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The Weill Project blog: Paris (1): an expedient harbor

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #bertoltbrecht #sevendeadlysins #hanscurjel #mauriceabravanel #nazizeit #joemabel #weillproject #paris #weillbio

(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe.)

Map of Paris in 1933
Paris in 1933
Map is now public domain

Kurt Weill arrived in Paris 23 March 1933. 25 days earlier, the Reichstag had burned. 19 days earlier, Weill's music was performed publicly in Germany for the last time until the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II. Two days earlier, Hindenburg officially handed full control of the German government to Adolf Hitler.

Weill would never set foot in Germany again. There was clearly no place for him in a Nazi-ruled Germany; perhaps there was in Paris. He took a room at the Hotel Splendide and began working with Jean Renoir 🔗 and René Clair 🔗 on a film project that Weill and Renoir had discussed 15 March in Berlin. However, it soon became clear that project was going nowhere, and Weill found himself somewhat at loose ends in a foreign capital.

Weill was hardly an unknown in Paris. Threepenny Opera had played there, both theatrically and as a film, under the title L'Opéra de quat'sous, and in the wake of the success of that play, just three months earlier on 11 December 1932 the Vicomte Charles de Noailles 🔗, a prominent patron of the arts, had arranged an all-Weill concert in the Salle Gaveau 🔗. Weill was involved in planning the concert: he proposed that the concert consist of the Mahagonny Songspiel (see prior blog post) and Der Jasager (see other prior blog post) and he then put matters in the hands of his former student and frequent conductor Maurice Abravanel 🔗 and Hans Curjel 🔗.

Like Weill and Abravanel, Curjel was a secular Jew, newly in exile. Curjel may or may not have been the person who had suggested expanding Mahagonny into a full-length opera (Curjel said the idea was his, Weill said he himself had intended this before he even wrote the Songspiel). He had been dramaturg of Berlin's Krolloper until it was closed after losing its subsidy due to cost-cutting early in the Great Depression. At the time of the December concert, he still held a post as guest director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; he would soon lose that to the rise of the Nazis, and end up settling in Switzerland. Curjel expanded the Mahagonny Songspiel, adding four more songs from the Grosse Mahagonny (a much larger-scale work, see yet another prior blog post) resulting in what became known as the "Parisian version" of the Mahagonny Songspiel. Curjel brought in Weill's wife Lotte Lenya and her current lover, the tenor Otto Pasetti, as soloists. (Weill and Lenya were in the process of an amicable divorce that as far as I can tell never interfered with their professional relationship or, really, even their friendship. They would evenutually reconcile and remarry.) The youthful Berlin cast of Der Jasager traveled to Paris to perform. (Aside: I find it remarkable that as late as December 1932 a group of students could simply get on a train and go from Berlin to Paris to perform a Brecht/Weill piece that the Nazis would soon condemn as "Degenerate Art". This happened during the period when the transitional Schleicher cabinet temporized as Hindenberg and Hitler negotiated the terms on which the Naizis would take power in Germany.)

Interior of the Salle Gaveau
Interior of the Salle Gaveau.
(Photo © O.Taris, made available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Color correction by Joe Mabel.)

The concert at the Salle Gaveau was hosted by the chamber music society La Sérénade, which included many prominent composers. The audience that night included composers Igor Stravinsky 🔗, Darius Milhaud 🔗, and Arthur Honneger 🔗, as well as André Gide 🔗, Jean Cocteau 🔗, Pablo Picasso 🔗, and Fernand Léger 🔗. The show received very favorable reviews by André George (French-language Wikipedia article, and even that is a bit stubby 🔗) and Émile Vuillermoz 🔗 and was pretty much the event of the season.

So Weill was not exactly a stranger in a strange land, and it was not long until a patron appeared. Englishman Edward James 🔗 had money and James's Austrian Jewish wife, Tilly Losch 🔗 had enough talent for two or three people, and was a friend of Lenya's. At this time, both George Balanchine 🔗 and Boris Kochno 🔗 had recently been fired from the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo 🔗 for reasons that, as far as I can tell, had more to do with impresario Wassily de Basil 🔗 being a bit of a snake than with anything Balanchine or Kochno had done or failed to do. James offered to back them in the Paris-based Les Ballet 1933 🔗 on two conditions: that they cast Losch as a dancer, and that they commission a piece from Kurt Weill. Doubtless Losch's friendship with Lenya had some influence in the selection of Weill, but James had been at the December concert at the Salle Gaveau, and it appears that he was seriously impressed. Balanchine and Kochno readily accepted: there was no artistic compromise in having to work with a particular first-rate composer and cast a particular first-rate dancer.

Tilly Losch, reclining, with her name in large letters at bottom of frame
Tilly Losch in The Good Earth, 1937.
(Cropped from a public-domain trailer for The Good Earth)

James and Weill met 9 April 1933; James explained to Weill that he intended the show to play both Paris and London. Weill wanted Cocteau as librettist, which James was fine with, but when Cocteau demurred because of the short timeline, James suggested Brecht. Weill assented. Weill also got James to agree to a London repeat of the Salle Gaveau concert, to take place in conjunction with the ballet performance in London.

Brecht came in from Carona, Switzerland the second week of April. The plan, driven by James, was already a ballet chante, a ballet with singing. Lenya and Pasetti were again brought in from Vienna. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly these people could write. Die Sieben Todsünden / Seven Deadly Sins / Les Sept Péchés Capitaux was written in less than three weeks: it was begun 15 April 1933, and the piano reduction was complete 4 May. The result is among my favorite of Weill's or Brecht's works. I've seen it in concert twice and own three separate recordings of it, featuring Lenya, Teresa Stratas, and Marianne Faithfull, respectively. Except for transposition, the scores of the three recordings are identical, the vocals radically different, from three radically different singers. Stratas sings it in the original key; by the time Lenya recorded this in the 1950s, she needed it dropped half an octave; Faithfull uses the original score and drops the vocal a full octave. The reason the scores are identical is the same as the reason Juliana and I won't get to perform any portion of this: this is the one Weill work that the Weill Foundation considers absolutely integral, and will not allow any performance of this music other than a full performance of the ballet with one of four authorized scores 🔗. Only in 2015 did they finally sanction a piano reduction, for two pianos, and then only for school and amateur performances.

Circular image of the Seven Deadly Sins as portrayed by Hieronymus Bosch.

The Seven Deadly Sins as portrayed by Hieronymus Bosch.
(Public domain.)

As the title suggests, the plot is centered around the Christian theological concept of the seven deadly sins 🔗. However, Brecht twists these satirically: in a petit bourgeois 🔗 context, things are seen as sinful only when they interfere with striving for wealth. Lust is sinful for the character played by Losch only when it draws her into an economically disadvantageous match; gluttony is her reluctance to starve herself to fulfill a lucrative contract as a performer that requires she keep her weight below an unrealistically low threshhold; envy is her envy of those who have the economic means to live their lives based on their true feelings and emotions rathter than constantly sacrifice those to strive for wealth.

The ballet tells the story of two sisters, the "practical" Anna I and the "beautiful" Anna II. Anna I, the singer, Lenya in the original, is the principal vocal role. Anna II, the dancer, Losch in the original, rarely speaks, and when she does so it is mostly to defer to Anna I. The text in one place states outright that the two Annas are the same person—"…we're really one divided being, even though you see two of us. And both of us are Anna"—and her family members refer to her in the singular. As for how this is used in the ballet, I can thank Wikipedia for this quote from Steven Paul Scher: "To convey the ambivalence inherent in the 'sinner', Brecht splits the personality of Anna into Anna I, the cynical impresario with a practical sense and conscience, and Anna II, the emotional, impulsive, artistic beauty, the salable product with an all too human heart."

George Balanchine standing, cigarette in hand, photographed from a low viewpoint
George Balanchine in Sarasota, Florida in 1942. Believe it or not, he choreographed for the Ringling Brothers Circus.
(Public domain: public-record photograph from the State of Florida)

A male quartet portrays Anna's family. At times they bring a certain dark humor to the piece, including in the fact that the part of Anna's mother is written for a bass. They function as a Greek chorus, though one with an agenda of its own. At times their vocals suggest a barbershop quartet or glee club. The family has sent the sisters out from the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana to earn (or otherwise gain) money in the big cities, in order to buy the family a house. As usual for Weill, the piece is structured around more-or-less independent "numbers": a prologue, an epilogue, and a number for each of the seven sins. The latter are each set in a different city. The prologue introduces the two Annas; the epilogue shows them back home in their little house on the river, Anna I trying (and largely failing) to convince Anna II to view their adventures as a success.

As Jürgen Schebera points out, this is not the first time Brecht used a split character; he'd done this in a study for Good Person of Szechuan called Die Ware Liebe (no, that's not a typo, "Ware," something for sale, rather than "Wahre," "true"). Schebera also agrees with Weill scholar Kim H. Kowalke, now President and CEO of the Weill Foundation, that there is probably influence from Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy 🔗. Josef von Sternberg 🔗 filmed that in 1931 and Brecht would have been familiar at least with the film and probably with a 1932 stage production by Brecht's sometime collaborator Erwin Piscator 🔗 that Schebera doesn't mention, if not with the book itself. Gilbert's relation to Clyde in An American Tragedy resembles that of Anna I and Anna II, and the novel is very much concerned with sin and family, and has a jaundiced view of religion.

The ballet uses a large orchestra, and this was the first time Weill used much of a jazz approach in arranging orchestral strings. Previously, his jazzier side had been confined to wind instruments or non-orchestral strings such as banjo. And with no spoken passages between numbers, it comes a lot closer to being through-composed than the Brecht/Weill "plays with music" such as Threpenny Opera or the Grosse Mahagonny.

Seven Deadly Sins premiered 7 June 1933 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Caspar Neher did the sets. It was on a program with five other short ballets: Les Songes ("The Dreams") by Darius Milhaud; Errante ("The Wanderer"), based on Schubert, orchestrated by Charles Koechlin 🔗; Fastes ("Pomp"), by Henri Sauguet 🔗; Mozartiana, music of Mozart orchestrated in 1887 by by Tchaikovsky 🔗, which Balanchine would choreograph again in 1981; and a suite of Beethoven waltzes orchestrated by Nicolas Nabokov 🔗, slightly younger cousin of one of my favorite writers of all time, Vladimir Nabokov 🔗, who like his cousin left Russia during the Revolution and lived in both Germany and France before settling in the United States.

Janet Flanner, right hand touching left side of face with fingers extended, wearing a flared top hat with two masks on the hat, one white, the other black

Janet Flanner in 1920, photographed by Berenice Abbott 🔗.
(Public domain.)

The Brecht/Weill piece was not the hit of the evening. The Germans in town liked it a lot. Janet Flanner 🔗 (New Yorker Paris correspondent under the name Gênet) also liked it, but acknowledged this put her in a minority, probably in part because the German-language lyrics were largely lost on the French audience. Les Ballets 1933 had seven performances in Paris, the last 19 June 1933. On 20 June, La Sérénade again successfully performed the Parisian version of the Mahagonny Songspiel. Hoping that the issue had been largely one of language, James and Weill rapidly translated Seven Deadly Sins into English under the new title Anna Anna, and Lenya as rapidly learned it. Les Ballets 1933 opened 28 June at the Savoy Theatre in London but, even in English translation, once again it did not go over well. There were 14 performances between then and 15 July. Also, on 18 July at the Savoy, in what was not exactly a repeat of the Salle Gaveau concert, Lenya performed in the Mahagonny Songspiel, paired with and Milhaud's Les Hymnes. This time they copied Caspar Neher's 1927 Baden-Baden staging with the boxing ring. But it flopped; the only time the Mahagonny Songspiel would again be performed again in Weill's (or Brecht's) lifetime was 1936 in Copenhagen. Weill missed witnessing the flop: he and the Nehers were vacationing in Italy, thinking things over, not yet making concrete plans; he came back to Paris in August.

[This essay draws heavily on Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy).]


Next blog post: Kurt Weill and shadow puppetry

Next Weill biography blog post: Summer 1933




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Original date: 11 October 2021
Last modified: 11 October 2021

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