The Seven Deadly Sins (ballet chanté)

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This article is about the ballet by Weill, Brecht, and Balanchine. For other uses, see Seven deadly sins (disambiguation).

The Seven Deadly Sins (German: Die sieben Todsünden,[1] French: Les sept péchés capitaux) is a satirical ballet chanté ("sung ballet") in seven scenes (nine movements) composed by Kurt Weill to a German libretto by Bertolt Brecht in 1933 under a commission from Boris Kochno and Edward James. It was translated into English by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. It was the last major collaboration between Weill and Brecht.


With the Nazi seizure of power following the Reichstag fire of 28 February 1932, Brecht and Weill–especially Weill as a Jew–recognized that Berlin could no longer serve as their artistic home. Brecht left Berlin and traveled to Paris, stayed briefly in Prague, and then in Vienna. Less than a month later he was in Zurich and then moved to less expensive lodgings in Lugano, Switzerland. There a patron offered him living quarters in his summer home in Carona, outside Lugano. Weill spent time in Paris in December 1932, where he obtained the commission for the Seven Deadly Sins.[2] He contacted Brecht in Carona and Brecht promptly joined him in Paris.[3] The scenario of the libretto mirrors Brecht's own travels, expanded to one-year sojourns in each of seven cities.

Performance history[edit]

Kurt Weill was commissioned to compose Die sieben Todsünden by Edward James, a wealthy Englishman who had been in Paris during Weill's visit in December 1932. James's wife, Tilly Losch, was a ballerina who James described as having a striking resemblance to Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya.[4] Because James knew that Weill was going to write for Lenya, he included language in the contract commissioning the work requiring that his wife, Losch, dance opposite her lookalike.[5] This dictated the complicated split personality plot before Bertolt Brecht was even asked to write the libretto.

The Seven Deadly Sins premiered in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on 7 June 1933. It was produced, directed and choreographed by George Balanchine with mise en scène by Caspar Neher. The lead roles were played by Lotte Lenya (Anna I) and Tilly Losch (Anna II).[6] According to Nils Grosch, it "was met with bewilderment by the French audience (not just because the work was sung entirely in German). German émigrés living in Paris, however, were enthusiastic and considered it 'a grand evening.'"[7] The production went to London and opened at the Savoy Theatre under the title Anna-Anna on 28 June of the same year in an impromptu translation by Lenya.

The work was revived by Weill's widow Lenya in the 1950s, with the main singing part transposed to a fourth below its original pitch level in order to allow her to perform her original role.[8] Another version transposed down a full octave was used by Marianne Faithfull in her 1997 recording.[8] The original version has been recorded by, among others, Elise Ross, Anne Sofie von Otter, Teresa Stratas, and Anja Silja.

Major productions[edit]

in German unless otherwise noted


Role Voice type Premiere Cast,
Anna I soprano Lotte Lenya
Anna II dancer Tilly Losch
Brother baritone Albert Peters
Mother bass Heinrich Gretler
Father first tenor Otto Pasetti
Brother second tenor Erich Ruchs


The Seven Deadly Sins in the recording with Lotte Lenya

The Seven Deadly Sins tells the story of two sisters, Anna I and Anna II. Anna I, the singer, is the principal vocal role. Anna II, the dancer, is heard only infrequently and the text hints at the possibility that the two Annas are the same person: "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."[16] Anna I sings:

She's the one with the looks. I'm realistic. She's just a little mad, my head is on straight. But we're really one divided being, even though you see two of us. And both of us are Anna. Together we've but a single past, a single future, one heart and one savings account and we only do what suits each other best. Right Anna?

"The Family", a male quartet, fills the role of a Greek chorus. They refer to Anna as a single daughter of the family, making a verbal allusion to her divided nature: "Will our Anna pull herself together?" The sisters set out from the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to find their fortune in the big cities, intending to send their family enough money to build a little house on the river. After the prologue, in which Anna I introduces the sisters and their plans, each of seven scenes is devoted to one of the seven deadly sins, each encountered in a different American city:

  1. Prologue
  2. Faulheit / Sloth (city unnamed)
  3. Stolz / Pride (Memphis)
  4. Zorn / Wrath (Los Angeles)
  5. Völlerei / Gluttony (Philadelphia)
  6. Unzucht / Lust (Boston)
  7. Habsucht / Greed (Tennessee, in posthumous versions Baltimore)
  8. Neid / Envy (San Francisco)
  9. Epilogue (home, in the new little house)

While securing the means to build the little house over the course of seven years, Anna II envies those who can engage in the sins she must abjure. The epilogue ends on a sober note, as Anna II's responds with resignation to her sister: "Yes, Anna."


The libretto is satirical. When Anna II tries to behave morally she is scolded by her alter ego and her family for committing one of the seven sins. For instance, Anna II objects that Anna I is too proud to perform as a cabaret dancer must to please her clientele and needs to abandon her pride and satisfy her clients' lust. When Anna I is angry at injustice, Anna II advises her to exercise self-control. She's advised as well to be faithful to the wealthy man who pays her for love and not share her earnings with the man she loves. Anna I repeatedly surrenders to Anna II with the words "It's right like this." In the case if the last of the seven sins, Anna II warns Anna I not to be envious of people who live as she would like to, "of those who pass the time at their ease and in comfort; those too proud to be bought; of those whose wrath is kindled by injustice; those who act upon their impulses happily; lovers true to their loved ones; and those who take what they need without shame."


  • Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins & Berlin Theatre Songs (Sony 1997)
  • Die sieben Todsünden; Chansons B.Fassbaender, NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, C.Garben (HMA 1951420)
    • Die sieben Todsünden. (The Seven Deadly Sins). Gisela May; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, cond. Polydor 429 333-2.; Deutsche Grammophon 139308
    • Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). Songs. Marianne Faithfull, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies, cond. Sung in English. Reverso/RCA Victor 74321 601192. (Reissued 2004 as RCA Red Seal 82876-60872-2.)


  1. ^ Sometimes identified as Die sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger ("The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie").
  2. ^ Ronald K. Shull, “A New Orpheus,” The Genesis of Die sieben Todsünden, comp. Kim H. Kowalke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)
  3. ^ Ronald K. Shull, “A New Orpheus,” The Genesis of Die sieben Todsünden, comp. Kim H. Kowalke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)
  4. ^ Ronald K. Shull, “A New Orpheus,” The Genesis of Die sieben Todsünden, comp. Kim H. Kowalke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 206.
  5. ^ Jurgen Schebera: Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997 (ISBN 0-300-07284-8).
  6. ^ Jurgen Schebera: Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997 (ISBN 0-300-07284-8).
  7. ^ Nils Grosch, album notes, Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins, Marianne Faithfull / Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (BMG Classics 2004 CD 82876060872-2, reissue of 1997 recording)
  8. ^ a b Nils Grosch, Joachim Lucchesi, Jürgen Schebera: Kurt Weill-Studien; Stuttgart: M & P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1996 (ISBN 3-476-45166-6).
  9. ^ George Balanchine Foundation webpage for Les Sept Péchés Capitaux, 1933, per Boris Kochno
  10. ^ George Balanchine Foundation webpage for The Seven Deadly Sins, 1958
  11. ^ NYCB webpage for The Seven Deadly Sins, 1933 and 1958
  12. ^ Die sieben Todsünden (1933), Kurt Weill Foundation. Accessed 15 November 2006.
  13. ^ Wall Street Journal, Robert Greskovic, May 17, 2011
  14. ^ NY Times, Roslyn Sulcas, May 4, 2011
  15. ^ Jones, Kenneth. "Patti LuPone To Sing Seven Deadly Sins, Susan Stroman Creates Ellington Piece for NY City Ballet", December 27, 2010
  16. ^ Steven Paul Scher, Walter Bernhart, Werner Wolf: Essays on Literature and Music (1967-2004), Rodopi, 2004. (ISBN 90-420-1752-X)

External links[edit]