music was now virtually unperformable in his own country, so with only 500 francs and a suitcase, he left behind his home, many of his scores and access to his bank account as he sought to start over in Paris.

A Tangled Web

“Not to be Reproduced,”
René Magritte’s portrait of Edward James.

As luck would have it, he soon found work from an unlikely source. Rumored to be an illegitimate son of King Edward VII, Edward James, a fabulously wealthy Englishman, was having trouble with his wife, the Austrian ballet dancer Tilly Losch. According to one source, Losch had assumed that James was gay when she married him, and was shocked to discover that her husband was in fact bisexual and very much in love with her. Determined to patch things up, James bankrolled a season of ballet performances in Paris that would feature his wife. The season would include a new, modern work, and James believed Weill was just the man for the job.

Ever the iconoclast, Weill determined to write an unconventional “sung ballet” that would incorporate elements of the musical theater at which he excelled. Weill initially approached Jean Cocteau to write the necessary text for the project, but when Cocteau declined, James made the obvious suggestion for his replacement: Bertolt Brecht.

Writer Bertolt Brecht.

Unfortunately, Weill’s last collaboration with him had been a difficult one, with Brecht at one point shouting “I’m going to kick that phony Richard Strauss down the stairs!” Reluctantly, Weill reached out to Brecht once again. As an increasingly dogmatic Marxist, Brecht hated ballet, believing that it was the most bourgeois of all art forms. At the time, however, he was living in exile in Switzerland and was just as broke as Weill. Even Marxists need to eat, so he came to Paris for a week, wrote the required text, took his paycheck and left. “After having worked with B. [Brecht] 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 soon after. “But,” he noted, “I am able to separate this completely from his work.”

The Seven Deadly Sins

Singer Lotte Lenya.

That work would become The Seven Deadly Sins. Despite Brecht’s distaste for the project, the libretto bears all the hallmarks of his best creations. Set in an imaginary, fantastical version of the United States, the “sung ballet” tells the story of Anna, a woman sent out into the world to make money by her greedy, exploitive family. During her sojourn, she visits seven cities—and discovers a deadly sin in each one. The twist, however, is that every time she follows the natural desires of her heart, she is chided for committing a “sin” that gets in the way of her money-making. Brecht thus raises the question: are the sins really so sinful? Or are they merely used to render people more compliant and easier to exploit?

Dancer Tilly Losch.

Torn between the need to make money and her heart’s desires, Anna has a Freudian split personality. In the original production, the role was divided between a singer (Anna’s practical side—her Ego) and a dancer (Anna’s more passionate side—her Id). This conceit arose during the planning of the work, when Edward James noticed that Weill’s wife, the famed singer Lotte Lenya, bore a striking resemblance to his own wife Tilly Losch. Weill agreed to the concept, despite the fact that he was having an affair with the set designer’s wife, while Lenya had taken up a life of gambling with a handsome blond costar from a recent Vienna production of Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The two were still on friendly terms, though, and to sweeten the deal Weill gave Lenya’s lover a part as a member of the male vocal quartet that depicted Anna’s family (in a typically Weimaresque touch, the bass singer represents Anna’s mother).

Musically, Weill regarded it as “the finest score I’ve written up to now.” While other composers of the early twentieth century sought to create ever more complex, dissonant and challenging scores, Weill combined modern innovations with popular styles. His music for The Seven Deadly Sins skillfully accentuates Brecht’s wit and biting social critique with a series of tuneful waltzes, foxtrots and tangos:

Vocalist Storm Large and the Hudson Shad Quartet, featured in this excerpt, will perform in the Houston Symphony’s upcoming presentation of The Seven Deadly Sins.

The work is full of musical parodies to match Brecht’s own satire. At the end of Sloth, for instance, the family imitates a religious madrigal as they pray that Anna will make lots of money for them; later they imitate a barbershop quartet during Gluttony. Pride contains a wicked parody of a tune from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, and Lust features a schmaltzy, sentimental melody as Anna tells her tale of sacrificed love (as a side note, the rich man in the Lust scene is named Edward, undoubtedly a jab at Edward James from Brecht). Envy, the final sin, is characterized by a bitter, hollow victory march.

The Aftermath

The premiere on June 7, 1933 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées presented mixed success; the German-language text appealed to the large contingent of German émigrés in the audience, but most of the native Parisians were unable to understand it. For a second run in London the following month, Lenya and James prepared an English translation, but the audience was flummoxed nevertheless. Britain’s long history of capitalism, cultural conservatism and love of tradition may have had something to do with it.

Las Pozas, Edward James’ surrealist sculpture garden in Mexico.

Edward James’ plan to win back his wife’s affections likewise failed; instead she seems to have had an affair with Lotte Lenya. James and Losch would soon divorce, and the wealthy Englishman would have to content himself with being a patron of surrealist artists, ultimately constructing a fantastical sculpture garden in Mexico. Both Weill and Brecht would end up in the United States during the War, but they would never work together again. Weill ultimately became a successful Broadway composer, while Brecht moved to Communist East Germany after the war to continue his work in the theater.

The Seven Deadly Sins, though sometimes staged as a ballet, has ultimately found a home in the concert hall, and has become one of Weill’s most frequently performed works. After Weill’s death in 1950, Lenya championed the work with a new, concert version transposed down slightly to better fit her mature voice (this is the version the Houston Symphony will perform with the English version of the text). Many singers from diverse backgrounds have since made it their own, and Brecht and Weill’s intriguing social critique remains as timely as ever. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins on November 2, 3 and 4, 2018! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.

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