September 25, 2016

The Music of Weill's "7 Deadly Sins", part 2

My last post introduced you to the musical riches of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins up through the "Anger" movement. Now let's continue Anna's tour of American cities en route to earning enough money to allow the family back home in Louisiana to build a house.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

Anna I and her "sister" Anna II have made their way from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. (Remember that the two Annas are really contrasting aspects of one woman; Anna I, who sings, is practical and a bit cold-hearted in pursuit of material gain, whereas Anna II, who dances, has higher aspirations and an artistic nature.)

Anna is silent in this number, with the male quartet depicting her family giving voice to concerns about her weight. Her contract as a showgirl stipulates a maximum weight, it seems; exceed it by one pound, and she'll be out of a job. This is cause for familial concern, as we're led to believe young Anna can really chow down. Still, as a solo tenor sings delicately, they have faith in her:

This amiable, folk-like tune leads to some ironically exquisite unaccompanied four-part harmony as the family rhaposidizes about the Southern cuisine Anna will have to forego until her return in a few years' time. The close harmony and sense of whimsy are a winking homage to a male singing ensemble known as the "Comedian Harmonists". This group was at the peak of their considerable popularity at the time Weill wrote Deadly Sins, with numerous recitals throughout Europe and a volume of recordings played on radio. Click here for a sample of their sound. The similarity with this "Gluttony" passage is deliberate.

But the important thing here is Brecht's point about this particular sin: the imperative of earning money has turned "eating when you are hungry" into a "sin". Starving oneself is now "virtuous".

Enjoy the whimsy of "Gluttony"; it's the last trace to be found in the work. As Anna makes more and more compromises on her ideals and aspirations in order to earn a buck, the cost to her psyche becomes more and more unbearable. And this movement is a turning point.

Spending a year in Boston, Anna appears to have a reprieve from dancing and stripping. Like Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata, she has a wealthy man lavishing riches on her. However, Anna I finds to her dismay that Anna II is in love with a man who must have no money; she is supporting him, because she loves him.

Fully aware that ending the affair could cost her "sister" her only chance at true love, Anna I rationalizes the desire for romantic happiness as a "sin", counseling Anna II to remember which side of her bread is buttered. This passage is set to music so beautiful, so ravishing and of such utter heartbreak and pathos that Deadly Sins, up til now expressing irony and whimsy, now turns tragic:

The first two phrases of the vocal line, you'll recall, manifest the duality motive observed in the Prologue as explained in the previous post: two nearly-identical musical gestures, the second one ending a half-step lower than the first. One woman with a dual nature symbolized by one phrase with contrasting final notes - this is found on every page of the score.

Weill wrote another song about lust: the "Barbara Song" from The Threepenny Opera some five years earlier. Interestingly, Anna's "Lust" song quotes a phrase from the earlier composition. This is a connection he could credibly have expected listeners to recognize, given the notoriety of Threepenny which by now had been performed tens of thousands of times and translated into several languages.

The orchestral postlude to "Lust" is perhaps the most intensely operatic moment in the piece. A tortured harmonic progression rises and falls in aching, arcing cresendos, clearly depicting Anna's despair and heartbreak, giving the lie to her hard-hearted words. This is a climactic tipping point; the cumulative effect of too many moral compromises has proven too high a price for material gain. Something within Anna's soul has died.

Perhaps too traumatized to express herself, Anna, now in Baltimore, is silent in this movement. Her family notes that her name constantly appears in news reports, and the reports are troubling. Brecht mentions, with tantalizing lack of detail, that "men are shooting themselves over her". Whatever her game, Anna, now deadened to conventional morality, is running wild, amassing money as fast as possible. The orchestra describes her new affect with great precision in furious passages in which no trace of Anna II's soulfulness can be detected:

You know, I'm not convinced that Brecht ever consulted a map of the United States in sketching out his libretto, so convoluted is Anna's trail from city to city. Having escaped Baltimore perhaps one step ahead of the police, she spans the continent all the way to San Francisco before returning in the Epilogue to Louisiana.

In any case, Anna II, says her vocal "sister", is tired and envious. And who are those who inspire the sin of envy? Anna I ticks them off: people who eat when they're hungry, protest injustice, are loyal to their true loves, and so on and so on -- you know: the "bad people"; the "sinners"; those fools who gave in to the temptations Anna has resisted for the sake of pursuing material gain.

So Anna gives the moral remnants that remain within her dual nature a pep talk. To music that sounds like a stirring triumphal march but is actually a brutal parody of one, music that never fails to give me goose flesh and make my hair stand on end,

Anna congratulates herself for having stuck to her guns. Those "sinners"? They'll be sorry. This pep talk takes the form of four verses, The prancing dotted rhythm is a fiercely emotional distortion of the dotted rhythms that marked the trudging, melancholy march of the Prologue:
Immediately after her climactic final phrase, the family bursts forth with dramatic shouts of praise to the Lord for having led her to her Reward.

It's very clear that Anna is whistling past the graveyard where her better nature -- her soul -- is now interred. As a parody of a triumphant conclusion, this movement puts one in mind of the finale to the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who simultaneously delivered and mocked the conservative style demanded of him by the Kremlin during the same decade.

Bertolt Brecht, who had come to loathe both Weill and his music during the tempestuous discord caused by Mahagonny rehearsals, was dismissive of Deadly Sins. "Pretty but unimportant", he remarked to his wife. I think I know precisely the aspect of Weill's score that would have produced his scorn. To Brecht, political messages were everything, and music a subservient and secondary tool for projecting those messages. Deadly Sins is an indictment of the dangers of pursuing the Western dream of home ownership when the dream overshadows all other considerations. He likely meant us to feel superior to Anna I in the way she bullies her metaphysical sister into abandoning her humanity in favor of The Almighty Dollar.

I suspect that, had he set his own text to music, the Epilogue would have sounded nothing like Weill's conception. Weill who, far from despising Western materialism, became an American citizen, sets Anna's return to Louisiana in music that manipulates the listener into identifying with her traumatized condition. A fortune has been won, but Anna's utterances are a dirge of withered affect.

Anna and, perhaps, her sanctimonious family may learn the difficult lesson learned by many who attain their "dream house": that "home" is more than a building, and a house can't make you happy. Mansions can be prisons.

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