September 18, 2016

The music of Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

For a short piece of just 40 minutes’ duration, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins” offers a richly varied feast of extremely compelling, truly memorable theater music. Weill’s art succeeds at humanizing Anna, the drama’s protagonist with a dual nature made manifest in two onstage performers: a singer for the character’s coldly practical side, and a dancer for her artistic, sensitive nature.

Bertolt Brecht’s text, I suspect, was meant to be a cynical satire on Western materialism. In each of the seven cities Anna visits, her cockeyed view of resisting “sin” and “temptation” results in the compromising of her better instincts for the sake of earning money for her family back home in Louisiana. Brecht might have preferred a more sardonic musical setting, one that would leave the audience looking down on Anna for her obsession with The Almighty Dollar.
Weill, however, sets the text to music that takes a different point of view. The listener empathizes with Anna; we feel all too keenly that heartbreak and despair are the consequences of the choices she makes. Her story remains a cautionary tale about “selling out” in the pursuit of the American Dream of home ownership.

(By the way, there is heavy irony in the creation of a drama about a homeless individual traveling to strange new cities with the imperative of earning money, as Weill and Brecht found themselves in that exact situation as they wrote the piece. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 forced both artists into a hasty exodus from Germany, leaving their fortunes behind.)

Here is my number-by-number guide to the music; my summary of what to listen for in each movement:

The first thing you hear is really important; the source of the rest of the score. So be ready! Two clarinets emit a pair of mournful descending phrases:

The second phrase, importantly, ends a half-step lower than the first. So: two nearly identical musical gestures, one ending higher, the other lower. This is Anna! Or rather, it’s the musical representation of the duality of Anna I and Anna II. Throughout the rest of the work, this motif will be a constant presence; at times in the orchestra, at times in the vocal line, short musical gestures a half-step apart will dominate. The accompaniment figure in the example above features an interesting orchestral color: the banjo. It’s stark pluckings help establish a sense of place: the American South.

Anna explains that she and her “sister” (there are two performers on stage, but only one Anna) are leaving their home in Louisiana on a journey of seven years, with the goal of earning enough money for her parents and two brothers to build a house. Now, most young people heading out to big cities to perform for money would be excited, dreaming of fame and success. Weill, however, makes it clear that Anna is a reluctant traveler. The Prologue has a melancholy, blues-y affect; rhythmically, it has the dirge-like pace of a funeral march. Anna, like Weill leaving his beloved Berlin, faces her adventure with reluctance and dread, hoping to return sooner rather than later.

Remember that Deadly Sins began with a sad march. There will be a transformation of marching music later on.

Anna I does not vocalize in the first movement; it is the male quartet that sings, worrying about the young girl’s ability to buckle down and be productive. The orchestral introduction is a turbulent, whirling tarantella, suggesting the family’s hope that Anna will be busy as a bee:

Weill sets the family’s declarations in the form of call-and-response, perhaps another nod towards their Southern roots, suggesting work-songs in Louisiana cotton fields. The mother (at least it was George Balanchine, the original choreographer, who decided that the bass portray the mother, a touch of absurd whimsy) frets about Anna’s history as a lazybones while the men-folk respond with a sanctimonious religious bromide:

This section, as with the entire work, presents both challenges and opportunities for the stage director/choreographer. The text does not function like a traditional libretto; no specific action is spelled out for the Anna’s; there are no stage directions. This affords an unusual degree of liberation, with possible scenarios limited only by the director’s imagination.

In Memphis, Anna is dancing in a cabaret club. Brecht turns the notion of the sin of pride on its head; Anna II wishes to dance in an artistic manner, but Anna I points out that the customers here care nothing about Art and wish to see her naked body; Anna is working at a cheap striptease joint. Her warnings to leave pride to those who can afford it are sung to a beguiling and elegant waltz-tune, one of many Weill-ish inspirations in the piece:

The theme presents the motif of duality as it toggles back and forth between half-step intervals in both melody and the oop-pa-pa accompaniment. The significance of this passage is the obvious disconnect between Anna’s words and the character of the musical setting. The music is Anna II’s aspirations of a classic and “classy” performance, while Anna I speaks of vulgar debauchery. 

Anna is in Los Angeles, working (one gathers) on a film set as an extra. The ironic take on the sin of anger is that Anna II is outraged at some unnamed injustice she’s observed (in the original production it was mistreatment of animals, though again, the libretto is vague), but Anna I warns her to swallow her anger lest they be fired. Thus injustice is allowed simply because it comes in second to making money.

An orchestral passage neatly alternates depictions of Anna’s anger with a suggestion of vintage Hollywood-style dance music in which the motif of duality is observed in the accompaniment:

When Anna I offers her advice on the perils of anger, it is to a rhythmically square tune that sounds very “American” in its forthright optimism, however faux that attitude may really be. By now, you may be looking for the duality motif – you’ll find it in the final notes of Anna’s first two phrases.

If it strikes you that this tune appears to foreshadow Billy Bigelow’s “My boy Bill” from Carousel, a show that wouldn’t appear for another dozen years, then we are in agreement. It makes Weill’s evolution into a Broadway composer seem a natural progression.

Well, this post is a bit wordy, isn’t it? That’s probably enough for today. In a few days I’ll finish my survey of the music of a show I have come to love.

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