On 5 April 1933 Kurt Weill advised the artistic director of the Parisian ensemble “Les Ballets 1933” Boris Koncho, to cable Bertolt Brecht in Italy and request that he come immediately to Paris and start work with him that very same week. Brecht agreed and the two threw themselves into the creation of The Seven Deadly Sins. It took them only a few days to outline the story of the girl Anna, who is being sent by her family on a journey through seven American cities in order to scrape money together for a house by dancing. Her parents and brothers are dreaming of a little house in Louisiana, one that is supposed to be finished upon Anna’s return after seven years. Anna’s personality, torn by the cut-throat demands of making a living as a dancer as well as by her all too human needs (the “deadly sins” that are violating the typical rules of accumulating capital), splits. The first Anna, represented in the ballet as a singer, is the rational one who will stop at nothing to reach her goals. The second Anna, however, the dancer, yields to her needs and thus threatens the family’s acquisition of their dream home. In spite of Anna’s personality conflict, the plan succeeds: Anna I is able to control Anna II time and again.
For his Marxist critique on capitalism, Brecht made use of stereotypical “Americanisms” that had existed in his own texts of the late 1920s, for instance in The Lindbergh Flight and Happy End. But here, under altered political signs, they coalesce into a cliché-laden anti-Americanism which came to full flowering during Brecht’s exile works around 1940, where the movie paradise of Hollywood (one of Anna’s stopovers in The Seven Deadly Sins) was being depicted as hell. But in 1933, no doubt, neither Brecht nor Weill could foresee that an odyssey not unlike Anna’s lay just ahead of them. For the time being, they experienced exile in Europe and Weill was confident that it would not last very long. In 1934 the composer noted in an interview given in Paris: »I felt a need for a change of air already in Berlin last year«. Indeed Weill’s exile began less chaotically than it did for others in his plight. It is true that he started) if a part for his wife, the German dancer Tilly Losch, could be secured and 2) if the German composer Kurt Weill would participate in one way or another.

Weill, who had come to Paris with the feeling of »starting all over again« with Paris as his “new home,” considered the commission as a first step in building a reputation in his newly adopted city. He initially suggested Jean Cocteau as librettist. Shortly thereafter Brecht’s name was suggested, who Parisian audiences knew from his successful one-act plays in the Salle Gaveau in December 1932 and from Die Dreigroschenoper (“The Threepenny Opera”), but who was little known otherwise.

Hence a group of collaborators who had been one of the most successful teams for the musical theater during the Weimar Republic joined forces during their French exile. However, this period was gone by now and there was doubt as to whether the success of Die Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny could be repeated. Other collaborators were soon asked to join in, including the set designer Caspar Neher, who had been involved in earlier Weill-Brecht productions and who had served as co-author in Weill’s opera Die Bürgschaft (“The Pledge”) in 1931. The conductor Maurice Abravanel was also enlisted, a former composition student of Weill’s who had become a close friend and confidant on artistic issues (a role he was to retain until Weill’s death). Last but not least, Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was cast for the part of Anna I. She was separated from Weill at the time (divorce papers had already been filed) and had begun a new relationship with the tenor Otto Pasetti. Pasetti was also given a share in the production of the Deadly Sins as part of the male quartet. The artistic team Brecht/Weill had broken up just two years earlier, when in the course of rehearsals for a performance of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (“Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”) Brecht had denounced Weill as a »phony Richard Strauss« and had threatened to push him down the stairs »in full regalia.«

Thus, the large group of émigrés who gathered in Paris in 1933 created a work that would likely have never taken place had they not been forced to flee Nazi Germany. This was not the new beginning in a new artistic environment Weill had hoped for, but rather a collaboration of exiles who would likely never have worked together again under different circumstances. It is true that Weill’s and Brecht’s plans for further projects never ceased; some ideas were still discussed during their later American exile in an intense series of letters. But the fact that no work actually materialized from their American period points to their increasingly divergent views and artistic concepts. Forced to accept one another’s differences and preferences, it is with the Seven Deadly Sins that their potential as a team reached its zenith. Brecht’s work focused on social criticism, while Weill’s score emphasized Anna’s human frailty and psychological conflicts.
Weill designed his music in seven movements which correspond to the seven stages of Anna’s journey as well as to the »deadly sins«, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Each movement includes adaptations of popular forms like waltz, foxtrot, march, shimmy, and tarantella, which Weill synthesizes with symphonic effects more successfully than in any of his previous collaborations with Brecht. A motif is presented in the first measure (one heard in all the movements until the work’s conclusion) which both connects the piece musically and serves as a leitmotif for Anna’s deep sadness. Thus a score of great emotional expression and sonic intensity emerges which is sometimes reminiscent of a Mahler symphony. In stark contrast, the passages written for Anna’s family are often conceived in more humorous tones. Weill’s choice for these bars is a male quartet scored in close harmony, in a style evoking German romantic glee-club singing as well as the style of the Comedian Harmonists with their extremely high tenor parts and accentuated bass lines. This particular vocal ensemble, which Weill had a packing up after Hitler had come to power (when he learned about his position at the very top of the Nazi’s »blacklist«), leaving Berlin in company with the set designer Caspar Neher and his wife Erika. But on his arrival in Paris movie deals with Jean Renoir and René Clair were awaiting him, deals that Weill had set in motion earlier in Berlin (probably out of his desire for »a change of air«). In addition there was a wealthy young Englishman living in Paris, Edward James, who had been among the many renowned intellectuals who attended a highly praised performance of Weill’s and Brecht’s Mahagonny Songspiel and the school opera Der Jasager (“The Yes-Sayer”) at Paris’s Salle Gaveau in December 1932.

In early 1933 George Balanchine and Boris Kochno (two former employees of the famous ballet manager Sergei Diaghilev) had founded a ballet company, which would have been a risky business if they hadn’t secured Edward James as a patron. James was willing to finance the complete »Ballets 1933« on two conditions: 1lready used with special effect in Mahagonny, is put to especially witty use here, with Anna’s incessantly moralizing mother scored as a bass.
As opposed to the previous Weill concert including the much praised Mahagonny and Jasager performances, the Seven Deadly Sins was met with bewilderment by the French audience (and not just because the work was entirely sung in German). German émigrés living in Paris, however, many of whom had attended the performance, were enthusiastic and considered it »a grand evening«; as Walter Mehring reports: »Artists and interpreters were celebrated by an elite in the fashion to which one was accustomed in the great age of German theater art.«

To be celebrated by an elite surely was not Weill’s goal. Though he considered the Seven Deadly Sins to be his best production to date, it found little success in any of its early performances: not in Paris, where the first performance of the Seven Deadly Sins took place on 7 June 1933, nor in England, where the production traveled to at the end of June, nor in Copenhagen in 1936.
It was not until Lotte Lenya’s recording of the ballet in 1956 that the piece gained the public’s approval. This newly appreciative audience, however, was unaware that Weill’s music had been significantly adjusted to accommodate the voice of the 57-year-old Lenya, specifically via transposition to a fourth below its original pitch level. This adjustment naturally had a dramatic effect on Weill’s earlier Parisian version. Maurice Abravanel recalled in 1989 that Lenya was in a dilemma because »she had no voice and she wanted to sing it, and so the big misunderstanding is that this is the way Kurt wanted it. Never!« As it happens, this transposed version is the more familiar, and has been performed by jazz and cabaret singers time and again. Its original version, first recorded in the 70s, has always been presumed suitable only for fully trained operatic voices.

With her unique interpretation of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, Marianne Faithfull furnishes proof of the contrary. Taking the original version as a point of departure, Faithfull sings Anna’s part transposed down a full octave. (Linernotes)

This album combines Marianne Faithfull´s recordings of “The Seven Deadly Sins” live on June 5th, 1997 at Konzerthaus, Vienna with her live recordings of some other Kurt Weill songs like “Alabama Song” and “Pirate Jenny” on February 9th, 1998 at Grosser Sendesaal, Radiokulturhaus Vienna. Both recordings were done with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra coducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

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